Sept. 24, 2004
By Alan Wasielewski
The Washington Huskies pay a visit to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 1996. The Fighting Irish (2-1) will look to extend their winning streak to three games while the Huskies (0-2) will be looking for their first win of the season.
Washington has suffered a pair of home losses, dropping decisions to Fresno State (35-16) and UCLA (37-31) in their first two games. The Huskies jumped out to a 24-7 lead over UCLA before the Bruins stormed back with 28 unanswered points. Adding further frustration for the Huskies, they were stopped on the two-yard line as time expired after driving 58 yards in the final 39 seconds.
Washington also was tied with Fresno State 7-7 at halftime before two interception returns and a fumble return propelled the Bulldogs to a 35-16 victory.
It is safe to say that, although the Huskies are 0-2, they might be one of the most dangerous 0-2 teams in the country. Possessing a powerful offense, both in the air and on the ground, Washington is not a team to be overlooked.
The Irish, on the other hand, enter today’s game on the upswing after dropping the first game of the year at BYU. Since that loss 20-17 in Provo on Sept. 4, the Irish have rattled off victories over #8 Michigan (28-20) and at Michigan State (31-24) – two performances where late touchdowns from the opposing teams made the final score closer than the overall outcome of the game.
Washington will be reeling a bit this week after surrendering a school-record 322 yards rushing to UCLA tailback Maurice Drew last Saturday. Drew also rushed for five touchdowns in the game, keying UCLA’s come-from-behind victory. Washington’s defense has surrendered an average of 36.0 points in the first two games of the season and its opponents are posting over 280 yards rushing per game.
That is good news for a Notre Dame team that is just beginning to find its way on the ground. The Irish rushed for season-high 173 yards last Saturday at Michigan State after improving from 11 yards against BYU to 135 versus Michigan. The key to that improvement has been the emergence of freshman tailback Darius Walker.
Walker enters today’s game averaging 106 yards rushing in his first two career games. His 213 rushing yards in his first two games are, by far, a freshman record at Notre Dame for yards gained rushing over an individual’s first two career games (Autry Denson posted 115 in his first two career games).
Possessing vision and an uncanny ability to make the first defender miss, Walker has provided an immediate spark to the Notre Dame offense and opened up several throwing options for quarterback Brady Quinn. Already in 2004, 11 different receivers have caught passes from Quinn, led by Rhema McKnight (11 catches, 134 yards) and Maurice Stovall (10 for 122 yards).
Michigan State concentrated on taking McKnight and Stovall out of the game last weekend, allowing Matt Shelton (three catches, 123 yards, TD) and Jeff Samardzija (four catches, 65 yards) to emerge as consistent threats. Freshman Chris Vaughn also nabbed his first career grab in the Michigan State win last weekend.
It should be noted that Notre Dame’s ’04 freshman class has produced two consistent performers in Walker and Vaughn (Vaughn has played on special teams as well) with a possibility of even more production in the future.
While Walker has grabbed much of the headlines with his meteoric rise, the Notre Dame defense has been the team’s MVP so far in 2004. The Irish are holding Notre Dame’s opponents to a respectable 307.3 total yards per game and 81 rushing yards per contest. The defense also has posted eight sacks, five interceptions, 12 pass breakups, six fumble recoveries, seven forced fumbles and an eye-popping 21 tackles for a loss.
The defensive unit has provided some memorable highlights this season, including sophomore Tom Zbikowski’s strip and fumble return at Michigan State, Corey Mays’ forced fumble on the goal line at MSU and Preston Jackson’s interception return for a touchdown at BYU.
Senior Mike Goolsby has been steady at middle linebacker after missing the ’03 season with an injury, leading the team with 31 tackles in three games and three passes broken up. Fellow linebacker Brandon Hoyte has dealt out his fair share of big hits and leads the team with four tackles for a loss. Senior Justin Tuck, just one sack away from the Notre Dame school record, has three sacks this season and three tackles for a loss.
Players to keep an eye on for Washington include running back Kenny James (208 yards, two TD) and wide receiver Charles Frederick (13 catches, 214 yards, TD). James rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown against UCLA last weekend.
Junior Casey Paus has taken over the quarterback duties for the Huskies this season. He rebounded from a three-interception game against Fresno State to post a solid statistic line of 13-28, 200 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA.
This afternoon’s contest will be decided in the trenches. Notre Dame’s offensive line is still working to put the 11-yard rushing effort at BYU behind them and showed signs of becoming a dominant force at Michigan State. With the Irish holding a 21-7 lead in the third quarter, Notre Dame marched down the field 75 yards in seven running plays for their final touchdown of the day. Ryan Grant started the drive with a 16-yard burst, followed by Walker nailing down runs of 16, five, five and 19 yards to get the ball down to the MSU 14. Grant finished off the drive with an eight-yard run and six-yard touchdown scamper through the heart of the MSU defense.
If the Irish can receive that kind of consistent play from their line against Washington, a team which has struggled mightily against the run, then Notre Dame should have an advantage in the contest and allow Quinn to set up the play-action pass.
Notre Dame’s defense will need to follow through on their steady performance against the run this season, as the Huskies are averaging a robust 194.5 yards per game on the ground.
The age-old adage of `establishing the run game’ will be the key to both team’s fortunes this afternoon.