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Originally published September 29, 2009 at 5:31 PM | Page modified September 29, 2009 at 11:31 PM

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The Willingham Bowl: Huskies play at Notre Dame

Notre Dame fans have shifted focus from former coach Tyrone Willingham to his successor, Charlie Weis

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ Notre Dame, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 5

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Notre Dame won't have Tyrone Willingham to kick around one more time this week.

Once upon a time, however, that figured to be the story line for Washington's game at Notre Dame on Saturday — the return of Willingham to South Bend and maybe the last inflaming of the debate over his controversial firing there.

Instead, he was fired at Washington before he was able to become the first former Irish coach to return as coach of an opponent.

Maybe losing out the most in the departure from that script, besides Willingham himself, is his Notre Dame replacement, Charlie Weis.

With Willingham an evermore distant memory — and no presence Saturday to provide a distraction — the focus among Irish fans will remain strictly on Weis, every game serving as something of a referendum on whether he will return for 2010.

"I think going in everybody felt it was a make-or-break year [for Weis]," said Tim Prister, a senior editor for Irish Illustrated. "Make or break meaning you better win at least eight or nine. A 6-6 season would certainly create questions again as to whether he would stick around."

A 6-6 season did just that last year. Weis was left hanging in the wind for a few days before it was announced he would return. A 49-21 rout of Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl seemed to validate the decision, and with the majority of the key players due to return, there were high expectations for this season.

But with Willingham's influence almost completely gone — according to Scout.com, backup linebacker Scott Smith is the only player on the roster who had committed to Willingham — there's no one else to blame when the Irish falter.

As Lou Smogyi, editor of the fan magazine Blue & Gold Illustrated, said: "This is the year where it separates [from blaming Willingham to blaming Weis]."

And as Smogyi says, the results a third into the season have been hard to read. Notre Dame is 3-1, the only loss coming in the final minutes at Michigan. But the past two wins, over struggling Michigan State and Purdue squads, have also not been decided until the final seconds, games Irish fans expected their team to win comfortably.

"It's the classic half-full or half-empty type of debate," said Smogyi, noting that last year, Notre Dame lost several such down-to-the-wire games. "You can say they are progressing and these are games they would have lost last year. But then it's like, 'Wait a second. Is that the standard we are using for progress?' Whatever happened to Notre Dame coming out and dominating?"

Weis, in his weekly news conference Tuesday, had a glass more than half-full, saying "the last two weeks have been valuable lessons" in how to win close games.

What also helps Weis is that he is in charge of the offense, which is vastly improved, ranking 15th in the nation, averaging 455 yards led by a dynamic passing attack featuring junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

The defense has been another matter, ranked 94th overall (389.8 yards) and 106th against the pass (259.2).

But with 19 of the 24 expected starters (including kickers) due to return in 2010, Weis can at least point to the future as bright.

An ability to bring in talent — his first three full classes were each generally considered among the top 10 in the country — is what Weis' defenders have clung to through tough times.

They also for the past two years could point to Willingham's failings in that area for digging a hole that Weis had trouble escaping.

Willingham's 2004 class was among the lowest-rated in school history, and the truncated 2005 class also didn't yield much.

"It was almost like self-sanctioned probation," said Smogyi.

Interestingly, some see parallels in the way Willingham left Notre Dame's roster and the way he left Washington's. At each place, his successor found a top-flight young QB — Brady Quinn at Notre Dame, Jake Locker at UW — and other good talent at skill positions. But depth on the lines was lacking. The offensive line has been cited as a particular problem at Notre Dame recently.

Weis wanted no part of a question Tuesday on that topic, but UW coach Steve Sarkisian gave an answer that indicated the argument has some merit.

"We're obviously very talented at the skill-position spots," he said. "We've got some nice, young receivers and obviously got a very good quarterback in Locker and got a nice, young tailback, and that's obviously a tribute to Ty and his ability to identify talent and bring those guys in here," Sarkisian said. "But I also know we've got a lot of work to do in finding depth on our 'O' and 'D' lines and at our linebacker positions."

Weis parlayed that skill-position talent at Notre Dame into seasons of 9-3 and 10-3 his first two seasons, earning a 10-year contract extension.

But when Quinn and several others left after the 2006 season, many predicted a drop-off. Few, however, figured it would go as steep as it did with records of 3-9 and 7-6.

And critics note that Weis' 32-22 overall record (59.2 percent) is barely better than Willingham's 21-15 (58.3 percent) that got him fired after just three seasons.

But with present matters more urgent, no one bothers much with the Willingham debate any more.

"It's now all Charlie Weis' team, it's his recruits," said Prister. "Any blame now is all on Weis."

Notes

• Sarkisian said before practice that LB E.J. Savannah might play Saturday, calling it a game-time decision.

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