Oct. 1, 2009
|By Tim Prister ’82|
Game 5: Washington (Oct. 3)
Conference: Pac 10
2008 record: 0-12, including a 33-7 loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 25 in Husky Stadium.
2009 record: 2-2–lost 31-23 at home vs. No. 11 LSU, defeated Idaho 42-23 at home, knocked off No. 3 USC 16-13 at home, and lost 34-14 at Stanford.
Location: Notre Dame Stadium
Kickoff: 3:42 p.m. ET
TV Coverage: NBC
Washington head coach: Former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian succeeded Tyrone Willingham (11-37), who lost the last 14 games of his tenure in Seattle, due in large part to an injury-decimated 2008 squad. Sarkisian spent seven years under Pete Carroll at USC and a season as the Oakland Raiders’ quarterbacks coach. He brought with him from USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt, the former Idaho head coach, and tabbed Fresno State offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
Sarkisian was a standout quarterback for Brigham Young in 1995-96 when he threw for 7,755 yards and 55 touchdowns. His 162.0 career pass efficiency rating ranks third on the all-time NCAA list. He led the Cougars to a 14-1 mark and the Cotton Bowl championship as a senior in ’96.
Series history: Notre Dame has won all seven games it has played against the Huskies, including last season’s 33-7 victory. Washington and Notre Dame played for the first time in 1948 with the No. 2-rated Irish winning 46-0 in Notre Dame Stadium, followed by a 27-7 conquest in Seattle in 1949.
Forty-six years passed before Notre Dame and Washington hooked up again. No. 23 Notre Dame defeated No. 15 Washington, 23-15, in Husky Stadium in ’95, followed by No. 11 Notre Dame’s 54-20 victory over No. 16 Washington in 1996.
The Tyrone Willingham-coached Irish defeated the Huskies in Notre Dame Stadium, 38-3, in 2004. Willingham was coaching Washington the following season when the No. 16-ranked Irish won in Husky Stadium, 36-17.
Glory days revisited: Washington’s dramatic 16-13 victory over USC two weeks ago brought back thoughts of the days of yore under head coach Don James, who led the Huskies to 153 victories in 18 seasons (1975-92), including a co-national championship (with Miami) in 1991. James and the Huskies won six Pac 10 championships (4-2 in the Rose Bowl), and had at least 10 victories seven times – 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1984 (11), 1990 and 1991 (12). Under James, Washington was 10-5 in bowl games and won 22 straight games during the 1990-92 seasons.
Following the tenures of Jim Lambright, Rick Neuheisel, Keith Gilbertson and Willingham (a combined 97-95), Sarkisian was tabbed and began to show immediate dividends. The Huskies contended with No. 11 LSU in the season opener before falling, 31-23. After a victory over Idaho (42-23) snapped Washington’s 15-game losing streak, the Huskies shot into the Top 25 (No. 24) with a 16-13 victory over USC.
The loss to Stanford removed the Huskies from the rankings, but their performances against LSU and USC served warning that Washington is a threat under Sarkisian.
“Coach Sarkisian and Coach Holt came up in the USC system and have really changed the mentality of Washington in a hurry,” said Irish head coach Charlie Weis. “I think Steve is a very, very good coach, and I think he is going to have his own personality. He did not go (to Washington) to create USC North.
“You take the things that you’ve had great success with, and then you apply it to the players you currently have, and they’ll definitely branch off like everyone else does. There’s a bright future there.”
Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian has turned around the UW program – going from an 0-12 team to defeating #3 USC earlier this season.
The Notre Dame players won’t make the mistake of overlooking Washington, a team that had won just 11 games in the previous four seasons combined.
“I don’t think there’s any concern of overlooking them, I mean, they beat USC this year,” said Irish strong safety Kyle McCarthy. “USC’s a pretty darn good team, and (Washington) is more than capable of coming in here and leaving with a victory. We’re well aware of that.”
