Saturday's Keys

Jimmy Clausen episode two airs at 2:43 p.m. (EST) today on NBC, and here's predicting that his second stint as Notre Dame's starting quarterback goes better than the first. Head coach Charlie Weis said that his freshman signal-caller looks fresher, sharper and better than he did a couple weeks ago when he started six-straight games.

Sounds like Weis is predicting that also, but what's the third-year head coach supposed to say?

Clausen is going to have to play better than he did the first time around if the Irish (1-8) are going to upset Air Force (7-3) (that doesn't read right) and end a three-game losing streak this afternoon.

In seven games, Clausen, the nation's consensus No. 1 recruit, has thrown for 618 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions. However, he has completed 61.8 percent of his passes, and for the first time this fall, won't be looking across the line of scrimmage at guys like Dan Conner, Shawn Crable and Bruce Davis. No offense to the Falcons defense, but they aren't of the same caliber as Penn State's, Michigan's and UCLAs. Or for that matter Georgia Tech's, Michigan State's, Purdue's (well maybe Purdue) and Boston College's.

I realize Air Force's defense ranks 41st nationally, and 19th in scoring defense, but they've played South Carolina State, Utah, TCU, BYU, Navy, UNLV, Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico and Army. None of those programs are exactly juggernauts.

Clausen and the Irish, fresh off by far the best offensive performance of the season in the 46-44 triple-overtime loss to Navy last Saturday. They could be in line for two-straight weeks of moving the football, as Clausen replaces Evan Sharpley at the controls.

Here are the keys to the game.

***First and foremost, Omar Hunter is in town, and the rumors about the four-star defensive tackle commit from Buford, Ga., swirl every week. Perhaps the most important catch in this top-notch class, the Irish need to make sure Hunter has a great time.

Notre Dame Stadium is ready for a victory. The student's are craving a win. The mood of the team will be 10 times better if the Irish can beat Air Force. Hunter needs to take in all of this.

Hunter needs to see where he fits into the defense next season, he needs to see potential, and he needs to realize Notre Dame is his future home, and that's not changing. A win against a solid Falcons team, could take care of that list.

***It's time to get Clausen going. Enough with the safe passes and the dink and dunking. Notre Dame's offensive line, which had three new starters to begin the season, has had more than its fair share of protection problems. Against Air Force they should be alright, and the accurate Clausen should be able to throw downfield. And back to what Weis said on Thursday, it sounds like he is ready.

If Clausen throws for say 300 yards or three touchdowns, that will excite recruits like receiver Deion Walker, and offensive linemen Kenneth Page and Trevor Robinson sitting at home. It will also get the current commits and the returning players excited about next season's offense.

***It was a key against Navy, and the Irish did a bad job. Unlike they did against the Middies, Notre Dame's defense needs to limit Air Force on first down. The Falcons and dynamic player Chad Hall rank fourth nationally in rushing yards per game, but they're second-to-last in passing offense. If they're forced into second and longs and third and longs, it could be a long afternoon for first-year head coach Troy Calhoun.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Air Force 20: Clausen starts to flash that All-American potential, and the Irish offense puts together five scoring drives. It will likely be a balanced attack, with James Aldridge running for over 100 yards for the third time this season and in his career. The Irish defense will look better than they did a week ago in the Navy game. Top Stories