SEATTLE – Notre Dame’s offense, assembled by Tyrone Willingham and unleashed by Charlie Weis, is the kind of juggernaut that could carry the Fighting Irish back into the Top 10.
They’ll be looking to take a step in that direction today when they take on Willingham’s new team, the Washington Huskies – 0-5 against the Irish and still smarting from last year’s 38-3 loss in South Bend, Ind.
Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, who threw four touchdown passes against Washington last year, has the arm, the size and the poise under pressure of a top NFL prospect. At times, he looks like a bigger, stronger version of another Notre Dame quarterback with a knack for leadership – Joe Montana.
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall, tall, fast and nimble enough to turn a short catch into a long gain, leads the Irish with 220 yards and is finally emerging into the go-to player Willingham expected him to be.
Big tight end Anthony Fasano and lanky junior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija give Quinn two more reliable targets.
Halfback Darius Walker, a compact, rugged runner, forces defense to stack their lines to stop him. So far, he’s averaging 106.7 yards per game.
Through three games, the No. 16 Irish (2-1) have amassed 486 yards running and 854 yards passing for 13 offensive touchdowns. That came against good rivals – wins against Pittsburgh and Michigan and an overtime loss last Saturday to Michigan State’s Spartans.
Willingham recruited the key players in the Notre Dame offense before he was ousted last year, and now he has to figure out a way to contain them.
“Brady is, well, I don’t want to say perfect, but I would say he is working in that direction,” Willingham said.
Willingham has been impressed with Weis’ imaginative and bold play-calling, a trademark of his work as offensive coordinator for the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
“He gives you a variety of formations, he keeps you very much off-balance with what he’s doing, what he’s thinking,” Willingham said. “He’s unpredictable. He’ll do some things in positions that other teams wouldn’t do. You might say he’s quite brash.”
Willingham hoped he would have some advantage over other coaches against Notre Dame because he’s so familiar with the players, knowing tendencies that don’t always show up on film.
Weis figured he had one advantage – the old defensive playbook of Kent Baer, with the Irish last year and now at Washington.
“It helps when you have the playbook,” Weis said. “When they walk out the door, they can take everything else with them. … Kind of helps a little bit when you know the foundation of the playbook.”
Baer laughed at that.
“You think I’m going to take all those computers with me?” he said. “It’s all online. I’m aware of that. I’ve known that since day one. I think it’s funny that it was even talked about, to be honest with you. He’s playing mind games. I never even thought twice about it.”
Baer said he’s made enough changes in his defensive play-calling with Washington that the old playbook is meaningless, even if Weis thinks it’s important.
“It’s not a big deal,” Baer said. “I guess it is to him. He’s excited about it. … I hope they are studying it like crazy. That will take away from the things they’ve got to do.”
The Huskies are pinning their hopes on the running of Louis Rankin (265 yards in three games), sacks and a run-stifling defense that worked well in a 34-6 victory last Saturday against Idaho – ending Washington’s eight-game losing streak.
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