Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Washington State

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As the Irish ran into the locker room at halftime, still celebrating the incredible Hail Mary grab Golden Tate made over three Washington State defenders, it was clear that tonight’s game wasn’t going to be like the rest of them. The Irish slogged their way through the second half, cruising comfortably to a 40-14 victory over the inexperienced and over-matched Cougars.

Over 53,000 fans came out to the first of the highly publicized (and scrutinized) neutral site home games, and most of the fans in the Alamodome didn’t leave disappointed. While nobody will mistake San Antonio and the fast field turf for South Bend and the slow natural turf, the Irish offense and defense looked at home surrounded by Irish fans, and much quicker and physical superior to their counterparts.

Here’s what we learned on this Halloween night:

1) Golden Tate is a man possessed.

Tate’s catch on the last-second, first-half Hail Mary shows just how confident the junior wide receiver is on the football field. Tate skied over three Cougars, pried the ball away from them, and simply willed the ball away from everyone. We’ve come to expect heroics and excitement from Tate, but the 5-foot-11 receiver leaping over three defenders in a single bound? Apparently #23 dressed up as Superman for Halloween, writing another chapter in this storybook season. If Tate was sixth in the straw poll among Heisman voters, he’s got to have moved up a few more spots after his performance tonight. While he still hasn’t been able to make a big play as a punt returner, Tate was electric will the ball in his hands tonight as a runner from the Wildcat and as a receiver getting constant double coverage. With Michael Floyd most likely returning next week, the Irish offense could reach a new stratosphere.

2) Injuries will stay a part of the story.

Charlie Weis kept Armando Allen out of uniform and Robby Parris off the field as both were one good week of rest away from being fully healthy. Yet the Irish had three significant injuries today. Jimmy Clausen aggravated his turf toe, and while Weis said after the game that Clausen could have come back in if it was needed, he still hobbled off the field before he was quite ready to go. The injury to starting right guard Trevor Robinson looked more serious. Robinson was in street clothes and on crutches in the second half, and while he looked in good spirits, you never like seeing something like that. The worst of the night, was the injury to backup quarterback Dayne Crist. It looked very ugly as the sophomore quarterback was tackled awkwardly and had his leg buckle twice as he went down. Crist fumbled the ball as he fell in obvious agony, and was escorted into the locker room right after he left the field. He’ll have an MRI Monday on his left knee.

3) The defense earned some much deserved confidence.

Nobody should be happier than Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown. Questioned for the last several weeks for the weak play of the defense and secondary, the Irish turned in an impressive performance shutting down the passing game of Washington State, which actually was coming off a decent performance. Freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel looked very much the part of a deer in headlights, running for his life, getting hit early and often, and throwing for a poor completion percentage, only 4.5 yards per attempt, and two interceptions. Tuel was sacked five times, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, and Steve Filer all contributed big plays in the Cougars back field, and the coverage was much better. Obviously, Washington State is one of the worst offenses in Division I football, but it’s a step in the right direction.

4) Eric Maust should be punting next week.

Ben Turk seems like a good kid, but he can’t be the punter for Notre Dame next week. Even after booming a 49-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the 2 yard-line, Turk still averaged 33 yards a kick, shanking an 11-yarder and moon-shotting a 19-yarder in his five attempts. Regardless of what happens during the midweek competition, Weis needs to go to Maust, because Turk is clearly battling the demons of punting with the stadium lights on. With Maust you’ve got a two-sport athlete that has been in big games before as a punter and a pitcher, and on his 14 kicks this season he’s averaging a shade under 40 yards, a significant improvement on the 35.7 that Turk is averaging on his 13 punts.

5) The Irish need to win out.

If Notre Dame has any illusions of a big-time bowl game, they need to win out. Notre Dame’s two losses this season just got significantly uglier, with Michigan getting stomped by a down-trodden Illinois team, and USC losing by 27 points and getting embarrassed by Oregon in Autzen Stadium. Yet all the statistical regressions run won’t matter at all if the Irish take care of business and win the month of November. Notre Dame’s four games — against Navy, at Pitt, UConn, and at Stanford — will give the Irish the opportunity to be one of the hottest teams going into bowl season. Tonight’s victory should give the Irish confidence going into the stretch run, and with teams like Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, and South Carolina losing, should bump Notre Dame into a spot where a five game winning streak will have them looking very attractive to a BCS selection committee, especially with the return of Notre Dame’s other All-American wide receiver Michael Floyd.