There are playmakers on defense for the Nittany Lions that Clausen will have to keep an eye on. Inside linebacker Dan Connor was a preseason All-American candidate and is 93 tackles away from breaking the all-time record, quite an accomplishment at "Linebacker U." In the secondary, the freshman signal caller would be wise not to test junior cornerback Justin King too much, who is one of the best at his position in the Big 10. Whatever happens on Saturday night, head coach Charlie Weis wants Clausen to be thinking forward, not reflecting on fumbled snaps or errant throws.
"The No. 1 thing for a young quarterback is that you have to have short-term memory," Weis said. "By short-term, regardless of what happens on one play, you have to be worrying about the next play. Often, young players often let one bad play parlay into a whole bunch of bad plays. That's probably the biggest thing I have to work on with young players and of course at the quarterback position because you're touching the football every play. One play at a time. Short-term memory."
Clausen looks to help the offense be productive, a feature which was lacking in the 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech. The Irish gained only 122 yards of offense and the quarterbacks were sacked nine times. For the freshman to produce, the offensive line will have to do a whole lot better in protection or it could be a long night for the young quarterback.
Clausen does have the benefit of some extra practice. The freshman enrolled early back in January, along with running back Armando Allen and defensive back Gary Gray. Clausen got to go through an entire spring ball, including the Blue-Gold game. Weis said on Tuesday that Clausen was the leader of the quarterback competition between the freshman, junior Evan Sharpley and sophomore Demetrius Jones. The added benefit of spring practice helped with Clausen picking up Weis's system more quickly in August.
"You have the spring with the regular installation that everyone else has," Weis said. "You'd be getting that same installation starting on August 6th instead of having a once through. When August comes around, he's getting it for the second time around. Now, you can start to get into some nuances. If he hadn't come early, some of those nuances would be put away and you'd just have to worry about the installation."
It also hasn't been that long since Clausen last played significant minutes on the football field. The Westlake Village, CA native led Oaks Christian High School to four consecutive state championships. As a senior, Clausen was named USA Today Offensive Player of the Year after throwing 49 touchdowns to just six interceptions in 281 pass attempts. Clausen was part of a talented group of players, among them running back/linebacker Marc Tyler, a five-star prospect who decided to attend USC. It was clear to Weis who was in charge.
"He was on a loaded team in high school and he definitely was the man on that team and running that show for the offense," Weis said of Clausen. "There were some good football players on the team and he ran the operation. He ran offense but he also threw the defensive show team, too. He was throwing the whole practice. But he definitely had command of a very good football team."
The hope is that these leadership skills and athletic ability show themselves in a tough environment on Saturday night at State College, PA. It's not only the crowd and the defense. Penn State was embarrassed last year in South Bend, losing to Notre Dame 41-17. The Nittany Lions are a 17-point favorite to the Irish and Penn State would like nothing more to make it fourth straight 20-point defeats for Notre Dame. It's a challenging set of circumstances for Clausen to start in but the freshman has the total confidence of his head coach.
"Based off the evidence I have, I think he'll be fine," Weis said. "But it's a little subjective. I don't just hope it. I believe it that he'll handle it fine. If I didn't believe he could handle it, I don't think this would be the perfect environment to start your game for the first time. I can think of several better environments to start in."