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FOOTBALL: Spreading the wealth

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, September 9, 2005

One play went for negative yards and the rest combined to produce 502 – 227 yards in the air and 275 on the ground.

In last week’s 42-21 drubbing of Pittsburgh, new head coach and former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis showcased his offense for the first time on the college level. And against Michigan Saturday, the same offense must be near-perfect for the Irish to have a chance against the No. 3 Wolverines.

In the air

Irish quarterback Brady Quinn thrived last week, completing 18-of-27 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns.

He also rushed for a career high 49 yards on five carries.

The third-year starter is just settling into the offense under Weis. Saturday will present another test.

In 2003, Quinn threw ten passes at Michigan Stadium, gaining experience in Notre Dame’s 38-0 loss. And he knows the over 110,000 fans will present a challenge for his offense.

“I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to make sure everyone is relaxed and focused, because communicating back and forth between the o-line, the wide receivers, everyone on the field is going to be the biggest key,” Quinn said at his press conference Wednesday. “Obviously, there’s a lot that can happen when the noise level goes up. Guys start losing their focus and let other things become a focus, so that’s going to be the biggest factor – making sure guys are relaxed and focused.”

Quinn was the starter last season when the Irish beat Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, one of college football’s loudest places to play, but he also remembers two years ago when the crowd noise affected the Irish at “The Big House.”

“Two years ago at Michigan the crowd noise was pretty heavy there, obviously, with 110,000 that had to play a big factor,” Quinn said. “It was one of those situations where I think our team had to resort to silent counts. We adjusted pretty well with it at Tennessee last year, but not so well at Michigan two years ago.”

But if Saturday is anything like last week, the junior will have plenty of options in the air. Last week he completed passes to seven different receivers, with tight end Anthony Fasano leading the way.

“It means you have a lot of options [throwing to seven receivers],” wide receiver Rhema McKnight said. “If you have a lot of options, people don’t really know who you’re going to. It keeps a lot of defenses off balance.”

Junior receiver Jeff Samardzija had a 19-yard diving touchdown catch in the second quarter, the first of his career. And three of Quinn’s completions went to running back Darius Walker, who also had his first career touchdown reception – a 51-yard screen pass in the first quarter.

“It’s a part of the game that has really increased in me as far as skill level goes,” the sophomore Walker said. “Being able to catch the ball out of the backfield is something that a running back needs to do … and it keeps the defense on their toes.”

Even Weis was pleased with that play on Saturday.

“I think maybe my favorite play of the whole game, besides running it in the red zone, was the posse that was in front of Darius on that screen pass,” Weis said Tuesday. “All three receivers were there; linemen were there; tight ends were there. I mean, everybody was there, and it brings a smile to the coaches’ faces when you see that many guys hustling until the play is over.”

McKnight, who had three catches for 51 yards last week, said the receivers can be a solid group.

“I feel we have the opportunity to go out and be the best receiving group in the nation,” the senior said. “And the way we go about doing it is [by] preparing ourselves during the week and hopefully performing on Saturdays.”

On the ground

As much as Walker likes to catch the ball, his main task is to run, and run he does. The sophomore ran for 100 of the Irish’s 275 yards rushing Saturday. He was joined in the backfield by Rashon Powers-Neal, Asaph Schwapp and Travis Thomas.

Walker’s vision, however, is what makes him stand out, and Weis recognizes this.

“Obviously we don’t want to take too many risks as far as going east and west on the field,” Weis said. “We always prefer to be going north and south. Sometimes if you have a running back with great instincts, you have to let him play.”

And Walker said when he plays, he lets his instincts take over.

“I think out there on the field you just have to feel it,” he said. “It’s not really something you think about when you’re out there running. But I know when the game is over the coaches will let you know if you’re doing too much east-west.”

Powers-Neal, meanwhile, scored more touchdowns last week in one game than he has in his career – three, to be exact. The senior ran for 41 yards on eight carries and caught one pass.

But now it’s No. 3 Michigan, and Walker, who burst onto the scene last season with 115 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Michigan in Notre Dame’s 28-20 victory, said this week is no different for him.

“We have our goals set of what we need to do to go out there and be productive and to be successful,” Walker said. “This Michigan game is no different from another game.”

In the trenches

On Saturday, the rotation of four inside offensive lineman – Bob Morton, Dan Stevenson, Dan Santucci and John Sullivan – seemed to work well. The line, including Ryan Harris and Mark Levoir, was moving upfield and following the ball all game. Something the Irish coaching staff has put great emphasis on.

“We try to get that done in practice, make that a habit for them in practice and hopefully that carries over to the game,” offensive line coach John Latina said.

“I thought our kids chased downfield and were downfield on some screen plays making some blocks.”

The rotation of four is not only talented but experienced. All four saw significant playing time last season, and the non-starter, Sullivan, was a starter in 2004.

Harris was also a starter last season. And Latina said having that group rotating is a plus for the Irish.

“We felt like all along that we have four inside guys that we feel really good about,” he said. “They are all very capable of playing for us and that’s a good thing. You wish you had more than what we have, because the more guys you can play, the fresher you stay and the better the situation is.

We like that situation we have.”

A true test

This week the Irish offense will be forced to deal with the noise at Michigan Stadium. Weis had his team practice silent snaps earlier in the week, in addition to simulating noise so they couldn’t hear each other in the huddle.

“‘The Big House’ is ‘The Big House’, but there’s ways to prepare for it,” Samardzija said. “I think we’re pretty adjusted to it. We go week-in and week-out with crowd noises in big stadiums, so I think we’ll be fine with it.”

And McKnight doesn’t care what happened in the past with Michigan – he is focused on Saturday’s game only.”At this point I’m not concerned about what happened last year, the past two years, last week,” he said. “All I’m concerned about is beating Michigan this year.”