Football: Devoured by the Lions
Chris Khorey | Sunday, September 9, 2007
STATE COLLEGE, Penn. For the second straight muggy Saturday, Notre Dame’s offense was sluggish.
And for the second straight week, its defense wilted in the heat in the fourth quarter.
The Irish were competitive early, but couldn’t move the ball consistently in falling to 0-2 with a 31-10 road loss to No. 14/15 Penn State (2-0) Saturday.
“Obviously, on offense, we weren’t doing enough to protect a defense that was, for three quarters, playing their butts off,” Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said.
The Irish mustered just 144 total yards, including netting 0 rushing yards, in the first career start for freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Notre Dame earned just nine first downs and was 2-for-16 converting third downs. The offensive line also allowed six sacks.
“We’ve been trying different things and trying different personnel groups, but the production just isn’t there,” Weis said. “Maybe we need to reduce what we do and try to find some things we can hang our hat on and do them.”
Individually, Clausen completed 17-of-32 passes for 144 yards and an interception.
“I’m not doing cartwheels, but I’m not displeased either,” Weis said of his quarterback’s performance.
Notre Dame looked initially improved on offense behind the freshman, taking the opening kickoff and going 48 yards in 11 plays, but missing a 50-yard field goal by Nate Whitaker.
“We opened up the game well,” fifth-year senior center John Sullivan said. “We came out, we didn’t put any points on the board, but there were some positive things we can take from that.”
After that the Irish stalled for the remainder of the first half, earning just one first down.
Notre Dame did get on the board first, however. Sophomore cornerback Darrin Walls intercepted a deep pass by Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli and ran it back seventy yards to score the Irish touchdown of the season – and give them their first lead of the year.
Nittany Lion running back Austin Scott fumbled at his own 46 on Penn State’s next possession, but a false start penalty and a sack left Notre Dame with no points from the drive.
It was a missed opportunity the Irish would regret.
The Lions tied the game with 52 seconds left in the first quarter, as wide receiver Derrick Williams returned an Irish punt 78 yards for a touchdown. Williams appeared to be hemmed in by Irish defensive backs Terrail Lambert and David Bruton, but he juked his way out of trouble and zig-zagged his way down the field for the score.
“The other guys on the touchdown return did a great job,” Williams said. “I had the easy part of just running. One thing that the coaches always stress is just getting the ball down the field. I just tried to make something happen.”
Seven minutes later, after forcing Notre Dame to punt out of its own endzone, Penn State took the lead with the game’s first offensive touchdown. The Nittany Lions got the ball at midfield and proceeded to score on seven play drive.
The capper on a 10-yard pass from Morelli to wide receiver Jordan Norwood, who caught the ball at the five and dove into the endzone.
Morelli finished the game 12-of-22 passing for 131 yards with that touchdown and the interception by Walls.
The Lions fumbled in their own territory again late in the half, but again the Irish couldn’t take advantage of it – this time because time ran out before they could score and leaving the tally at 14-7 at halftime.
Weis said Notre Dame was happy to go into halftime just one score down.
“After last week’s performance, we wanted to make sure we went into the half with a chance to win the game,” he said.
Penn State cornerback A.J. Wallace returned the second half kickoff 68 yards, sending the home crowd into a frenzy, but the Irish defense stiffed. Running back Austin Scott was stuffed on third and one at the Notre Dame 18 yard line and the Lions had to settle for a field goal by Kevin Kelly.
Notre Dame got back within a touchdown after safety Tom Zbikowski returned a Penn State punt 47 yards down to the seven. Notre Dame couldn’t punch it in as two Clausen passes fell incomplete, but freshman Brandon Walker split the uprights to make the score 17-10.
The Lions answered right back, starting with the game’s first big offensive play by either team – a 51 yard pass from Morelli to wide receiver Chris Bell to get the ball down to the Irish eight yard line. After a sack and a stuffed running play, it looked like the Notre Dame defense would keep Penn State out of the endzone, but on third and goal from the nine fifth-year senior cornerback Ambrose Wooden was called for pass interference.
Scott scored two plays later to put his team by 14.
After yet another three-and-out by Notre Dame, Penn State broke the game wide open with a 10-pay, 62- yard drive on all running plays, capped by a five-yard touchdown run by Scott.
“If you don’t start getting first downs and keeping your defense off the field, once you get to the fourth quarter, you start to wear down a little bit,” Weis said.
Penn State finished the game with 295 yards of total offense, including 164 on the ground. Scott led the rushing attack with 28 carries for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Down 31-10 late in the game, the Irish offense switched to the no-huddle and looked briefly sharp, going 65 yards in nine plays, including a 35 yard pass from Clausen to sophomore Robbie Parris.
But Notre Dame couldn’t get the ball into the endzone when the freshman’s pass on fourth and goal from the ten ricocheted off Parris’ hands and was intercepted.
Weis said even though the Irish didn’t score, the drive was important for Clausen’s confidence.
“If you think about the grand scheme of things, you want the kid to leave with a decent taste in his mouth,” his said. “At least he could leave the field at the end of game with those last couple drives, even though they didn’t end up with points, feeling that he was doing better.”