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Details bode well for Irish

Bill Brink | Monday, September 15, 2008

For perspective, a little comparison.

Points Notre Dame scored in the first two games of last year: 13. This year: 56.

Rushing yards for Notre Dame in the first two games of last year: negative eight. This year: 218.

Sacks Notre Dame allowed through the first two games of last year: 15. This year: none.

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen said the improved protection made a “huge” difference this season and was quick to show his appreciation.

“I told the offensive linemen in the locker room, I said, “Pick a place you want to go to dinner. I’m buying this week,” he said after the game. “I’m giving them a bonus.”

A bonus they, as well as the rest of the Irish, deserve.

The win over Michigan said with actions what Irish coach Charlie Weis has been preaching with words – fears about last season are through. Any thoughts of a repeat of last year’s season can be debunked. This team is different, the attitude upbeat, the offense able, the defense tough.

But before we proclaim all ties to 2007 severed, some qualifications exist. Notre Dame played poorly against an injured San Diego State team and won on the strength of one good quarter of football. It also beat a Michigan team that fumbled seven times and is in its first year running a spread offense.

The question to ask now is: Can the Irish maintain this early success? Why Notre Dame beat Michigan is obvious, but to find why it has the opportunity to continue to win, to erase any lingering doubt from last season, you have to delve a little deeper.

Just before the end of the first quarter, Clausen threw a swing pass to Robert Hughes for a loss of three yards. It was a lousy play. Hughes was in double coverage and Clausen was under pressure. But what’s telling about the play is what Clausen didn’t do.

Michael Floyd lined up on the right side with David Grimes in the slot. After the snap, Clausen looked to Floyd, whose route took him downfield, but Floyd was covered. He turned and checked Grimes, who ran over the middle, but the defense had Grimes covered as well. Finally, he looked left, to Hughes, and completed the pass.

Clausen went through his reads and looked off his receivers, something he had trouble with against San Diego State. He didn’t stare down one receiver or try to force the ball into coverage. He understood his progressions and avoided mistakes.

Two plays later, Clausen’s head followed Floyd all the way down the right sideline. It also followed his pass as it was intercepted. Oops.

But that’s where Notre Dame is right now. One aspect of the team doesn’t dominate. Clausen can throw interceptions, but he knows the defense has his back. The defense can allow Wolverines running back Sam McGuffie to run all over the field, but it knows the offense will score points. The offense may fail to move the ball, but no matter, because David Bruton and Mike Anello have punt coverage locked down.

“We made some big plays on special teams and offense and defense, and I think at this stage of our program I think it’s important that we play a complementary football game,” Weis said. “As long as we show up every week and get some plays out of all three elements, I think that gives us a chance.”

Another example of Notre Dame’s advances this season: the running game. Michigan allowed 1.1 yards per carry in the first two games of the season, and in the second-half downpour there was no secret Notre Dame would run. Yet Hughes rushed for 79 yards on 19 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, and two touchdowns.

“[Notre Dame] did a nice job blocking,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said.

The running game led to the success of the play-action pass, a third reason Notre Dame can shake off last season. Two plays in a row in the first quarter, Clausen play-faked and threw downfield. The first, to Floyd, was incomplete, but the secondary bit on the play fake; only a pass interference prevented a catch. On the next play, the secondary was fooled on the play-action again, but this time they weren’t so lucky. Clausen hit Golden Tate over the middle, 21-0 Irish.

Two games don’t define a season, nor can they reveal every strength and weakness the team has. But there was hope hidden in the mud Saturday, and should the Irish continue to display that hope, they’re back, and they’re good.

“The rest of the world can do whatever they want to, looking at 2007, but this team is moving forward,” Clausen said.

In a race to outrun the stigma of last season, it looks like 2007 is out of sight.

Contact Bill Brink at

wbrink@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.