NCF Nation: Robert Hughes

Hyundai Sun Bowl: 3 keys Notre Dame

December, 30, 2010
12/30/10
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Here are three keys for Notre Dame in Friday's Hyundai Sun Bowl game against Miami:

1. Protect Tommy Rees: Notre Dame simply must give Tommy Rees time against Allen Bailey and the talented Miami defensive front. The Hurricanes are good enough to get pressure with just their front four, but the Irish offensive line has to hold them off. This is also a big spot for running backs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes, not just to stay in and block but to run the ball effectively enough to slow down the pass rush. Hughes' big frame was effective against USC's athletic defense and he could be a big key in this one as well.

2. Don't let Jacory Harris feel comfortable: Harris, the Miami quarterback, is an interception machine. But when he has time to sit in the pocket, he can be pretty effective. The Irish defense was outstanding down the stretch in the regular season but could have trouble getting to the quarterback around guys like mammoth tackle Seantrel Henderson. They don't need to bring the mobile Harris down, but they've got to at least get him on the move so he can help out with his erratic throws. The return of nose guard Ian Williams could provide a big boost in that regard.

3. Start fast: Miami is coming into this bowl having lost its final two regular-season games in disappointing fashion and its head coach. So if the Irish can get the jump on the Hurricanes, you'd have to question their desire to really fight back into it. Part of starting fast means not letting Miami's outstanding return game create an early score or highly-favorable field position, or allowing the 'Canes defense to get on the board with a turnover. Notre Dame played its best football in November, but its margin for error against a team this talented remains razor thin.

What we learned from Notre Dame: Week 13

November, 28, 2010
11/28/10
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What we learned from Notre Dame in the Irish's 20-16 win at USC on Saturday night:

1. Tough enough in the clutch: The Irish offense really only produced in the final minutes of each half, but it was enough to get the win. The impressive thing about the performance was that Notre Dame ran the ball late when it needed to, unlike in years' past. Robert Hughes bowled over Trojan defenders during the winning drive in the fourth quarter, while Cierre Wood chipped in some big gains. The Irish finished with 147 yards on the ground, while Wood and Hughes combined for 158 yards. Not spectacular stats, but good enough and tough enough to win.

2. The defense isn't just improved, it's dominant: This is no longer a fluke. The Irish defense has now shut down four straight teams that came in with gaudy offensive statistics. Notre Dame has allowed just two offensive touchdowns in those four games, and USC's lone trip into the end zone came after a turnover set it up on the Irish 2-yard line. The Trojans finished with only 261 yards. Whatever magic potion defensive coordinator Bob Diaco found after the Navy game needs to be stored and reproduced for next season.

3. November to remember: The Irish couldn't have had a much worse September, with those losses to Navy and Tulsa and the Declan Sullivan death that raised the scrutiny around coach Brian Kelly. Nobody saw a 3-0 November coming, especially not with all the injuries the team suffered. But this month's success is a result of the foundation laid in the weeks and months prior as the players learned how to win. A 7-5 season and potential trip to the Champs Sports Bowl now has to be considered a success, and if the Irish do indeed return to prominence under Kelly, this month will be remembered as the turning point in the program's trajectory.

Notre Dame finally gets past USC

November, 27, 2010
11/27/10
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Eight long years of suffering are over.

Notre Dame finally beat arch rival USC, 20-16 at the Coliseum on Saturday night, and suddenly Brian Kelly's first year is looking much, much better.

Kelly came to South Bend promising to instill toughness and to make his team better in November than in September. Both those qualities were on full display Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNotre Dame is now 3-0 with Tommy Rees as the starting quarterback.
The Irish gave away its 13-3 halftime lead thanks to three second-half turnovers. But when they needed a big drive in the fourth quarter, they came up with one, going 76 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown. And they did it, shockingly, by turning to the power run game. Big back Robert Hughes carried four times for 36 yards on the drive, including the final 5 for the touchdown.

When was the last time you saw Notre Dame grind it out on the ground to win a big game on the road? When was the last time you saw Notre Dame's defense play like this?

