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Commentary: Improved Clausen has Heisman shot

Michael Bryan | Friday, September 25, 2009

In the span of one quarter last week, Jimmy Clausen’s job got a whole lot harder.

Michael Floyd going down on a touchdown catch (sorry Big East and replay officials) in the corner of the endzone against Michigan State was a crushing loss for the Irish offense. While Clausen has been unbelievably accurate through three games, it helps a lot when you have a receiver doing whatever he wants on the football field.

The margin for error is a little bigger when you have a Michael Floyd on the outside that can create separation, win every jump ball and score on screen plays. With Robby Parris and Duval Kamara? That margin closes up significantly.

“Mike is such a great playmaker,” Clausen said this week. “Whenever there’s a guy on [him or Golden Tate], I have faith in both those guys and the rest of the receiving corps that they’re going to make that play, not the DB.”

The faith in Floyd and Tate is well founded. For the rest of the unproven receiving corps, they must prove they deserve Clausen’s trust.

Without Floyd as a home-run threat and weapon on the other side, Golden Tate is going to be double-covered as much as possible by opposing defenses. And while Kyle Rudolph, Kamara and Shaq Evans are nice players, for Clausen to continue putting up videogame-like numbers, it’s going to be a huge challenge.

Heading into Saturday’s game, though, there are no reasons to think the junior isn’t up for it. Through three games Clausen is second in the nation in quarterback rating, fourth in yards and second in touchdowns.

Despite facing another challenge in a turf toe injury suffered in the first half against the Spartans, Clausen looked just as sharp in leading the Irish to a fourth-quarter comeback and a win over the Spartans.

“I was hurting pretty much the rest of the game,” Clausen said. “But I just had to play and help the team win.”

It’s going to take moments like those, occurring a few more times and in even bigger games for Jimmy Clausen to have a shot at the Heisman. But through three games, it’s hard to find a more qualified candidate.

And the challenges of the past week if anything give Clausen a great opportunity to win. If he continues to have a terrific season, voters can’t argue that its only because of the array of weapons he has to throw to.

Voters also love leadership and guts in quarterbacks, two qualities an improved Clausen has shown much more of this year. If the turf toe lingers and the defense continues to give up points, there should be plenty of close shootouts for Clausen to lead comebacks in.

The schedule also suddenly looks a little more formidable since the start of the season – bad news for the Irish as a whole, but good news for Clausen’s Heisman chances. Washington now could be ranked facing the Irish, and Connecticut and Stanford look better than expected.

While all three Heisman finalists from this past year have returned, through three games none have the opportunity Clausen does. Sam Bradford’s first game injury has effectively eliminated him from contention to repeat, and neither Tim Tebow nor Colt McCoy have been particularly impressive early.

In the end though, wins and performances in big games are what usually ends up winning the award. The loss to Michigan certainly hurts Clausen’s résumé, although its hard to find anything he should have done better in that game. It’s going to take a huge game and probably a win over USC.

The defense and one of the receivers may have to step up to give Clausen a real chance and the wins required to be a real Heisman contender. Through three games, though, no quarterback has been better and few have the opportunity Clausen has if he comes through in the big games left on the schedule.

The opportunity is there for Clausen to become everything he was supposed to be coming out of high school. Three games hardly makes a season, but if the next nine are anything like them, Clausen should find himself in New York come December.

Contact Michael Bryan at [email protected]

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