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Willed past Willingham

Pat Leonard | Monday, September 26, 2005

For 60 minutes Saturday, Notre Dame was able to treat playing against Tyrone Willingham as just another game.

The Irish secondary appeared vulnerable at best, and the team’s offense sputtered early in the red zone in front of 71,472 fans. But Notre Dame (3-1) overpowered Washington at Husky Stadium, 36-17, rebounding from a difficult home overtime loss to Michigan State and winning handily against its former coach.

The Irish rose to No. 13 from No. 16 in the Associated Press poll with the victory.

Quarterback Brady Quinn (327 yards, touchdown) and linebacker Brandon Hoyte (eight tackles, five solo) joined a mass of Irish players who found first-year Washington coach Tyrone Willingham on the field following the game, embracing and shaking hands with the man who once ran their program.

“It’s good to see him,” fifth-year linebacker Corey Mays said, “but the focus has really been on us and getting better and going out and getting a win.”

This was no more evident than in the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame sealed its win with a play Washington had used to victimize the Irish all afternoon.

With 8:48 remaining in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame rocked the Huskies to sleep with two rushes by backup tailback Travis Thomas, setting up a 52-yard touchdown strike from Quinn to wide receiver Jeff Samardzija (career-high eight catches, 164 yards).

The long bomb widened the margin to 29-3 Notre Dame, even though Washington was setting individual records throughout the day on offense.

Huskies receiver Anthony Russo caught a career-long, 39-yard pass against Irish cornerback Mike Richardson on the game’s first drive. Huskies receiver Marlon Wood even made his first career reception on a 69-yard, second quarter toss.

And though Huskies quarterback Isaiah Stanback threw for a career-high 353 yards on the day, Washington did not find the end zone until 6:01 remained in the fourth quarter.

Washington fullback Mark Palaita scored on a 1-yard touchdown run, and wide receiver Craig Chambers (five catches, 127 yards, one touchdown) made a 41-yard touchdown catch at the 2:26 mark.

But Notre Dame’s Thomas punched in an 11-yard run with 3:26 remaining and ensured Notre Dame’s third win in as many games on the road this season.

“I thought it was a typical bend but don’t break performance by our defense,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “They obviously gave up a bunch of yards in the passing game. You’ve got to give a lot credit to Washington, but [their] turning the ball over and [our] getting the ball back kept the game from slipping away from us.”

Washington negated a 408-yard passing performance with four turnovers in Notre Dame territory.

The Huskies’ game-opening drive went eight plays (seven passes) for 82 yards, but Irish free safety Chinedum Ndukwe stripped Chambers of the ball and recovered.

Notre Dame muffed a scoring attempt of its own on the following drive, when Samardzija was unable to handle what he called “a bad snap” on a 42-yard field goal attempt. With :02 remaining in the first quarter following a Chase Anastasio punt block, Irish kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick nailed a 25-yard field goal for a 3-0 Notre Dame lead.

Stanback then directed a 10-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 27-yard Evan Knudson field goal at the 9:52 mark of the second quarter, tying the game 3-3.

Notre Dame followed, however, with a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a shifty 17-yard touchdown run by Irish running back Darius Walker (128 yards rushing, 20 yards receiving, touchdown).

Continuing with the sloppy theme of the first half, Fitzpatrick missed the point-after-try when Samardzija lost control of the hold and the ball laid flat.

Washington appeared to rebound quickly and gain momentum with Wood’s first career reception down to the Notre Dame 8-yard line, but Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden (team-leading nine tackles) intercepted Stanback on a rollout pass to the left side of the end zone for a touchback.

“[Washington] threw a lot of different stuff at us that we hadn’t seen,” strong safety Tom Zbikowski said. “They were shifting a lot, but when they got in the red zone, we stopped them. We got turnovers when it counted. We came up big when we needed to.”

Fitzpatrick converted a 39-yard field goal before the half to send the Irish into the locker room with a 12-3 lead, but the Irish were stopped on fourth down on consecutive drives to open the second half.

Mays, however, forced a Kenny James fumble and recovered at the Notre Dame 32-yard line to give the offense the ball. Quinn hit Samardzija for a 43-yard pass that began a 7-play, 68-yard scoring drive, ending with a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Rashon Powers-Neal, his fourth of the season.

Fitzpatrick’s third of three field goals, a 25-yarder, opened fourth quarter scoring and gave the Irish a 22-3 lead at the 10:46 mark, which lasted until Samardzija caught his touchdown pass.