The Golden Dome.
Seven Heisman Trophies.
Eight national championships.
The hallowed walls of Notre Dame Stadium …
These are things the University of Washington Huskies are not playing this week when they travel to South Bend, Ind., to face 11th-ranked Notre Dame.
“I’m lining up against their guard and their center, that’s who I’m playing,” UW junior defensive tackle Sekou Wiggs said Monday.
“And they’re not playing against Hugh McElhenny, they’re playing against Corey Dillon,” senior defensive tackle David Richie offered, alluding to the great UW running back of nearly 50 years ago, and the Huskies’ latest sensation.
As the 16th-ranked Huskies adjusted their weekly practice routine to accommodate their long-distance travel plans to face the Fighting Irish, they also adjusted their mind-set from “just another game,” to “just another big game.”
It’s something they do from time to time, and it’s all part of maintaining the program as one worthy of national recognition, coach Jim Lambright said.
“When you become a member of this team, you think about playing these kinds of games - Miami and Nebraska and Notre Dame and Ohio State,” Lambright said. “Every one of those games is good for us to put inside a young man’s head.”
It starts with recruiting, he said, and continues to the point where players expect these big intersectional games to be a regular part of the season, which is something not all programs do.
And so when the big games arrive, the players aren’t overwhelmed by a sense of awe. And that helps them concentrate on their personal tasks and assignments, Richie said.
“We don’t think about Knute Rockne or Coach James or Beno Bryant or Billy Joe Hobert,” he said, rattling off names from the distant and recent past. “You just think about beating your own guy. Really.”
That doesn’t mean the Huskies don’t relish the experience or don’t find themselves getting excited even on a Monday after a rare Sunday night practice.
“I always want to play well and give everything I’ve got, but in this game, I’m looking forward to having the greatest game of my life,” said defensive end Jason Chorak. “It’s playing Notre Dame, on national TV, there’s a lot of exposure and respect.”
It all adds up to opportunity, Lambright says.
That’s an opportunity that Washington teams have at least once a year and usually more often. There are different ways to categorize big games, big opportunities.
“For a regular-season game, it doesn’t get much bigger than this,” Wiggs said. “The only things I can think of that would be bigger would be playing for a national championship and playing in the Rose Bowl.”
Big conference games against highly regarded and highly ranked Pac-10 teams are part of the deal, too, but they aren’t voluntary. The non-conference games are something the program has to go out and find. And athletic director Barbara Hedges has found a bunch of them for the the next four years to tack on to the nine games against ranked, non-conference opponents Washington already has played in this decade.
Although the Huskies’ two-year deal with Notre Dame ends this week, they have scheduled home-and-home series with Nebraska, Miami, BYU and Colorado in the next four seasons.
“To me, it’s a chance to play in another great stadium,” Richie said. “I’ve played in some pretty cool places - the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the great horseshoe of Ohio State … I’ll remember those things all my life. And now we’ll play in South Bend.”
Still, a trip to South Bend is different, as evidenced by the 2,000 Washington fans who have signed up to fly to Chicago Friday and then take a Saturday morning train to South Bend. For them, seeing the Huskies at Notre Dame may amount to a once-in-a-lifetime experience, since Washington previously played there back in 1948, and currently is not scheduled to return.
“I haven’t decided if I should show ‘em the Rockne film or ‘Rudy,”’ Lambright said, chuckling about the two popular Notre Dame movies of different generations. “The fun thing is, none of this is going to beat you.”
Yeah, but guys like Kory Minor and Lyron Cobbins and Mike Rosenthal and Autry Denson and Ron Powlus just might.
“It helps that we played them here last year,” Lambright said of the last-minute, 29-21 loss. “Our players don’t have the delusions of grandeur going back there.
“It’s great for me. It’s a stadium that’s full of tradition. It’s the home of Knute Rockne, going way back. But our guys don’t remember Ronald Reagan, let alone Knute Rockne.”
And it might come up, too, that for all of Notre Dame’s grand tradition, and NBC contract, and national exposure, the Huskies have won a national championship more recently than have the Irish - 1991 to 1989.
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