On the backs of a solid performance from the defense, freshman Jimmy Clausen threw three touchdown passes while classmate Robert Hughes had his way on the ground to lead the Irish to a 28-7 victory over the Blue Devils. In front of another sellout crowd at Notre Dame Stadium, it was the younger players, not the seniors, who provided the spark in a symbolic passing of the torch.
The defense did its part as well and almost pitched a shutout if it wasn‘t for a late Zack Asack rushing touchdown. Notre Dame (2-9) will look to finish the season with consecutive victories next weekend when the team travels to Stanford. Kickoff for the contest is slated for 3:30 PM and ESPN2 will have the television broadcast. Weis and the players have been looking for anything positive to build off of before heading into the off-season. Saturday's victory over a lowly Duke (1-10) team possibly could be the first step towards rebuilding the shaken confidence of Notre Dame.
"When you're involved in a football program, when there's a win, the whole atmosphere at the whole university is different than when there's a loss," Weis said. "I mean, it's a whole atmosphere. So it isn't just for the players. It's for the student body and everyone else, the whole atmosphere. It's almost like a weight is lifted. Like tonight, everyone will have fun. They are going to classes here for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; they will feel good. They will go home for Thanksgiving. It won't be that you're 2-9; it will be at least they won the game at home. So I felt happy especially for the seniors."
The first 28 minutes of the first half might have caused more than a few people to switch the channel. Both offenses struggled to move the football in this time period and it reflected on the scoreboard: Notre Dame 0, Duke 0. But the Irish defense, who held the Blue Devils to just 232 total yards of offense, created the first scoring opportunity of the day.
On a 3rd-and-17, Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis fumbled and the ball was recovered by Notre Dame's David Bruton at the Irish's own 42-yard line. With only 2:29 remaining before halftime and the offense struggling, Clausen made a key throw to erase the stalemate. After a Hughes 24-yard rush on 3rd-and-1, the freshman quarterback fired a perfect bullet to a diving David Grimes for a 25-yard touchdown. It gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead and it tied the longest scoring pass of the year for the Irish.
That stat was tied again on the next Irish drive. As was the case for Duke on Saturday, the Blue Devils offense shot themselves in the foot. On the ensuing drive after the Notre Dame touchdown, Lewis completed a short pass to Jomar Wright but the Duke wide receiver fumbled the ball. Fifth-year senior Ambrose Wooden recovered the ball with 18 seconds remaining before halftime to give the Irish one more scoring chance before intermission.
Clausen didn't waste anytime. The freshman signal caller lofted a jump ball to classmate Duval Kamara in the right part of the end zone. With the seconds ticking down before halftime, the freshman wide receiver positioned himself perfectly and out jumped the Duke defender for a 25-yard touchdown grab to give the Irish a 14-0 halftime lead. It was Kamara's fourth scoring reception of the season, which is a new Notre Dame freshman record for wide receivers.
It was also Clausen's sixth touchdown toss of the season and he would add his seventh in the fourth quarter with a nine-yard scoring strike to fifth-year senior John Carlson. The freshman quarterback has gone two straight games without throwing an interception. After a 22-of-40 performance for 246 yards and three touchdowns last weekend in the loss to Air Force, Clausen followed it up by completing 16-of-32 passes for 194 yards. The freshman signal caller has looked like a new man since reclaiming the starting duties and it's paying dividends for the Irish offense, who gained a season-high 414 yards against the Blue Devils..
"I really think his greatest improvement might have taken place when he was out, not while he was in," Weis said of Clausen. "Because not only was he getting better physically, but he got to really see the game from a different perspective. And I think that the game to him is happening a lot slower and any time the game slows down, you're starting to understand how to play."
The second half belonged to the Notre Dame rushing attack and Hughes. The Irish's ground game came into Saturday's as the second worst in the nation, right in front of Duke. But Hughes, who had only seen 18 attempts through ten games, got the bulk of the carries and made the most of it.
The freshman running back from Chicago, IL, who had to deal with his brother's murder a few weeks back, turned in the best overall performance for a Notre Dame rusher this year. On the drive that extended a 14-0 lead to 21-0 in the third quarter, Hughes saw just three carries on the 13-play drive but produced results. The freshman gained 25 yards on the scoring march, including a tackle-breaking 13-yard touchdown to give the Irish a three-touchdown advantage. On the afternoon, Hughes carried the ball 17 times for 110 yards and gave Notre Dame fans a glimpse of the future.
"At half-time the field started to get really slick around half-time, so we had designed outside runs in there," Weis said. "And really at halftime, I kind of nixed the outside run because I felt that it was getting a little too sloppy to try to get to the edge.
"James (Aldridge) rolled his ankle a little bit in the first half and we thought we were just going to go into a pound-it mentality, and (Hughes is) just the guy to do it. He got a head of steam going, and once he got going, I just started feeding him."