The Irish's streak of more than 13 quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown ended in the third period, but you could hardly blame the defense after USC forced a turnover to take over at the Notre Dame 2. Even then, the Trojans needed four plays to get into the end zone, barely, on a quarterback sneak. The defense held USC to just 261 yards, and while this is not a vintage, Reggie Bush/Matt Leinart squad, that's still impressive, especially on the road.

And for once Notre Dame got a huge break late, as Ronald Johnson dropped a sure touchdown pass in the final two minutes after safety Harrison Smith fell down in coverage. The heavy rain played a factor on that play, but it still was the kind of fortune that the Irish never seemed to get in this series in the past decade. Smith came back to intercept Mitch Mustain's final pass attempt to seal the victory.

Freshman quarterback Tommy Rees wasn't great. He threw three interceptions and fumbled after being sacked to set up USC's lone touchdown. But the kid just wins. He's 3-0 as the starter.

That 3-0 record is also how Notre Dame finished in November, completing an unlikely turnaround after the Navy and Tulsa losses and the Declan Sullivan tragedy. People were ready to give up on Kelly at the end of October, but now his team takes a ton of momentum going into bowl season despite a pedestrian 7-5 record. Kelly showed why he was hired in the first place in getting these players to believe, having them conditioned and ready to perform late in the season and -- most remarkably -- getting it done despite the slew of injuries to important starters.

The win opens back up the possibility of a bid to the Champs Sports Bowl, which will have to decide if it wants a hot Irish team or an unranked Big East squad. If not Orlando, Notre Dame should have good opportunities to take a Pac-10 slot now that Stanford appears to be a lock for a BCS bid.

Kelly built up a lot of goodwill simply by beating USC again. The tenor around the program has changed in just one month. A 7-5 record isn't usually much cause for jubilation at Notre Dame, but this may be the rare exception.

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What to watch for Notre Dame: Week 5

September, 30, 2010
9/30/10
10:15
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What to watch from Notre Dame in Saturday night's game at Boston College:

1. Can the Irish run the ball?: Notre Dame is by no means a great running team, but it has looked competent at times this season with Armando Allen. Boston College owns the nation's sixth-best rushing defense, allowing just 71 yards per game, and has stuffed the Irish backs over the years. There was a depth chart change this week, with Robert Hughes moving ahead of Cierre Wood as Allen's backup. Hughes is the biggest back Notre Dame has and may offer some a physical style. But the Irish offense could become one dimensional if they can't move it on the ground.

2. Is stopping the run enough?: The Eagles' Montel Harris is the leading rusher in the ACC, and the Irish are sure to see healthy helpings of handoffs to him. But Boston College is making a quarterback change, and all indications are that true freshman Chase Rettig will get the call. Notre Dame went back and studied some high school film of Rettig this week just in case. Unless Rettig is a natural, this should be an advantage for the visiting team. Look for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to stuff the box and make Rettig prove he can beat the Irish.

3. Charting Crist: It seems like every week we're talking about the development of Dayne Crist, but that's because the quarterback is so important to this offense. Last week, Stanford often dropped eight men into pass coverage, and Crist and the offense did not respond well. He also got knocked around quite a bit. Boston College could try similar tactics, though that's not really their style. Either way, Crist has to make better decisions, and if the defense is going to drop that many in coverage, he may have to run the ball more himself, too.
At Cincinnati, Brian Kelly's spread offense was known for its reliance on the passing game. Now Kelly is bringing that attack to Notre Dame.

But Kelly knows that in order to be better in November than September, the Irish will need to run the ball. His system is not only set up to do that, but he says the team has the right personnel in place.

[+] EnlargeArmando Allen
Jason Bridge/US PresswireArmando Allen will probably get the bulk of the carries in Brian Kelly's spread offense.
"I would be very surprised if we were not a solid team running the football," Kelly said.

Notre Dame had its two worst rushing years ever, statistically speaking, in 2007 and 2008 before bouncing back a little last season. Still, it was far from imposing as the Irish averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and the running backs produced only eight rushing touchdowns.