Locker makes a difference: A thumb injury in the fourth game of the year ended quarterback Jake Locker’s sophomore season in ’08, and for all practical purposes, any chance the Huskies had of being competitive.
With Locker, the Huskies present a formidable offensive attack. He has completed 79-of-136 passes (58.1 percent) for 1,002 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions (two versus Stanford). He threw for 321 yards against LSU, 374 yards versus Idaho, and 237 yards against USC.
“We didn’t see him last year, but this offense caters to what he does best,” said Irish secondary coach Corwin Brown. “They like to get the quarterback on the move. If he can extend the play, then you have problems. Good quarterbacks in that USC system like (Mark) Sanchez can move.”
Locker, just a junior like Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen, quickly is positioning himself for an NFL career.
“Everybody sees the success those quarterbacks at SC had, and now it’s the same system,” Brown said. “So you’re saying, `That should be a guy who can go to the next level.'”
No one is more familiar with what Locker can do than Irish defensive line coach Randy Hart, who served 21 years on the Huskies’ staff.
“They’re asking him to be more specific in what he does,” said Hart, who worked at Washington from 1988-2008. “I think their offense has narrowed a bit. They’ve now got a direction with their personnel. It’s not as patchwork as it might have been at one time, and obviously, he’s developing and getting better.
“It’s a great challenge because he’s a great athlete. If he’s not the top athlete on the team, he’s in the top three or four speed-wise. When he turns it on, can really go. He’s improved throwing the football and he’s a mental catalyst in the huddle. He wills things to get done. He’s the leader on the field and we’ll have to be ready for him.”
Irish safety Kyle McCarthy and linebacker Scott Smith believe Locker is the best quarterback the Irish have seen this year – by far.
“As far as similar quarterbacks, maybe Nevada’s quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) posed a threat to be athletic, run around the pocket and throw,” McCarthy said. “But Locker is in a different class. He has an NFL-type arm to stand in the pocket and make any throw, and he’s a big guy who is athletic and can run the ball. We haven’t seen anyone like Locker yet.”
“The physical tools he has and the ability to make plays, especially at the end of the USC game, separate him from other guys we have seen,” Smith said.
Hart to Hart: Defensive line coach Randy Hart knows the importance of Washington football in the Pacific Northwest. He coached under five head coaches in Seattle, including Don James when Husky football was among the best programs in the nation.
“Washington football is an important deal in the Northwest,” Hart said. “It was around before the Seahawks were and one of the markets that can hold its own with the pro franchise in town.”
“The game is played Notre Dame versus the University of Washington. What little bit I would know about them scheme-wise, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. Personnel-wise, once they step across the white lines, you don’t know. I disregard that. I don’t think me knowing the names of those players or knowing their families is going to be anything big to help us on game day. It won’t be discussed out there, I guarantee you.”Irish defensive line coach Randy Hart
Hart downplayed his role in any success Notre Dame might have against Washington.
“The game is played Notre Dame versus the University of Washington,” Hart said. “What little bit I would know about them scheme-wise, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. Personnel-wise, once they step across the white lines, you don’t know. I disregard that. I don’t think me knowing the names of those players or knowing their families is going to be anything big to help us on game day. It won’t be discussed out there, I guarantee you.”
Hart does know, however, that he is proud to be representing Notre Dame this time around.
“It was a great experience (at Washington), but I enjoy where I am,” Hart said. “Where I am is where I want to be. I’ve never been a guy who has moved (just to) move. Wherever I am, I enjoy the heck out of it. That’s what you have to do in this business. If you’re always looking for the next place, you don’t enjoy where you are.”
Stopping the run: It’s no secret the area that Washington will have to improve upon in order to make this a successful season. Against Stanford last week, the Huskies allowed 321 yards rushing, 200 of which were gained by bruising running back Toby Gerhart.
Washington is allowing 195.75 yards rushing per game and 5.8 yards per rush. USC rushed for 250 yards against the Huskies, including 100 yards on 11 attempts by speedy Joe McKnight.
