The Irish and their embattled coach have survived yet another Saturday involving a too-close-for-comfort win over an opponent that — on a paper at least — is theoretically inferior to the '09 version of the Fighting Irish. With a hobbled Jimmy Clausen and without star running back Armando Allen Jr. Notre Dame rallied in the final seconds of the game to beat the unranked Boilermakers 24-21. And while Clausen, without a doubt, did his best "Joe Montana/Willis Reed" impersonation, the reality is that this is a team that continues to under-perform.
Watching this squad — even in victory — one cannot help but get the feeling that another frustrating, upseting, disappointing, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, embarrassing….you get the point….loss is right around the corner.
But let's try to put the cynicism aside for a second and take a look at the Irish's gutsy performance Saturday. With the injured Clausen and the inexperienced Dayne Crisp running the offense, Notre Dame largely took to the ground game, a move both out of character for the team's current incarnation and simply suspiring considering, as previously mentioned, the Irish were without their leading rusher Armando Allen Jr.
But on the cool, breezy night in West Lafayette, Charlie Weis' strategy worked…. just barely. The big load grinder, Robert Hughes (Junior) led the way, picking up 68 yards (4.5/carry) and a touchdown. More creatively, receiver/flanker Golden Tate (a former high school running back) did his best "Rocket Ismail" impression, handling 9 carries — mostly out of the recently-implemented Wildcat formation — for 55 yards (6.1/carry) and a touchdown of his own. Add on his five catches for 57 yards (for 112 all-purpose yards) and it is clear that it will be Tate who will step into the role as Clausen's main offensive weapon in Michael Floyd's absence. Before the season is out, both Clausen (if he can get healthy) and "The Golden One" will likely both be competing for the Heisman Trophy.
The passing game for the Irish was less effective than the ground game, which was largely the reason this game was so close. Jimmy Clausen — showing obvious effects from the turf toe that has plagued him all week — posted his lowest totals of the season, going 15-of-26 for 171 yards (his first sub-300 yard passing game this year), one touchdown, and one interception. He looked best on short passing situations, including the signature Irish screen plays, but had trouble combining accuracy and strength downfield due to his altered mechanics, obviously from mere observation caused by the injury.
Dayne Crist saw less time behind center but was effective in his limited role. While Crist was in the game the Irish focused mostly on the ground game, playing a hard-nosed, ball control style of offense. But when Dayne was allowed to throw he looked strong, completing 5-of-10 for 45 yards. He also had 4 carries for 16 yards, as speed, quickness, and vision in his ground game are major notable strengths of the young QB. While this stat line is not an argument to displace Clausen, at least the Irish can be assured that if Jimmy does miss time to this injury the quarterback position will be in capable handling the offense.
The game between these traditional, intrastate rivals was a battle from start to finish. The Irish scored early as usual and held a 17-7 lead into the 4th quarter. But with Notre Dame's offense struggling in the final frame, and Purdue running their high-octane offense to great effect and benefiting from repeatedly good field position, the Irish found themselves down 21-17 with only 3:41 left in the ball game.
And that's when Clausen broke into his best Montana-impression (not quite the '79 Cotton Bowl but still). Starting at his own 28, Jimmy (who pleaded his way back into the game) led the Irish on a deliberate march downfield with a veteran-like authority. The junior QB completed 5-of-9 passes on the drive, the last one finding future-professional tight end Kyle Rudolph in the end zone, giving Notre Dame a 3-point lead at 24-21, and leaving Purdue with but 24 seconds to attempt a prayer that would not be answered. Once again the Irish were victorious, once again their talent and depth proved impressive despite questionable coaching decisions, and yet much like last week, there feels like very little reason to celebrate a nerve-rattling win against an unranked team that lost 28-21 to Northern Illinois one week previous.
It is the caveat to Clausen's heroics being solely credited for the outcome of this game, i.e. the poor coaching by Charlie Weis' (as usual lately) and Purdue coach Danny Hope. With 42 seconds to go in the game, the Irish — deep into Purdue territory and down four points — decided to inexplicably run the football even though they were out of timeouts The Notre Dame offense, of course, was thrown into total disarray when Robert Hughes was stuffed short of the goal line as the clock continued to run down on Notre Dame's lifeline. The Irish scrambled wildly to get to the line of scrimmage for a spike as they were, as previously mentioned, out of timeouts hence without any way to stop time's progression towards defeat. But then all of a sudden, like a blessing from Touchdown Jesus, the "luck of the Irish" resurfaced, and time just froze.
Purdue coach Danny Hope inexplicably decided to call a timeout of his own, stopping the clock for the Irish, and allowing them to take their time in setting up the final play that would prove to be the Boilermakers' demise. A huge victory on a variety of levels for Wise and a hard-nosed, resourceful performance by Clausen and especially his offensive line (that dominated the trenches Saturday night).
But again, with all the talent at their disposal, the Irish coaching is brought into question, even on a day of victory. Weis and company's decisions nearly cost the Irish another win and this is a practice that is becoming borderline habitual for the Belichick-disciple.
One has to wonder whether Weis needed to pay closer attention in the meetings during all those years spent with the Patriots because mistakes like the ones he has been displaying regularly would definitely not fly on Charlie's former staff. Without the Purdue coaching staff committing an even bigger bungle than Weis could manage, even Clausen's late-game heroics may not have been enough to save what's left of the Irish's season and their lingering chances of a BCS birth.Powered by Sidelines