But the offensive line is a veteran group, and leading ball carrier Armando Allen (697 yards in nine games) returns as the No. 1 tailback, aided by three other runners with distinct styles.

"No matter who's in the game, we always know nothing is going to drop off," Allen said. "We all have confidence in each other."

Allen isn't the swiftest of the bunch, but he's the most well-rounded. He should break the school record for receptions by a running back and is closing in on 4,000 career total yards.

Robert Hughes is a bruiser at 245 pounds, which may seem out of place in a spread. But he can be a weapon, particularly in short-yardage situations.

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar calls Jonas Gray, a 230-pounder with good footwork, "the wild card" of the group. Gray has all the physical traits you'd want but has yet to do a whole lot at Notre Dame.

Then there's sophomore Cierre Wood, the fastest and probably most gifted of the bunch.

"He's got great speed and quickness," Molnar said. "But sometimes he's his own worst enemy. He'll go too fast and miss a cut, miss a read."

Kelly hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2005 at Central Michigan. At Cincinnati, he mostly used a tailback-by-committee approach. Last season, even though the Bearcats threw the ball 56.7 percent of the time, his top two running backs combined to average better than six yards per carry.

"The spread creates a lot of open space and provides a lot of opportunities for us to make big plays in the running game," Allen said. "It will come down to us and how good we are in our attention to detail."

Irish add big-time running back

July, 30, 2010
7/30/10
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Running back may be one of the deepest positions on this year's Notre Dame roster. The Irish have just added another potential star in the backfield.

Justice Hayes Insider, a four-star prospect and the No. 22 running back in the Class of 2011 according to ESPN's Scouts Inc., has given his verbal commitment to Brian Kelly and the Irish. Hayes is a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder from Grand Blanc, Mich., who was also considering Tennessee, Michigan State and Michigan.

Hayes averaged 7.4 yards per carry while running for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior last season. ESPN's Billy Tucker says Hayes will fit in well with Kelly's spread offense:
"He is very versatile in skill-set and embodies a lot of 'space-player' attributes coveted in an open spread offense. While he's a tough runner who can move the chains with deceptive in-line strength, we see Hayes' open-field elusiveness and polished pass-catching skills as the assets that placed him high on Notre Dame's offensive board."

"Hayes can make defenders miss with loose hips and great change-of-direction skill; a bit quicker than fast but has enough speed to find a seam through the second level and take it the distance. He could really create some mismatches and personnel problems with his ability to motion into the slot. Not a load-back at the next level, but doesn't have to be in this offense and should flourish early in his career in a change-of-pace type role."

The closest thing Kelly had to a star tailback at Cincinnati was Isaiah Pead, who ran for 806 yards and averaged 6.7 yards per carry last year on just 121 carries. But Kelly has said the Irish may need to run the ball more than his Bearcats did, especially when the weather turns cold in South Bend late in the fall.

Kelly felt so good about his depth in the backfield this season that he moved Theo Riddick to receiver. Armando Allen is the returning starter, and the Irish also have veterans Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray to go along with promising sophomore Cierre Wood. In the future, though, perhaps Justice will be served.
Charley Molnar was the wide receivers coach under Brian Kelly at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati, where he helped develop some of the most prolific passing attacks in the nation. Now he's the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, where he's helping Kelly transform the Irish into a spread offense.

I caught up with Molnar earlier this week to see how the installation of that system is going:

Molnar
Molnar
How are the players adjusting to the new offense?

Charley Molnar: The first six days were spotty. We could see that if they were concentrating on the fundamentals we taught them, they were forgetting the plays. And if they were concentrating on the plays and trying to execute them perfectly, their fundamentals weren't very good. But the last two practices, they've really started to do what we've asked of them from a fundamentals standpoint and also getting a command of the offense.

Is this a normal timetable for getting this stuff down? Was it similar at Cincinnati?

