In the end, it was the Irish marching down the field, attempting to steal away a football game that had already slipped out of their grasp. With Jimmy Clausen clearly hobbled and nowhere near 100 percent, he gimped his way back onto the field, intent on settling some unfinished business.
With a 4th and goal, and the season on the line, Clausen found Kyle Rudolph on a special out in the left-side of the endzone with just 24 seconds left. The very same pattern and corner of the endzone that Tate Forcier found Greg Matthews to break the Irish’s hearts in Ann Arbor.
But the Irish escape with a win on a wild day of college football. On a day where highly ranked teams took missteps across the board, the Irish walked into a hostile environment with their best running back, wide receiver, and quarterback out or incredibly gimpy and found a way to win. Here’s what we learned today:
1) The Irish can find ways to win.
For the first time this season, Notre Dame willed its way to victory. Content to play against the clock as the second half started, head coach Charlie Weis made the decision to play to win the game. (Ask Herm Edwards if you don’t get my drift.) He went ultra-conservative on offense, content to run the ball and the clock either out of the Wildcat with Golden Tate, or hand the ball off with backup quarterback Dayne Crist. The plan worked, until defensive deficiencies saw Purdue force the Irish to respond. And the most promising part of the victory tonight was that the Irish did. Whether it was punter Eric Maust stepping up, Golden Tate running and catching the ball, or the improved coverage of the secondary, the Irish found a way to win the football game. It may not be the signature win people wanted, but it’s a victory that Charlie Weis and the team should savor.
2) Notre Dame finally has depth
With the Irish looking at 3rd down and 14 from the Purdue 36 and needing a touchdown, Clausen fired a laser to wide receiver Robby Parris, who converted with a 15-yard gain. A huge catch by Notre Dame’s fourth wide receiver. That’s the type of depth Weis is building, and that’s why he’s one of the best recruiters in the country. Eight different players caught passes, including former walk-on tight end Bobby Burger. The secondary rolled guys in, with great plays being made by Gary Gray, Darrin Walls, and Sergio Brown. And the running game barely lost a beat with Robert Hughes running hard, along with Jonas Gray, Theo Riddick, and quarterback Dayne Crist.
3) Jimmy Clausen is really good.
Many Irish fans are taking for granted #7. While he hasn’t delivered back-to-back national championships, or turned those high school championship rings into BCS appearances, Jimmy Clausen is the unquestioned leader of this offense, and one of the best quarterbacks in the country. His final drive should stand the test of time and be praised for what it was: a tremendously gutsy performance by one of the best quarterbacks to play for Notre Dame. While his 15 of 26 for 171 yards won’t have him moving up anyone’s Heisman ballots, the difference between Clausen, who couldn’t even take a snap under center, and Crist, who looks like a wild stallion still needed to be broken, is night and day.
4) Sam Young’s needs to get it together.
Too often we heard Sam Young’s name tonight. Procedure penalties, a holding call on a screen pass, and blown blocking assignments is befuddling. Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman needs to start playing like it. Most were hoping last week was an aberration, but Young did nothing to show that he understands what he means to this offensive front. The hulking tackle’s talent is clear to everybody, but the lack of recognition between the ear-pads is what’s troubling.
5) The defense still needs to get back to the basics.
Once again, the Irish make an average quarterback look very good. Joey Elliott threw for 289 easy yards and 3 TDs. Too often Elliott rolled out to find a wide-open receiver sitting at 8-to-10 yards. The Irish made Keith Smith look like a star, missing tackles on him and running back Ralph Bolden with regularity. And while most of us will only remember Clausen’s late game heroics, the defensive’s mental breakdown on Purdue’s last offensive play, where Jaycen Taylor ran 38 yards without anyone coming within five yards of him, is yet another communication breakdown for Jon Tenuta’s defense. While ND did a better job at stuffing the run, there is still plenty of work to be done.