Yes, it was Duke, and they are now 1-10, but the Irish beat the Blue Devils pretty soundly, and Duke never really challenged Notre Dame all game. It was an ugly first quarter and a half, no question, but there was little doubt which team was the superior team on Saturday.
Just a few weeks ago a number of Irish fans were ready to throw five-star quarterback Jimmy Clausen on the scrap heap. It's amazing what feeling healthy can do for a quarterback. Clausen was clearly hurt earlier in the year, and has looked outstanding in the past two games. He's throwing the football with much more zip and authority.
Not only do I feel he's already more accurate than Brady Quinn with his throws (did I just say that?), one gets a good feeling that Jimmy already has a solid grasp the offense. Why do I say this? When was the last time Clausen threw a ball and left you scratching your head wondering "what was he thinking?" Yes, it was Duke, but Duke blitzed quite often, created some pressure, and Clausen really shone in his performance on Saturday.
The most positive sign to me was seeing Clausen step up in the pocket these last few weeks before bailing out in a panic. He's really starting to become the player we all thought he would be. He's hardly a finished product at this point, but I sure like what I've been seeing the past few weeks.
One also has to remember that Clausen doesn't have the freedom Quinn had at the end of his career. Once Weis has full confidence in Clausen to check out of bad plays, who knows how well he can run the Weis offense.
There were also plenty of other young players who continue to shine.
Robert Hughes obviously had a big game rushing for 110 yards on 17 carries. But what excited me about Hughes was his ability to pick up the blitz. The Chicago, Ill. native did an outstanding job when asked to pick up the blitz, and we also got to see his soft hands with his first reception of the season. The freshman showed excellent feet and vision in traffic, as well as displaying the kind of power and balance he's known for. I believe he earned the chance to start the final game of the season against Stanford on Saturday. Hopefully Weis will give him a shot.
I was also very encouraged with Armando Allen's toughness and ability to pick up the blitz. In fact, these two freshmen might be our two best backs in pass protection. No, Armando didn't hit the big play I predicted on Saturday, but he's ever so close….just a wide receiver block down field away from making it happen.
Once again I was encouraged by the play of both freshmen linebackers, Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Each were credited with three tackles a piece, not huge numbers, but nobody dominated in tackles on the day with Joe Brockington leading the team with seven.
Both players can be a liability at times, but they make up for it in speed and athleticism. One play in particular stands out in my mind. Duke was in a third-and-10 situation down 28-0 to the Irish. Blue Devil quarterback Thaddeus Lewis dropped back to pass but found nobody open. He took off running for what appeared to be an easy first down only to have Neal catch him from behind four yards short of the first down. Duke punted.
These are the types of plays that these two freshmen will make, and they've been making them all season. Once they add some much needed strength, these two could be outstanding in the future.
The big guy was only credited with three tackles on Saturday, but 6-2, 300-pound Ian Williams has gained a ton of valuable experience the past two games. The freshman nose tackle is a scraper, very much in the mold of Pat Kuntz. The good news is he's just a young pup at this point. I don't think you can quantify how much these very meaningful snaps will matter next season for Ian Williams, and for the Irish defense. There is no question Notre Dame will miss Trevor Laws next season, but it is somewhat comforting knowing that Williams has emerged as a very solid D-line candidate who will only get better.
If Trevor Laws isn't named first-team All-American by every media source in the country we should find out where they vote for these honors and firebomb the place in protest. All kidding aside, Trevor Laws has been the one bright light in a miserable season. Others have played well at times, and others have played well in previous seasons, but I can think nobody that has played as well as Laws did this season. The guy is a true warrior and should go down in Irish lore as one of the best D-linemen to ever wear the Irish uniform.
Corwin Brown: Yes, the defense didn't look outstanding at all times on Saturday, but Duke is a team that can score points. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis had thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game this season. The Irish defense did bend at times, but they didn't break, at least not the starters. The Irish did a very nice job on defense, especially early in the first half when they needed to. They also played very well in the second half, and most importantly stopped Duke on their initial drive of the second half setting the tone for final half.
Charlie Weis: Yes, I said that. With the Irish up 14-0 and struggling in their first possession of the second half, head coach Charlie Weis did what he needed to do—give the ball to his talented backs and put the game out of reach. Weis ran nine out of 10 plays after a couple of screen passes and the Irish broke the spirit of the Blue Devils with that impressive drive.
All season long it's been clear that Notre Dame's best and most consistent playmakers are in the backfield. The Irish had a team they could run the football on, and Weis did what he needed to do—stay patient with the run. Hopefully we'll see him do that more often because I don't think these young backs will disappoint if he does.
There's nothing more enjoyable than a sound victory, and the Irish achieved just that on Saturday. Congrats to all the seniors in the final home game victory wearing the Notre Dame uniform. While they never quite reached the top, they handled all the ups and downs with true class, and that's all you can ask of these young men.