CM: At Cincinnati we had the advantage of having the bowl game [Kelly's staff took over before the 2007 International Bowl], so that gave us 10 extra practices before we started spring ball to really learn our offensive system and fundamentals. Here, the first day we came out to spring ball, they were a total blank slate from the standpoint of really knowing what our expectations were. But these guys try so hard, and we have so many guys who are real pleasers on the football team and guys who will do anything you ask. So we're really on course to have our offense in by the time summer camp ends.

How much different is it from going to a pro style offense to your spread system?

CM: The biggest difference right now is just learning a whole new set of terminology and whole new mindset in the way we attack a defense. And also fundamentally we do things quite differently than the previous staff did. So these guys really have a lot of learning to do. Nevertheless, it's not that we're so drastically different that they can't get it. I would say for the most part, especially the last couple of practices, they're really settling into the offense and into the speed we work in practice. That may have been the biggest adjustment for them -- how fast we work in practice.

This offense had quite a bit of success under the previous coaching staff. Have you kept any of the old plays that worked well or is it just all totally your stuff?

CM: We didn't keep anything. We didn't even ask what the previous staff did. We're putting in our system. And of course with coach Kelly, we're always looking to evolve the offense based on our personnel and based on things that occurred to us the previous season, and we're always adjusting. The 2010 Notre Dame offense will not look like the 2009 Cincinnati offense. There will be some evolving going on here.

How is Dayne Crist coming along?

CM: He's got a strong arm, and he seems to be poised in the pocket. He really is a very diligent student of the game. He spends a lot of time watching video, asking good questions. We can't see Dayne run around because of the knee, but we've also not allowed Dayne to use his knee as a crutch or an excuse not to run the offense.

So can you fully evaluate him yet?

CM: I don't think we can get a full evaluation of him until summer camp, until he can run around a little bit. As far as reading coverages and making the right checks, he shows he can do that. Now, it's a lot easier when you know you're not going to get hit and you can just sit in the pocket and go through your reads. It's totally different when you're live. On the other hand, we probably wouldn't want our quarterbacks to get hit too much in the spring anyway.

You worked with some excellent receivers at Cincinnati. How do the ones at Notre Dame compare? And how is Theo Riddick's transition to receiver going?

CM: Michael Floyd is a special player and very, very similar to Armon Binns, who we had at Cincinnati. Both are big, physical players who can go up over a DB to get the football. So he's a lot of fun to work with. Theo is going to be an outstanding talent. Right now, I'm coming off a shoulder injury so he's a little bit limited in what he can do. But every once in a while you get a glimpse of how good he could be. He's got speed and he really possesses good hands for a guy who spent most of his life playing running back.

We have probably eight or nine guys still fighting for a seat on bus. Shaq Evans has been highly competitive, along with John Goodman, Roby Toma, Barry Gallup -- they're all fighting to win a spot, either as a starter or a key backup. I think the competition will go all the way through to the summer, I really do.

How about running back? Is Armando Allen the No. 1 guy there?


CM: Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and he's been in that spot. He's been a tried and true performer for Notre Dame, so he's doing a very good job. But so is Robert Hughes, and Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood. Any of those guys could potentially be our starting running back and I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. I think have good depth and a highly competitive group.

Just for you personally, what's it like to be the offensive coordinator now at Notre Dame?

CM: I really feel like I've got the best assistant's job in the country.

Weis set an easy standard to clear

November, 30, 2009
11/30/09
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What's most amazing about how spectacular Charlie Weis failed in 2009 is how much the season was set up for him to succeed.

The Notre Dame schedule wasn't the cream-puff lineup as some people described it, but by Irish standards it was very manageable. Only three teams on the entire slate -- Pitt, USC, and Stanford -- are ranked in the Top 25, and none of them are among the nation's top 14. Stanford wouldn't be ranked if Notre Dame had won Saturday's game, while USC came to South Bend with its most vulnerable team in several years.

All Weis really had to do to keep his job was to beat Navy and Connecticut at home and a Michigan team that finished 5-7. That would have made the Irish 9-3 and given the coach a strong argument to return for a sixth year. Yet he couldn't do that or avoid a disastrous four-game losing streak to end the season despite having one of the best quarterbacks in school history (Jimmy Clausen) and the finest receiving season ever by a Domer (Golden Tate).

