It may not be enough to wake up the oft-referenced "echoes," but #23 Notre Dame's 35-0 domination of Nevada to open their season on Saturday was crucial towards getting the long-struggling program back on track and in dictating a future that will include current head-coach Charlie Weis.
The Irish were expected to win the game — as the 14 point spread would indicate — but Irish fans and those involved in the program could scarcely have expected an exhibition of perfection as demonstrated by Notre Dame in every aspect of the sport.
The offense was machine-like and the defense was stifling, totally blowing out and shutting down a potentially troubling Wolf Pack team led by highly athletic, 6'6, quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The nation was given its first true glimpse of the tangible materialization of the project that Weis has been conceptualizing and lauding for the past four years. While his squads with Quinn and Samardzija were talented, Saturday's game was the first time that the Irish have been populated with Weis' recruits running Weis' offense, with Charlie himself calling the plays. And while the Wolf Pack is hardly the metric by which to project whether a team will be playing in the BCS or not, one look at the box score of this contest clearly demonstrates that this Irish team possesses a real potentiality to achieve some lofty goals this season.
Junior QB Jimmy Clausen was expectedly at the forefront of the Irish's offensive barrage. Each year some of the nation's best teams and QBs succumb to opening game jitters, struggling against "tune-up" teams to shed the rust accumulated each offseason. Clausen, though, was in mid-season form from the first snap of the game. Enjoying outstanding protection from a much matured offensive line, Jimmy came out of the gates throwing darts, completing 10 out of his first 11 passes for 184 yards and 3 touchdowns to start the game.
In the second half, number 7 picked up right where he left off, finishing 15-18 for 315 yards and 4 touchdowns. The junior QB — whom many feel has nearly as much riding on the fortunes of the Irish this season as Weis — showed off his strong arm, precise accuracy, and most importantly his intelligence for the position, indicating he may have finally combined all the tools necessary to run Weis' demanding offensive schemes. While the opposition will get tougher quickly, Clausen looks to have finally harnessed his wealth of raw talent and assimilated those attributes into effectiveness running the same system that made cerebral QBs Tom Brady and Brady Quinn stars on their respective levels under Weis's tutelage.
On the receiving end of the majority of Clausen's work was 6-3, 220 pound speedster Michael Floyd. While his counterpart Golden Tate received most of the hype this offseason the sophomore Floyd is immensely talented, capable of using his size, speed, and agility to totally hijack a game.
Floyd was a man amongst boys on Saturday, pulling in 4 of Clausen's passes for a whopping 189 yards and three touchdowns. Michael provided Clausen with a fast and tall target downfield, a tool the quarterback fully utilized most notably on a 70-yard touchdown connection in the 2nd quarter, the third longest pass play in Notre Dame football history. And while it was Clausen making the throws, it was Floyd's amazing ability to pull in receptions with a defender in his face, all while maintaining his balance to collect yards after the catch, that made this prolific connection possible the entire game.
Notre Dame has their first real test of the season next week against historical rival the University of Michigan. While U. of M. has struggled mightily in recent seasons they too dominated their "tune-up" game against Western Michigan on Saturday, and look poised to improve upon their dismal three-win 2008 campaign. But while the Michigan squad is hampered by a number of glaring weaknesses and issues (their inability to pick a starting QB not the least of them), Notre Dame is seemingly perfectly constructed to finally, truly, make their much fabled, never materializing, rise back to national prominence.
To Irish fans and haters alike, the idea that Notre Dame will ever compete on a level with the likes of USC or Florida again (with their tough academic standards and lack of settings for a Girls Gone Wild video) seems like a pipe-dream after so many years of frustration and failure. But watching this team in action, and seeing the real and extreme talent that the squad possesses, one gets the distinct impression that there in an intrinsic difference between those upstart-flukes (like Ty Willingham's 10-2 2002 squad) and this collection of men.
On an opening day for college football when Navy put up 27 points on Ohio State and almost won the game in the process, it is hard to completely write off Notre Dame's shutout of Nevada to the Wolf Pack's ineptitude. After many seasons of disappointment few Irish fans will use this win to signify anything beyond a satisfying victory but the team's performance on both sides of the ball, and specifically the emergence of the Clausen/Floyd connection, indicates that those top 10 recruiting classes Weis has been gathering in the past few years may finally be starting to pay dividends on the football field.