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Irish Insider: Learning from the past

Matt Gamber | Thursday, October 15, 2009

He was once compared to Joe Namath, Dan Marino, John Elway and Tom Brady in the same Sports Illustrated article – which was written, by the way, when he was a high school junior – but Jimmy Clausen didn’t look much like those NFL greats after throwing for just 41 yards in Notre Dame’s 38-3 thrashing at the hands of Southern Cal last Nov. 5.

“For myself, I think that was probably one of the lowlights of being here at Notre Dame,” said Clausen, who had plenty of them in his first two tumultuous seasons as the Irish quarterback.

But since that 12-for-21, two interception performance, nothing – not coaching uncertainty, a bowl game in Hawaii, a heartbreaking loss to Michigan, an injury to a top receiver, an inconsistent defense or a troublesome toe ailment – has been able to slow down Notre Dame’s junior gunslinger.

“After that game against USC, we took a step forward and never wanted to look back,” Clausen said in an exclusive interview with The Observer Tuesday. “We’re just looking forward to getting out there on Saturday.”

After a near-perfect Hawaii Bowl performance to finish last season, Clausen has positioned himself this year as a Heisman Trophy front-runner by throwing for 1,544 yards and 12 touchdowns while leading the nation in pass efficiency at 179.3, throwing only two interceptions and guiding No. 25 Notre Dame back into the rankings with a 4-1 start.

That’s the what. The when is even more impressive.

Clausen has thrown for 396 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in the fourth quarter this season, and he has led fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown drives that began with less than four minutes to play in two consecutive Irish victories.

“I had never really had had a drive to go down there and win the game [until Purdue on Sept. 26],” Clausen told The Observer. “Going down at the last second when your team is looking at you and needs you to make plays down the stretch is something that quarterbacks live for.”

It was also something Clausen’s head coach and teammates needed to see.

“That was a moment where his career might have changed on that drive,” coach Charlie Weis said in his Tuesday press conference. “Because it showed the team a toughness that, you know, the team has to witness that, and it was visible to his teammates and our fans and everyone else. I think that was a turning point for Jimmy Clausen.”

It was a turning point that most thought might come much sooner in the career of a player once tabbed the LeBron James of football. But the hype and fanfare with which Clausen entered college – including the verbal commitment he gave the Irish in a much talked-about announcement at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend – is something the older, wiser, 22-year-old can only shake his head at now.

Observer File Photo ©2007

“I thought I could come in and start playing right away, but it’s just a totally different level playing college from high school,” Clausen said. “I think I prepared myself, and my family and the people that surrounded me prepared me as best as they could, but you just have to experience [the transition]. You can’t just come in and get thrown in there and expect to be where I am now. It’s a learning process, and I’ve grown since Day 1.”

That learning process wasn’t always a pleasant one, as Clausen was battered by opposing defenses, fans and the media alike during a frustrating 3-9 2007 campaign. He started nine games and showed glimpses of the player who never lost in 42 career starts at Oaks Christian (Calif.) H.S., but like the rest of the Irish squad, Clausen battled inconsistency in throwing seven touchdowns and six interceptions.

Despite the pain of Clausen’s freshman season, he said nothing has helped his team reach the highs of 2009 more than the lows of 2007.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that’s helped this team, getting beat down as much as we did my freshman year,” Clausen said. “It’s something that you can’t practice, can’t ask for. You just had to take it, and now we’ve grown so much from that and learned a lot from it.”

Clausen’s progression isn’t lost on his teammates, many of whom understand the tremendous amount of pressure that was quickly and unfairly placed upon Clausen’s shoulders – especially on a 2007 team with question marks at nearly every position.

“It’s really tough for a freshman to come in anywhere and be successful right away,” said junior Golden Tate, Notre Dame’s leading receiver. “The media and other people took shots at him, but as you see the kid grow, especially this year, he’s doing a wonderful job leading the offense and making plays. He’s definitely a dependable guy.”

Clausen has become the unquestioned leader of the offense, and as the offense goes, so goes Notre Dame. Weis has said on numerous occasions that when Clausen has the ball at the end of the game, as he has each of the last two weeks, he feels confident the Irish will win – as they have the last two weeks.

“When he’s out there, the guys expect good things to happen, and he expects good things from his teammates,” Weis said Tuesday. “And I think if you are there in the huddle in practice every day, it’s just different. His expectations for his own play are through the roof, but his expectations for the performance of his teammates has risen everyone’s level.”

Clausen’s presence as the commander of the huddle is what has allowed him to emerge as one the nation’s best quarterbacks.

There weren’t many who ever doubted his physical ability when healthy. The 6-foot-3, 223-pounder boasts the prototypical size, a rocket arm and technically sound delivery that have made scouts salivate since junior high school. But as the Irish lost five of seven games following a 4-1 start last season, some outside the program pointed to Clausen for not emerging as the team’s leader.

That all seemingly changed on Christmas Eve, when Clausen led a dominating Hawaii Bowl performance that gave Notre Dame momentum heading into a critical offseason. And since then, Clausen’s arrow has been pointing constantly upward.

“You see it on a daily basis now. Jimmy is a competitor, he’s a tough guy, he’s a fighter, he’s a worker, and he’s a great leader for our team” said quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus, who himself dealt with lofty expectations similar to those bestowed upon Clausen as a highly touted Irish quarterback. “He had all those qualities in him, and now it’s all coming out.”

As vaunted as the Trojans defense is, most seem to believe the offense, at the very least, will keep the Irish in the game. And Weis said Tuesday he has noticed a level of confidence far beyond the ones he saw heading into the past two USC games, which Notre Dame lost by a combined score of 76-3. Despite the daunting task ahead of the Irish, though, there is an undeniable level of excitement brewing for Saturday’s game, both around campus and in the locker room.

“This is the type of game that everyone wants to play in,” Clausen said. “USC and Notre Dame, a big rivalry, a real big game for us.”

And a real big stage for Notre Dame’s latest Heisman candidate, who predictably downplayed the attention he’s received in recent weeks as his numbers continue to impress and those of the preseason favorites – Florida’s Tim Tebow, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Texas’ Colt McCoy – fail to blow anyone out of the water.

“All the adversity that this team’s went through, I went through, Coach Weis went through, it’s good to be in the limelight a little bit on the good side,” Clausen said. “But all we’re worried about is Saturday against USC and coming out with a victory.”

If the Irish can pull that off, it very well could send the Heisman hoopla to an even greater level by giving Clausen a signature win over a top-ranked team Notre Dame hasn’t beaten in its last seven tries.

“I think if Jimmy were to ever win that award it will mean that we won a lot of games,” Weis said. “If he wins that because we played great, because he played great, sign me up.”