Notre Dame's best wins this season were against 8-4 Boston College, 6-6 Michigan State and 4-7 Washington. Not exactly the kind of victories you include in a great moments in history section of the media guide.

Because of all that, as athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Monday night, "you couldn't know with significant certainty that next year's results would be better."

Here's what I think is certain: if Swarbrick hires the right caliber of coach, he'll produce much better results than Weis.

Notre Dame is not the super power it once was, but it's hard to go 3-9, 6-6 and 6-6 in three straight regular seasons in South Bend, as Weis did. Sure, the Irish will lose Clausen and probably Tate, much of their offensive line and several defensive starters. But the cupboard is far from bare.

Dayne Crist, who should return from an ACL injury by the spring, was a highly-rated quarterback recruit who got some valuable experience this year. Star receiver Michael Floyd returns, along with promising youngsters John Goodman and Shaq Evans. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is back, as well as running backs Armando Allen, Robert Hughes and Theo Riddick.

Defensively, the Irish can build around guys like Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and future superstar Manti Te'o, assuming Te'o does not go on his Mormon mission after this season. Yes, the defense needs serious improvement, especially in its tackling, but that's what good coaches do.

Weis got this team close this year but couldn't get over the hump. Ten of Notre Dame's games were decided by a touchdown or less.

Next year, the Irish have Army, Tulsa, Navy and Western Michigan on the schedule and get Purdue and Michigan at home. Those are six winnable games right there.

Weis's failure was in not winning the games he should have won and never winning the games he wasn't expected to win. That's not a very high standard for the next guy to achieve.

Irish lose in far too typical fashion

November, 28, 2009
11/28/09
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Pretty much everything you needed to know about the 2009 Notre Dame season could be learned by watching the 45-38 loss to Stanford.

The Irish offense compiled gaudy stats and pulled off some gorgeous big plays. Charlie Weis dipped into the bag of tricks for a few of those, including the coolest third-quarter sequence: Robert Hughes took the snap from the Wildcat and handed off to Golden Tate, who pitched to Jimmy Clausen, who had been lined up at receiver. Clausen then threw a touchdown to a wide open Michael Floyd.

You score 38 points on the road, and you should win. But, as the story has been so many times under Weis, the offense couldn't overcome a terrible defense.

The Irish actually played fairly well defensively in the first half, but they got worn down by Toby Gerhart and the Stanford running game in the second half. Gerhart had over 200 yards and three touchdowns to make his Heisman case, but the Notre Dame defense makes a lot of players look like superstars. And so an 11-point third-quarter lead turned into yet another close loss that came down to the final play.

Notre Dame had a shot from the Stanford 31 with seven seconds left, but Clausen's heave to the end zone was knocked away.

The Irish were once 6-2 but lost their final four games, all in dramatic fashion, to finish 6-6 for the second straight regular season. Their best hope now is for a low-level postseason destination like the Little Caesar's Bowl in Detroit. Weis was surely done as coach regardless of this outcome; he merely proved it's the right decision. And it was likely the final regular-season game for Clausen and Tate, who sure looked like first-round draft picks on this night.

Notre Dame may have been the most exciting 6-6 team in college football history. But that's not nearly good enough.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Navy missed a field goal at the end of the first half, but that's about the only thing that's gone right for Notre Dame.

The Irish trail 14-0 at the half, and Navy is burning through the clock with its ground game, having attempted only two passes. Notre Dame has had three trips deep into the red zone and has come away with no points, missing two field goals and failing on a fourth-down pass.

Golden Tate has not been involved much, and the Irish are playing without their top two tailbacks. Armando Allen didn't dress, and Robert Hughes left early in the game with an unspecified injury. Freshman Theo Riddick has become the main ball carrier.

