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Football: Hughes’ big game propels offense

Chris Khorey | Tuesday, November 27, 2007

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Notre Dame’s offense was struggling.

Deadlocked at 14 with Stanford, the Irish had just four first downs since halftime. And with under eight minutes left to play, time was running out.

Enter Robert Hughes.

The freshman running back took a hand-off from quarterback Jimmy Clausen and barreled into the line – but there was nowhere to run.

Undeterred by the mass of bodies at the line of scrimmage, Hughes bounced backwards, then cut to his left and found nothing but grass in front of him. By the time he was caught from behind, Hughes had gained 44 yards and given his team a first and goal at the Stanford eight yard line.

Two plays later, Hughes got the ball again. He took it right, cut up field, bounced off two defenders and dove into the end zone to give the Irish the lead and their third win of the season.

The touchdown capped off a day in which Hughes gained 136 yards on 18 carries, including Notre Dame’s two longest runs of the season – the 44-yarder in the fourth quarter and a 45-yarder to open the game.

But life wasn’t always this good for Hughes.

On Oct. 29, five days before Notre Dame was scheduled to take on Navy, Hughes’ brother, Earl “Tony” Hughes, was killed. And on the field, life wasn’t much better. The Irish were 1-7 and Robert was struggling to get playing time.

But on the following Friday, the day before the game against the Midshipmen, over 50 of Robert’s teammates joined him at Tony’s funeral. The next day, Hughes scored his first collegiate touchdown.

After that score, Hughes was mobbed by his teammates. Center Dan Wenger said Robert’s affable personality was part of the reason the Irish rallied around him so well.

“He’s awesome to be around off the field,” Wenger said.

And since then, with Tony watching from on high and his teammates rallying around him, Hughes has burst onto the scene for the Irish. The freshman had his first collegiate hundred yard rushing game with 110 yards in a 28-7 win over Duke Nov. 17, then followed that up with his performance against the Cardinal in his first career start.

Hughes’ patience and hard work in practice paid off, Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

“When you’re trying to work your way up the depth chart, then you start getting more reps, and then guys get banged up and all of a sudden, they’re calling your number,” he said.

All in all, Hughes rushed for 298 yards in 2007, with 246 of them coming in the last two games of the season. His sudden success has also buoyed his team – the Irish won those two games after starting 1-9, and the team’s rushing offense, which was averaging a nation’s-worst 56.1 yards per game, averaged 168.5 yards against the Cardinal and Blue Devils.

Hughes’ running style resembles bumper bowling. While he isn’t the fastest of the Irish backs, at 5-foot-11 and 238 pounds he has a low center of gravity and always seems to bounce off tacklers – and when he hits someone head on, they usually fall backwards, like bowling pins.

“When he gets going north, he’s a load to bring down,” Weis said.

Notre Dame center Dan Wenger said Hughes is a joy to block for because he’s so hard to bring down and never gives up on play.

“He runs really hard and never stops his feet,” Wenger said. “It’s always fun to block for him because big plays happen.”

Hughes’ ability to make something out of nothing means offensive linemen have to keep their heads on a swivel because the play is rarely over on the first hit and they might suddenly find Robert headed back towards them.

“We always have to play to the whistle,” Wenger said.