Finally, the sons of Notre Dame have marched on to the classic, season-defining, "Fighting Irish-style" win they have so badly needed this season (and likely for much longer). With their head coach constantly on the proverbial hot seat and concerns arising about their high powered offense whose potency and health were in question after a heart-wrenching loss to the University of Michigan two weeks previous, the Irish finally stepped up their game with a hard-nosed and hard-fought victory. And for the first time in years, the Golden Domers once again woke up the faintest inklings of the figurative echoes that whisper softly from the past about glories of yore.
Coming off a stunning victory over the previously #3 ranked USC Trojans last Saturday (16-13), the Washington Huskies were in the middle of a revitalization of their own. Emerging from a Ty Willingham-induced period of utter darkness (a difficulty the Irish know much about) that saw Washington go a dismal 0-12 last season, the Huskies came into South Bend intent on slaying another giant and proving that their previous week's victory was a sign of a return to prominence rather than a mere fluke of fate. The Irish, on the other hand, coming off a disappointing loss to Michigan and a "disappointing" win over Michigan State, were playing to prove their own legitimacy, for the job of their head coach, and for a tradition that has been battered and beaten brutally over the last 15 years.
Each team took the battlefield with profuse amounts of motivation, fire, and talent. And the result was nothing short of an all-out college football war. Both offenses moved the ball and put points on the board. Washington — led by the 6-3, 220-pound junior quarterback Jake Locker (22-40, 281 yards, 1 TD) — actually did most of their damage on the ground. Freshman running back Chris Polk gave the Irish defense fits all day, posting 136 yards on 22 carries. The aforementioned Locker also contributed to the ground game, totaling 33 yards and touchdown.
The Irish, per usual, focused most of their offensive attack on the aerial assault. Jimmy Clausen — who has been Heisman-worthy all season — enjoyed a career day, racking up a ridiculous 422 yards and 2 touchdowns. His favorite target most of the afternoon — Golden Tate — was also outstanding, posting 244 yards and a touchdown in a shocking display of speed, athleticism, and skill. The Irish's offense was unstoppable. But even with their awesome proficiency, poor red zone play calling and a key mistake by Clausen on an errant screen pass/fumble taken back for a touchdown, kept Notre Dame in a dogfight all day long that would be inevitably decided — amidst all the offensive fireworks — by the Irish defense.
When a team surrenders 30 points, it is hard to call their defense dominating. But when the game was truly on the line, it was the stoutness of the Irish D (a unit that has struggled mightily this season) that allowed them to win the game. Down 24-19 late in the third quarter and with Washington on the Notre Dame 1-yard line, the Huskies tried twice to sneak the ball into the endzone with Locker but were turned away by a swarm of Irish defenders for a turnover on downs. Had Notre Dame allowed Washington to score they would have been down 31-19 and found themselves all but out of the game. Instead the defense came through in a massive way, seemingly allowing their offense to decide the fate of the game which is undoubtedly the way Weis would ideally want it.
But again in the 4th quarter Charlie would once again be forced to call on his defense for some goal line and game saving magic (the intangible once snidely called the "luck of the Irish" in better days). With under 12 minutes to play Washington went on a 9:19, 69 yard drive and Notre Dame again found themselves backed up to their goal line, with the Huskies ready to put the game out of reach. The Irish stiffened up, holding on three straight plays and forcing Washington into a field goal situation. But on the attempt, the bizarre and unthinkable happened; a phantom roughing the center penalty.
One of the rarest and most obscure penalties on the books, the result of this anomaly was another set of downs for Washington. But, as the faintness of the echoes wafted over the rain-drenched, fall winds, the Irish defense rose up once again with a resounding defiance that just may actually have shaken down the fabled thunder from the afternoon's blue-grey sky. Holding Washington to a field goal, Notre Dame was still down 27-22 with 2:52 left in the game. But with their offense rolling, the Irish defense fought viciously with a crucial stand to give their star-QB a chance to win the game.
As usual, Clausen didn't disappoint. Driving down the field with purpose, Jimmy promptly dropped a 12-yard TD pass to future pro-stud TE Kyle Rudolph. Grinding running back Robert Hughes added the 2-point conversion to put Notre Dame up 30-27 with only 1:20 left to play.
But that's the thing but about a great college football war. It is never over until the final gun sounds, and here, not even then. Washington added a last second field goal to put the game into over-time, giving the Huskies one last gasp of life, a chance to come out of the corner one last time for one more round.
But relative to the game, over-time would prove anti-climactic. Once again hooking up with Tate for 22 yards on the first play from scrimmage, the Irish then pounded the ball across the goal line with Hughes, needing only two plays and a two-yard penalty to take the lead and put the Huskies on the ropes once again. As tenacious as Washington played the game, by overtime, their "luck" had run out. Putting their fate in the hands of Locker, three incomplete passes and a violent sack would prove their death knell as the Huskies were four-and-done. The ending was quick, but the battle was epic, and the valiant effort by both teams in this instant classic of a game, will not be overlooked (especially by pollsters) or forgotten.