Notre Dame certainly has the offense to come back, but it's not going to get a ton of chances because of Navy's style. A loss would be devastating and would end the team's BCS hopes.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

What to watch from Notre Dame in Saturday's home game against Navy:

1. Michael Floyd: Apart from a victory, the No. 1 topic for the Irish this week is the return of receiver Michael Floyd, who broke his collarbone in Week 3 against Michigan State. Floyd likely will be eased into things this week, but he'll be needed next week against Pittsburgh. How does he respond to his first hit, and how quickly can he shake any potential rust off?

2. Stopping the triple-option: That's the challenge for any team playing Navy and its unorthodox offense. The attack becomes more dangerous with quarterback Ricky Dobbs back from injury, as he can run it or throw it. The Irish have injected more speed into their defense, but they're also using some inexperienced players like linebacker Manti Te'o and sophomore Darius Fleming. Will they be able to avoid mistakes against a team that lives to make you pay for missing your assignment?

3. The Notre Dame running game: Navy's defense has been strong this season, but if Notre Dame can't line up and win the battle in the trenches, then something's wrong. Armando Allen didn't play last week and has a bad ankle. Robert Hughes has been chugging along without him. This would be a good week to pound it some on the ground and keep that Navy offense off the field.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Helmet stickers for Notre Dame in the Irish's 40-14 win over Washington State in San Antonio:
  • Golden Tate, WR: Tate had four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown and ran four times for 61 yards and a score. His Hail Mary catch at the end of the first half was one of the highlights of the season.
  • Robert Hughes, RB: Hughes ran 24 times for 131 yards and a score.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


Robert Hughes was kind of the forgotten man in the Notre Dame running back corps to start the year.

Armando Allen had established himself as the No. 1 back, while James Aldridge had moved to fullback. Fans were excited about newcomers Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. Hughes was suspended for the first half of the opener against Nevada, making him more of an afterthought.

 
 Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
 Robert Hughes made several key plays in Notre Dame's win over Washington.
But where would the Fighting Irish be today without Hughes? He took over at fullback when Aldridge hurt his shoulder in the first game, and Hughes became the main ball carrier in last weekend's 37-30 overtime win at Washington. He scored the winning touchdown in that game, as well as the controversial two-point conversion in the fourth quarter that allowed the game to go to overtime in the first place.

"I just did my job, what I was supposed to do," the junior said. "I want to be the guy the team can count on no matter what the situation or the issue is. I want them to know that No. 33 is a guy they can depend on."

Notre Dame had to depend on Hughes as Allen's achy ankle acted up again during the game. Hughes responded with 70 yards on eight carries, including some big runs late when the offense was pinned down near its own goal line. Allen could have gone back in the game but didn't need to.

"Robert had it rocking and rolling," head coach Charlie Weis said. "I certainly wasn't going to take Robert out when we had momentum with him in there."

Forward momentum helped Hughes make maybe the biggest play of the game. After Notre Dame scored to go up 28-27, Hughes took a direct snap on the conversion try and plowed into a pile well short of the goal line. The play looked dead, but he kept chugging until he ended up in the end zone.

Or did he? Replays suggest that Hughes' knee might have been down before he crossed the plane with the ball. There was also some controversy over whether he got some help from his offensive linemen, a la the "Bush Push" play by USC in 2005. Officials threw a flag on the play but then waved it off.

Regardless, credit the 5-foot-11, 234-pound Hughes for giving maximum effort and never giving up on that play.

"My whole mentality was to score, no matter if I had four, five or six guys on me," he said. "I just wanted to keep my feet driving and go as far as I could.

"I was worried that they were going to [blow the play dead]. It's a good thing they didn't because I wasn't down and my feet were still moving. I wanted to tell the refs not to blow a couple of plays dead, because I was still up and moving."

Hughes was a highly ranked recruit who's had a few shots in the past at being the main guy in the backfield. That's probably no longer in the cards for him, but now he's become more than a forgotten man. He's become a valuable and versatile contributor at fullback or tailback.

"Whatever the team needs," he said. "I'm more than willing to do anything."

