Willingham hopes Irish offense continues improvement against USC

Updated: October 14, 2003, 5:32 PM ET

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham has a simple game plan he hopes will work against No. 5 USC.

"I'm praying for our Purdue passing game and our Pittsburgh running game," Willingham said with a smile Tuesday.

Such an output would surely make Willingham and many Notre Dame fans happy.

The Fighting Irish (2-3) had 297 yards passing against Purdue on Sept. 27 and 352 yards rushing last Saturday against Pitt -- just 13 yards fewer than they had in their first four games combined.

That combination of 649 yards total offense would be Notre Dame's best offensive output since gaining 650 yards in a 54-20 win over Washington in Lou Holtz's final season as Irish coach in 1996.

Willingham isn't expecting that against USC on Saturday, but he would like to see a more balanced offense.

Willingham's oft-stated goal is a 300-yard passing game and a 200-yard rushing game. The closest Notre Dame has come to that in 18 games under Willingham was last season against Rutgers, when the Irish ran for 190 yards and threw for 288 in a 42-0 victory over Rutgers.

That was a week before an embarrassing 44-13 loss to USC that cost Notre Dame a berth in the Bowl Championship Series.

In the seven games since then, the Irish have been held to 100 yards or less rushing five times, going 0-5 in those games. That is why the 352 rushing yards against Pittsburgh, including a school-record 262 yards rushing by Julius Jones, was so important. It gave the Irish a much-needed shot of confidence.

Willingham said Jones and tailback Ryan Grant were determined to play better against Pitt whether there were holes or not.

The line, which underwent a shake-up with Dan Stevenson moving from right tackle to right guard and freshman Ryan Harris taking over at right tackle, used that as motivation, Willingham said.

"I think our line fed on that and our backs fed on the line and it was a very nice cycle for us to create," Willingham said. "Hopefully we can keep creating that type of feeding frenzy where we are doing some very positive things."

Jones credited the offensive line for his record-breaking day.

"They came out and played their best game of the year and showed everybody what they are capable of doing," he said.

Quarterback Brady Quinn said it was just what the Irish offense needed.

"It was just great to see our line pumped up and excited about what we had done," he said.

Part of the problem for Pitt was that it was expecting the Irish to pass more. A game after Quinn, a freshman making his first start, threw 62 passes against Purdue -- the second most in school history -- he threw only 17 passes against Pitt.

Despite the dichotomy of the two games, USC coach Pete Carroll said he believed he knew what to expect Saturday from the Irish.

"The results were a whole lot better this week," he said. "I think they are going to feel very comfortable with the formula that they came up with. They hammered the football with great success and they played great defense."

Surely that would be enough to keep Willingham smiling.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index