A swarming Nittany Lions defense stifled the Notre Dame attack all night long and No. 14 Penn State, far from perfect, beat the Irish 31-10. In front of 110,078 fans at Beaver Stadium, which was the second largest crowd ever for a Nittany Lions' contest, the Notre Dame offense showed little sign of improvement by once again not scoring a touchdown. Dating back to last season, that's 10 straight quarters the Irish offense has not gotten into the end zone.
Weis will not call this season a rebuilding year. Saturday night's performance, coupled with the Georgia Tech defeat, is more evidence that the Irish are in for a year of growing pains. It was the fourth straight defeat of 20 points or more under Weis, dating back to last season's game with USC.
"I think we're not playing a complimentary game," Weis said. "With the state of the union we're in now, if we can't get any help out of the offense, then it's going to be a long night like it was today. That's what we're going to have to get to."
Will it get any better? The schedule says no. Notre Dame might have caught a break next weekend when it travels to Ann Arbor to face Michigan. The Wolverines (0-2) are coming off their second straight home loss, this one a 39-7 shellacking at the hands or Oregon. Either Michigan will show a little pride or continue their downward spiral. Following that, the Irish's next five opponents have a combined record of 9-0.
One issue for the Irish is clear: the offense must improve in a hurry or there will be repeats of Saturday's result. Weis said this week that it couldn't get any worse than Georgia Tech. For the offense, it did. From the 12-minute mark in the first quarter to 7:13 left in the game, Notre Dame earned two first downs. One was on a Clausen run at the end of the first half with half the Penn State defenders back in the end zone. The other was on a roughing the kicker penalty on the Nittany Lions in the third quarter.
The drive where the roughing the kicker penalty happened summed up the contest for Notre Dame on offense. Penn State was leading 24-10 at the time after Austin Scott had plunged into the end zone from one-yard out to give the Nittany Lions a two-score advantage. The Irish went three-and-out, with no help from a delay of game and false start penalty. After the mulligan, Notre Dame finally went down the field and Clausen hit Golden Tate on a go route down to the Penn State 20-yard line. But a hold on Sam Young made it come back. Three plays and a sack later, the Irish punted.
Penalties were a huge part of the dismal Notre Dame showing. The Irish committed 14 penalties for 97 yards on the night. Road underdogs usually have to play mistake-free ball to pull the upset. Notre Dame did none of this, committing one foul after the other. An Ambrose Wooden pass interference call on 3rd-and-Goal allowed a drive to continue that ended with Scott's leap into the end zone for the nail-in-the-coffin touchdown. This was just one of many that killed any hope that the Irish had in capturing victory in Happy Valley.
"They were miserable," Weis said of the penalties. "Even though we practiced noise, a couple of those fall starts can be attributed to noise. But that's still a lack of concentration. We had double digit penalties. Anytime you're playing with an inefficient offense and you have penalties, it doesn't bode well for any type of momentum."
The defense tried to do its part to keep Notre Dame in the contest. In the first quarter, Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli tried to hit a deep pass but was intercepted by Darrin Walls. The sophomore cornerback took the pickoff and rumbled down the left sideline for a 73-yard touchdown return to give the Irish a 7-0 advantage. The defense also held an offense that racked up over 545 yards of yards last week in a 59-0 victory over Florida International to 295 yards. Morelli threw for a pedestrian 122 yards. The senior did throw a touchdown in the second quarter, a 10-yarder to Jordan Norwood to give Penn State a 14-7 lead.
The offensive woes, though, kept the defense on the field and Penn State started to wear down the group as the contest went on. In the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions were on the field for over 10 minutes. Penn State made it 31-10 on a 10-play, 62-yard drive in the fourth quarter, capped when Scott ran in from five yards out for his second touchdown. All ten plays were runs against the gassed Notre Dame unit. Scott ended the night with 118 yards on the ground.
"As the game went on, I was most disappointed from the first drive of the game to the middle part of the game where there were so many three-and-outs," Weis said. "It wasn't just the three and outs when you're being conservative. The flip side is that if you don't get first downs and the defense off the field, the defense spends all game trying to hold up their end of the bargain. You could see for three quarters they did until the fourth quarter."
And then there was Clausen, who was the main media focus all week. The freshman made his first start in front of a crazy, loud rambunctious crowd all clad in white. Clausen's final numbers were average: 17-of-32 for 144 yards and an interception. On the first drive of the game, the freshman quarterback led Notre Dame down the field, with help from Armando Allen, into field goal range but Nate Whitaker missed a 50-yard field goal.
There were problems, not all of Clausen's doing. The offensive line continued to get torched by the opposing defense. After allowing nine sacks last week against Georgia Tech, the Irish surrendered six more on Saturday night. That's 15 sacks allowed in two weeks by the group. The running game was once again nonexistent. Notre Dame, with the six sacks factored in, ran for zero yards. This is an improvement from last week, when the Irish ran for -8 yards but still dead last in Division 1-A.
Even when Clausen did have time to throw the ball, the game plan was not heavy on down the field throws. Most of the freshman's passes were swing passes to Allen or quick hitters to the wide receivers. The vanilla scheme was easily snuffed out by the tough, aggressive Penn State defense. Overall, Clausen completed 50 percent of his passes in a hostile environment and his growth process continues next week at the Big House against Michigan.
"He completed 50 percent of his passes under duress," Weis said of his freshman quarterback. "We had the one shot to Golden (Tate) down the field where Golden makes the play. For the first time, he saw some duress. I'm not doing cartwheels. But I'm not displeased. He wasn't the problem."
The problems lie along the offensive line, special teams, reducing penalties, etc. It'll be another long week of Notre Dame bashing and another week of tough practices for the Irish. Weis has to go back to the drawing board and find answers for the offense's complete lack of production.