Coupled with Notre Dame’s rejuvenated ground game, the Irish undoubtedly will try to attack the Huskies’ run defense.
“We want to run the ball well in every game to give us a balanced attack,” said Irish center Eric Olsen. “When you run the ball, it takes a lot of pressure off of Jimmy (Clausen). When the defense starts gearing up for the run, it gives (Clausen) a lot more time to throw the ball down the field and make plays, which gives us a really balanced attack.”
Notre Dame has a telling 18-0 record under Charlie Weis when winning the rushing battle with its opponent.
“No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” said Weis, referring to the gaudy 18-0 mark when winning the rushing game. “When you out-gain the opponent on the ground, it usually means you’re winning the line of scrimmage.”
A key matchup to watch – Irish center Eric Olsen against UW’s 348-pound defensive tackle Alameda Ta’Amu.
Key match-ups: Irish center Eric Olsen, a robust 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, will go head-to-head with 6-foot-3, 348-pound defensive tackle Alameda Ta’Amu. “The guy this week is a big, strong guy on film, and to go against anybody that size and strength, you’ve got to stay low and have pad leverage,” Olsen said. “If you don’t, you’ll get into a muscle battle with someone like that, and that’s not a position that you really want to be in. Technique is definitely something I’ll focus on in practice.”
Notre Dame’s secondary will be challenged by Locker and a deep albeit relatively young Washington receiving corps, which has been led by true freshman James Johnson, who has 19 receptions for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Jermaine Kearse is second on the team with 11 receptions and a 16.5-yard average per catch. He scored one of Washington’s two touchdowns last week against Stanford.
The Huskies are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry while the Irish are surrendering 4.4 yards per carry – which makes it weakness versus weakness – although Notre Dame put forth a stout effort against Purdue’s Ralph Bolden. Bolden snapped off a 26-yard run in the first series of the game, but finished with just 67 yards on 17 carries while the Boilermakers had 74 yards on 26 carries. Washington’s Chris Polk has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game this year, but he has been steady with 90 against LSU, 80 versus Idaho, 71 against USC and 75 versus Stanford. Polk is averaging 3.8 yards per carry.
Huskies/Fighting Irish facts Washington has been exceptional in its red zone defense, allowing just six touchdowns out of 16 penetrations (38 percent) inside the red zone … Stanford’s Chris Owusu returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown last week. The Cardinal also converted 7-of-11 third downs against the Huskies … Washington trailed Stanford 17-14 early in the second quarter before the Cardinal scored the final 17 points of the game … Washington free safety Justin Glenn returned a fumble (a lateral pass) 51 yards for a score against Stanford … Washington pitched a shutout against USC on third down, holding the Trojans unsuccessful on 10 attempts … In Washington’s loss to LSU, the Huskies made five trips into the Tigers’ red zone and came away with four field goals and a turnover … Washington had 296 yards total offense against LSU by halftime … The Huskies’ victory over No. 3-ranked USC was their first victory against the Trojans since 2001 and the highest-rated team Washington has knocked off since defeating No. 3 USC in 1981 … Despite defeating Idaho by just 19 points, the Huskies led 35-9 early in the second quarter and were up 42-16 when Idaho scored with 13 seconds remaining … Notre Dame has won the time of possession battle in each of its first four games, including margins of 7:20 (Nevada), 9:00 (Michigan State) and 8:50 (Purdue) … The Irish defense has allowed just five runs of at least 10 yards in the last two games after allowing 16 such gains in the first two games … Notre Dame is 13th nationally with a +1.25 turnover ratio. Just six FBS squads have fewer turnovers than Notre Dame’s three: Arizona State, Air Force, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Idaho and Texas A&M. Two of those turnovers were late first half heaves … Among Notre Dame’s top six offensive linemen – Sam Young, Eric Olsen, Paul Duncan, Chris Stewart, Trevor Robinson and Dan Wenger – the Irish have 120 combined starts.
Tim Prister – Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82 – is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he had attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games–every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.