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One drive can change it all

Jay Fitzpatrick | Monday, September 29, 2008

At halftime on Saturday, Irish head coach Charlie Weis told his team that the most important drive of the game – and the season – was the opening one of the second half. He said it would define the team’s season after an uneven first half and a loss the week before.

“That game could obviously have gone either way at that point.  For us to be able to take the ball right down the field and score, it kind of put us, you know, with the momentum in our favor and carried it through right into the fourth quarter,” he said.

And fortunately for Weis, his team responded.

The Irish scored just over two minutes into the half off a 16-yard touchdown run by sophomore tailback Armando Allen – the team’s first touchdown in the third quarter this season.

But Notre Dame did not stop there. The Irish scored twice more in the quarter to push their lead to 35-21 going into the final 15 minutes.

This is how you can be confident that this team is nowhere near last year.

Notre Dame had only eight first downs in the first half and only carried the ball 14 times for 62 yards, but understood that the offense needed to jump start the Irish going into the second half.

“It was definitely an important drive [to start the third quarter],” Irish guard Eric Olsen said. “We needed to get points on the board. If we came out and sputtered, it would have given them the ball right away, and with their high-powered offense, anything can happen.”

Sophomore wide receiver Golden Tate put it best when he described the Irish team that played the third quarter as a different one completely from the rest of the season.

“We just turned into a different team. We felt we could throw the ball at any time and run the ball at any time. We just went out there and did it,” he said.

Going into the matchup with Purdue, Notre Dame still left lingering questions with much of the fan base. The team looked sloppy against San Diego State through three quarters. Notre Dame beat Michigan, but largely thanks to six Wolverine turnovers. Weis’ “pound it” strategy never got off the ground in East Lansing and the Irish made crucial mistakes to lose to Michigan State.

But all of that was answered with that one drive.

The Irish looked solid running the ball – in part because it complimented quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s passing game.

Clausen played arguably the best game of his Notre Dame career on Saturday (20-of-35 passing, three touchdowns, no picks), which enabled running back Armando Allen to have his best game, too (136 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown).

“Obviously, any time you’re throwing the ball well the defense is going to start teeing off on you. It really starts getting the running game going first because then you get the defense trying to get up in the box and get as many guys as they can to stop the run and that helps with the passing game,” Olsen said.

This offensive efficiency was helped by Notre Dame’s strong defensive performance in the second half, allowing only seven points.

Unlike the turnover-filled Michigan game, the defense played smart, and the only takeaway was freshman Robert Blanton’s pick-six in the second quarter.

But beyond the team’s improvements from the other games this year, Notre Dame was also to take another step away from last season’s debacle.

“But I think the promising thing was how they came out in the second half and the game could go either way.  Remember now, it wasn’t in the too distant pass that we would go in the tank,” Weis said in his post-game news conference.

What didn’t happen Saturday is just as important as what did: The team was down, but not out, losing but not lost. But the biggest difference? A third win instead of a second loss.

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

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