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


Handing out awards in Notre Dame's 37-30 overtime win over Washington on Saturday:
  • Golden Tate, WR: The junior had nine catches for a career-high 244 yards and a touchdown and added a 31-yard reverse.
  • Jimmy Clausen, QB: Still battling through his turf toe injury, Clausen completed 23-of-31 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception.
  • Robert Hughes, RB: Stepping in for an injured Armando Allen, Hughes ran eight times for 70 yards and the winning touchdown in overtime. He also converted a key two-point try late in the fourth quarter through sheer effort.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis waited to celebrate when he saw the ball pop out of Washington receiver D'Andre Goodwin's hands on the final play of Saturday's game. Weis still worried that it would end up in another Husky's bread basket.

"With the way that game went," Weis said, "would it have surprised you?"

Anything short of Touchdown Jesus coming to life and kicking a winning field goal fails to rate as a surprise at this point with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish seem determined to build their own library full of bad sports movie clichés with every passing game.
 
 Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
 Notre Dame celebrates its overtime victory over Washington on Saturday.


The previous three weeks all came down to the final minute; as with most bloated sequels, they took Vol. 4 to absurd new levels in Saturday's 37-30 overtime win over Washington. It's almost as if they wanted the Huskies to stay in the game the way they kicked five field goals instead of producing touchdowns, and how Jimmy Clausen inexplicably gave away seven points with a lateral pass to nowhere.

Meanwhile, the Irish defense could only stop Washington when it ran out room left to defend. Then it became impenetrable.

Huskies quarterback Jake Locker was stopped twice on sneaks inside the 1 near the end of the third quarter, which was only a prelude to the preposterous fourth-quarter goal-line sequence.

Washington had first-and-goal from the 1, needing a touchdown for a nearly insurmountable two-score lead. Notre Dame made another stand until Ian Williams was called for a bizarre roughing-the-snapper penalty on the field goal try. That gave the Huskies another set of downs from the 1.

"We were thinking, 'They can't score,'" Irish defensive lineman Kerry Neal said. "We worked on goal line all during camp against our own guys."

Sure, but had the defense ever won three straight battles in those practice situations?

"No, not at all," Neal admitted.

Improbably, the Huskies once again failed to reach the end zone and settled for three points. The entire sequence burned nearly five minutes off the clock. But Clausen still had plenty of time to direct a go-ahead touchdown drive for the second straight week.

"We were smiling," receiver Golden Tate said. "We were like, 'Here we go again.'"
 
 AP Photo/Michael Conroy
 Charlie Weis' team has made a habit this season of taking things down to the wire.


After Clausen's touchdown strike to tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Irish went for two for a 30-27 lead. Tailback Robert Hughes was met well short of the goal line but kept chugging forward. He got some assistance from his offensive linemen on a play that was highly reminiscent of the infamous "Bush Push" on this very field in 2005.

Ironically enough, former USC assistants Steve Sarkisian and Nick Holt -- now the Huskies' head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively -- argued that the play should be disallowed. A flag was thrown but then waved off.

You can't make this stuff up.

Winning with a full 1:20 left on the clock would be boring, though. So, of course, Washington drove for a tying field goal in the waning seconds. Notre Dame needed just two plays to score in overtime, then pinned Washington on a third-and-19 thanks to a Neal sack.

Locker's fourth-down fling hit a leaping Goodwin in the paws just in front of the end zone. But safeties Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith sandwiched him in a helmet-freeing slobberknocker.

Exhale. Celebrate.

"A win is a win," linebacker Brian Smith said. "I'll take ugly wins, close wins, 100-point wins -- they all count."

The Irish (4-1) only get one type of win any more: by the slimmest of shamrock leaves. Are they clutch or just lucky?

"There's no way the last three weeks can be attributed to luck," McCarthy insisted. "I think it's the character of this team and the resiliency of this team that allows us to make the play at the end."

As fans filed out of Notre Dame Stadium, rolling cheers filled the concourses. Some started chanting, "Beat SC," already looking forward to the Oct. 17 showdown with Southern Cal. The Irish figure to be a significant underdog.

But, really, would anything surprise you any more about this team?

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