Notre Dame's Defense Shines in Seattle

The Rock NDNation.comSenior Analyst IOctober 26, 2008

( - by John Vannie) - Notre Dame waltzed to a 33-7 victory over the bumbling Washington Huskies on Saturday night on the strength of a superb effort by the Irish defense. This group was so dominant that the Huskies did not cross midfield until the final minutes of the game.

James Aldridge led a productive ground attack and scored two touchdowns for the offense, which survived a subpar performance by Jimmy Clausen. The first road win of the season elevated Notre Dame to 5-2 on the season.

Washington was actually worse than its 0-7 record would indicate. This team cannot block or catch the ball on offense and cannot apply pressure on defense. Untimely penalties and general confusion were rampant, which is difficult to understand so deep into the season. The Huskies were never competitive in this contest and will now go on the road to face USC.

The Irish will make their way to Los Angeles in another month, but will play four winnable games between now and then. Injuries to guard Eric Olson, tight end Kyle Rudolph and linebacker Brian Smith are the primary concerns from tonight’s cakewalk, although Coach Charlie Weis needs to scrape the rust from his passing attack before next week’s home date with Pittsburgh.

This game was over in the first seven minutes. On Notre Dame’s first possession, Michael Floyd took a flat pass and ran for a 51-yard touchdown behind excellent blocking. Washington appeared to intercept Clausen on the next Irish series, but the Huskies were guilty of interference on the play. Golden Tate scored three plays later on a beautifully executed reverse to stake the visitors to a quick 14-0 lead.

The offense seemed to go into a funk after that, but Washington was unable to mount any sort of attack. Dropped passes and poor pass protection doomed each Washington series to abject failure during the first half. The Huskies did not commit a turnover all night, but they really didn’t hold the ball long enough to give it away.

Leading 17-0 at the half, the Irish spread the field with five receivers to open the third quarter and covered 61 yards in only five plays. A 33-yard pass to Golden Tate set up the first scoring run by Aldridge. 

When Washington could not answer, Harrison Smith resurrected Notre Dame’s next drive by taking off for 35 yards on a fake punt. This set up Brandon Walker’s second field goal of the night and gave the Irish a 27-0 lead at the 4:31 mark of the third quarter.

Another three and out by the Huskies gave Aldridge and friends another chance to pound the ball on the weary Husky defense. A personal foul penalty aided the Irish on their way to another score as the game mercifully entered the final period.

Weis cleared his bench while beleaguered Husky coach Tyrone Willingham left his starting offense in the game in an attempt to get on the scoreboard. When Notre Dame pulled its second string defenders off the field with six minutes left, the Huskies finally took advantage and scored a concession touchdown against eleven Irish walk-ons, band members, and refugees from the local bars.

Bright spots for Notre Dame included 61 yards rushing in nine carries by hard-running freshman Jonas Gray, outstanding blocking by tackle Sam Young, several bone-jarring hits by linebackers Harrison and Brian Smith, solid defensive play by tackle Patrick Kuntz, and two crisp field goals by Brandon Walker. The Irish secondary was never really tested, but it covered well on those few occasions when it mattered.

The statistics reveal the extent of Notre Dame’s domination. The Irish outrushed Washington by 252 to 26, and recorded 25 first downs to nine. They had a 15 minute advantage in time of possession. Clausen passed for 201 yards, but missed numerous opportunities to pad his numbers and put more points on the board.

Thankfully, he picked the right week to look like a sophomore quarterback. Meanwhile, Husky signal caller Ronnie Fouch hit 11 of 25 passes for 98 yards, but six completions and most of the yardage came in the final Husky drive.

Let’s review the questions that helped determine the outcome:

Which team will shake off its season-long ineptitude on the ground and run the ball with authority?
This seems like a silly question in retrospect, but the Irish needed to dominate in this way.

Will Fouch have enough time in the pocket to hurt the Irish?
Four sacks and numerous hard hit didn’t help Fouch, but five drops by his receivers killed him.

Will Notre Dame be able to start fast after a bye week?
The early 14-0 blitz put this one on cruise control.

Can Washington’s porous defense force Irish turnovers?
The lone Irish turnover on a fourth down pass was inconsequential.

Which team will get a boost from its special teams?
Walker’s field goals and Smith’s fake punt were large positives for Notre Dame.

Will Notre Dame’s defense demonstrate improvement after two weeks of self scouting?
Definitely. The blitzes were more productive and the Huskies did not make a single big play down the field.

It is difficult to tell how much the Irish defense improved during the bye week based on the quality of the competition, but this team could really come together in the coming weeks if it can get all three elements (offense, defense, special teams) in synch.

The offense will benefit from an improved running game as the weather turns colder, while the confidence level of the defense should improve as long as emotional leader Brian Smith is not seriously injured. If Walker’s place kicking can become reliable, Notre Dame fans may be able to make plans for a warm weather bowl game.