Head coach Charlie Weis announced at his Tuesday press conference that Jimmy Clausen would get the call at the quarterback position against the Nittany Lions. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:02 PM and ESPN will have the television coverage. The Westlake Village, CA native saw action in Saturday's 33-3 defeat to the Yellow Jackets, completing 4-of-6 passes for 34 yards late in the fourth quarter. Clausen's start will be the earliest one into a season for an Irish freshman quarterback since 1951.
"I think he gives us the best chance at winning," Weis said.
Weis said Clausen, who as one of the nation's top recruits enrolled early in January, was first in the quarterback competition after spring practice, besting sophomore Demetrius Jones and junior Evan Sharpley. But the freshman had a medical procedure done in the off-season to remove a bone spur in his elbow. This limited Clausen in the summer and when training camp started back on August 6th. Weis had to get a quarterback ready for Georgia Tech and because Clausen was working his way back to 100 percent, Jones and Sharpley got most of the reps in fall camp.
Then came Saturday's miserable offensive performance. Weis was hesitant to let Jones throw the ball. The sophomore signal caller, running a version of West Virginia's spread offense, was 1-for-3 for four yards. Jones' biggest miscues were two fumbles, both of which led to Georgia Tech field goals. Sharpley, whose package contained a completely different set of plays than Jones, was 10-for-13 for 92 yards but was sacked seven times by the aggressive Yellow Jackets defense. The 122 yards of total offense and three points scored were lows in the Weis era. Now, Clausen, who is the more classic drop back quarterback, has been pegged to get the group going in a positive direction.
"I think he's ready to run offense," Weis said. "If I didn't think he was ready, I wouldn't do this. I think that he was always ready mentally."
Although Weis didn't come out and say it, there's a good bet that if Clausen was healthy at the start of fall camp, the freshman would have been the one running on the field to take the opening snaps against Georgia Tech. Weis said that's "potentially the case" that could have occurred. Clausen's return to 100 percent and the lacks of reps in fall camp prevented the scenario from playing out.
"I'm not going to play a quarterback that can't do everything, so I didn't," Weis said of Clausen. "I think what we felt, at the end of spring, we took every throw by every player, and running the operation and everything we do, as we evaluated as a staff, the nudge would have gone to him at that time.
"But that's only part of the process. That's spring. That's why you go to training camp and depth charts change in training camp."
Weis broke the news to the three last night in a meeting. The Irish head coach wouldn't announce who the backup to Clausen would be on Saturday, probably preferring that the game against the Nittany Lions doesn't reach that point. Clausen should be running a similar offense to what Quinn did in 2006, in contrast to what Weis put in for Jones versus Georgia Tech, which ended with poor results.
"I always put the quarterback in a position to do things they can do the best," Weis said. "That's what we did last week with Demetrius when he was playing. And when Evan came in, we put him in a position to do what he does the best. I'll do the same thing with Jimmy, even though last week was just getting a little taste of it."
Clausen's job of starting his first game is not made any easier by the venue the contest is being played at. Beaver Stadium in State College, PA holds 107,282 fans and Penn State has called for a "whiteout" for not only the students but the general public as well. The Nittany Lions will be looking for revenge from last season's 41-17 blowout by Notre Dame in South Bend.
This time, Penn State, fresh off a 59-0 victory over Florida International, has the Irish in their place with their fans against a true freshman quarterback. Beaver Stadium will be an unfriendly road atmosphere for Clausen for and the Notre Dame team.
"The only thing you could do is practice noise," Weis said. "You can't practice the environment. We'll practice noise on Thursday and any time he's calling a play on Thursday, no one will be able to hear him or barely be able to hear him. But as a player, as best you can, you've got to try to get him that tunnel vision and just worry about running that play and not being caught up in the environment."
It'll be a challenge for Weis to mentally prepare his team to rebound from such a devastating season-opening defeat. The Notre Dame head coach said he wanted to vomit after watching the Georgia Tech tape for the first time. If it wasn't the offensive woes, it was Tashard Choice running for 196 yards and two touchdowns, three turnovers by Irish quarterbacks and a leaky offensive line that would have made Weis feel a tad queasy.
Notre Dame has its work cut out this week. In addition to ridding their minds of the Georgia Tech loss, the Irish will face a Penn State team fresh off a huge blowout win. The Nittany Lions were well-balanced, running 236 yards and passing for 313 yards against FIU. Quarterback Anthony Morelli tossed for 295 yards and three touchdowns while the defense created five turnovers and totaled seven sacks. Despite these impressive stats and the daunting task of playing at Beaver Stadium, Weis must first get his own team straightened out.
"No disrespect to Penn State," Weis said. "But I think it's almost entirely about us. You obviously have a good team you're going against who is coming off a 59-0 win that is playing at home. And all of those things are true. We know how good they are on offense and defense, and we know about the specialists, both their returners and the kickers. But realistically, the bigger issue internally is us."