Sunday, September 09, 2007

Post Mortem: Penn State 31, Notre Dame 10

Superman didn't exactly fly on Saturday night. But he gave some encouraging signs that he will one day soon.

Jimmy Clausen, parents and older brothers in tow, arrived on Saturday night, and the results produced a little bit of everything: encouragement, incompetence, improvement, regression, and ultimately a 31-10 loss to the veteran Nittany Lions in which Notre Dame's performance echoed all the same themes as a week ago: the Irish are young, inexperienced, and played the part all too often.

Darrin Walls got the game off on the right foot for the Irish with a terrific interception of an Anthony Morelli jump-ball , then darted back upfield, weaved past a couple blocks and notched Notre Dame's first touchdown of the year. That would be as good as it got, with the Irish piling up 3-and-outs due to a conservative gameplan clearly designed to keep Clausen upright. It was modestly successful at best, as the young signal-caller still got beat up and sacked 6 times, to say nothing of numerous hurries and scrambles. Meanwhile, the Irish managed to pull off a Bluto Blutarsky-esque 0.0 net yards of rushing.

The opening drive was Clausen's best, as Charlie Weis called for a steady diet of Armando Allen around the edge with screen plays that moved the ball into Penn State territory, but a pair of false start penalties on Paul Duncan short-circuited the momentum and the Irish came away with nothing as Nate Whitaker missed a 50-yard field goal. On the positive side, he clearly had the leg. Damn accuracy issues.

With Walls' big play the obvious highlight, the Irish defense for a second straight week put up a game effort under adverse conditions - Penn State had 9 possessions in the first half and only two of them began inside their own 25-yard line. Of the three Nittany Lion touchdown drives, none covered more than 65 yards. And the Irish's best chance to turn the field position battle in their favor went out the window when they turned into their own worst enemy with another idiotic personal foul penalty, this time on former linebacker and current special-teamer Travis Thomas.

That, unfortunately, was the watchword of the evening as far as the Irish were concerned: mistakes. Every variety too - dumb ones, communication ones, assignment ones, coaching ones, mental ones, made by youngsters and veterans alike. The Irish racked up 97 yards worth of penalties on 14 flags, and in nearly every situation where they could least afford a mistake, they made one. Clausen's one legitimate chance to air it out while the game was still in reach came on a dazzling FedEx laser to Golden Tate which would've moved the ball from the ND 33 to the Penn State 25...but it was nullified by a holding call against RT Sam Young. When the Irish D again stiffened after the only pass coverage breakdown of the night (51-yard completion from Morelli to Chris Bell made possible by a gamble-gone-wrong from David Bruton), Ambrose Wooden got flagged for pass interference and took the Lions from a 4th-down field goal try to first down at the 2. Of all the penalities, Wooden's was the least justifiable, the definition of a questionable-at-best PI call, but the yellow laundry was on the field whether the Irish liked it or not.

Finally, the dam broke in the fourth quarter as Austin Scott chewed turf at Beaver Stadium and scored the clinching touchdowns against an exhausted first-string for the Irish. Penn State wasn't a particularly impressive team on Saturday, but they didn't have to be with a solid, explosive defense matched against a Notre Dame offense searching to establish an identity. The silver lining is that, true to Charlie Weis' word, they did in fact get better this week. Instead of looking stupid on about 80% of the plays, they cut it down to 60%. One can only hope the percentage drops drastically for this upcoming matchup against Michigan, suddenly deprived of all luster and hype in the wake of the first EVER occurrence of an 0-2 start for both schools.

And make no mistake, the Irish did in fact make strides towards figuring out what type of offense they're going to be, with Clausen at the helm, Allen in the backfield, and an offensive line which (on occasion) bought the young QB time to collect his wits on passing attempts. Notre Dame clearly was at its nadir against Georgia Tech (which rose to #15 in the polls this week...just so you know), and the results against Penn State did in fact reflect improvement, albeit not nearly enough. Now a second week of work with Clausen as the undisputed first-stringer takes the Irish into their titanically underwhelming battle with the Wolverines, who will be without senior quarterback Chad Henne. Looks like the bally-hooed battle between Clausen and Ryan Mallet, another top-ranked prep QB who enrolled early at UM, will commence a year or two earlier than expected.

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