Weis Gets Zibby Off His Back

SOUTH BEND, IN - On a day when there was finally something to cheer about inside Notre Dame Stadium, the loudest decibel level came when fifth-year senior safety Tom Zbikowski ran onto the field late in the Irish's 28-7 victory over Duke, replacing Jimmy Clausen at quarterback.

Up 28-0, Irish head coach Charlie Weis finally had the perfect opportunity to get Zbikowski off his back. Since Weis walked in the door three years ago, the 6-foot, 207-pound Arlington Heights, Ill. product has been on Weis to let him get a few snaps at quarterback.

In the excitement, Notre Dame (2-9) was flagged for two penalties before Zbikowski took a snap from the shotgun-spread formation, backing up the offense to its own 17-yard line on the student section end of the field. With the crowd roaring in anticipation about what Zbikowski and the offense were going to do, the former prep signal-caller that Nebraska recruited as the next Eric Crouch, had to quiet down the commotion.

Zbikowski gave the universal signal from quarterbacks to the crowd, flapping his arms to shush.

"I had to quiet down the crowd for a little bit," Zbikowski said. He started taking reps at quarterback in practice during the bye week before the Navy game. "I thought my crowd control was pretty good."

That's about all that was good, as Weis described the offense's play over the next five snaps similar to the Bad News Bears.

Zbikowski ran for two yards, lost four yards, got caught up in a personal foul against Duke (1-10), then ran for two more yards, before Travis Thomas fumbled away Zbikowski's quarterback career.

"I just got to thank (Weis) for giving me that opportunity," Zbikowski said. When he checked his cell phone after the game, he had numerous text messages with the word quarterback in it. "I've been waiting awhile to get the opportunity."

"And for Zibby, you know, at least I could shut him up now," a happy Weis said.

Weis did say he had two pass plays for Zbikowski, but thought it would be disrespectful to Duke if he called one of them. Zbikowski thought about checking into one for a quick second anyways.

"I was thinking about it but I didn't get a chance to warm up my arm," he said. "If I would've, I was going to take off running or throw it as far as I could. One of the two was going to happen."

***Clausen's play on the other hand did not look fresh out of the Bad News Bears mold. Especially in the first half, when the 6-foot-3, 207-pound freshman connected on 13-of-23 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns, as the Irish took a 14-0 lead.

Dating back to the final two quarters in the loss to Air Force, Clausen was 30-of-52 for 361 yards and four touchdowns. He finished the afternoon against the Blue Devils, 16-of-32 for 194 yards and three scores, giving him six touchdown passes over the last two games, to zero interceptions.

"I really think his greatest improvement might have taken place when he was out, not while he was in," head coach Charlie Weis said. Prior to the Air Force game, a banged-up Clausen sat out two games and watched Evan Sharpley take over from the sideline. "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."

"He's grown as a player and just as a person as well," sophomore center Dan Wenger said. "It's been rough for us and he's handled it real well, just being able to bounce back and be the player he has become. He is going to be something special for us."

***Wenger is hoping to be something special as well.

The 6-foot-4, 287-pound Coral Springs, Fla. product made his first-career start at center against the Blue Devils, in place of injured fifth-year senior John Sullivan. Wenger started the first three games of the season at right guard, as the Irish coaching staff tried to get their five best linemen on the field. But Wenger's future has always been at center.

"This is my position, this is where I need to be, this is where I feel best and I plan on staying here," Wenger said. "I look at this as my time now to take this over. Sully was a great center, I learned a lot from him, and I'm sad that he finished the way he did. I love the help that I got from him, and he's great player and great person to step in and learn from."

Wenger helped the Irish roll up a season-high 220 yards rushing. The offensive line also looked better than it has all year in protecting the quarterback, surrendering just two sacks.

"I felt pretty decent about how I played," Wenger said. "Obviously there is some things that need to be corrected and I had Sully out there helping me out with everything and also (offensive line) coach (John) Latina. It's just going to be a matter of watching film and making some corrections for me to feel real comfortable in there."

"I didn't notice him too much, so I guess he must have played pretty good," Weis said of Wenger. "That's the easiest way to identify an offensive lineman."

***Sophomore Chris Stewart saw action in the game at tackle, guard and tight end.

"He was showing his versatility," Weis said.

With tight end Mike Ragone a game-time decision on if he'd play, Weis lined the 6-foot-5, 339-pound Stewart up at tight end in multiple tight end sets.. Since they practiced it for a couple days, even though Ragone did play, Weis stayed with the package they used all week.

***The Irish registered a season-high 10 third-down conversions on 18 attempts.

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