The new scoring format installed in the scrimmage, pitting the offense against the defense, allowed the contest to become tight in the waning minutes, creating a realistic, competitive game-like atmosphere. For the 30,286 fans in attendance, this proved to be a blessing, as the game came to be decided in a tense final two minutes, thanks to a Jimmy Clausen touchdown drive that sealed the game for the offense, 47-46.
With the defense holding on to a commanding lead, the Blue team looked to the sophomore-to-be signal caller for some last minute heroics. Lucky for the offense — Clausen delivered.
After running back James Aldridge carried the ball for six yards, a Steve Quinn sack negated the gain, creating a Third and 10 situation. It looked bleak for the Blue squad when a pass intended for Duval Kamara was not converted, forcing a fourth down. With the ball on the offense's 35 yard-line, Clausen threw a bomb complete to Golden Tate, good for 57 yards, breathing new life into the Blue team's hopes for victory. Tate slipped by his defender with his speed and found an opening and hauled in the long-ball, eventually tackled by Gary Gray.
If there is any difference between the Clausen from last spring, and this year's, head coach Charlie Weis believes it was evident in this throw.
"He could never make the throw last year," Weis said. "Not a lot of last year he could never throw. Even at the end of the year he could've never made that throw. He couldn't have thrown it that far."
Even Clausen admitted that his off-season surgery and physique from last season would have prevented him from getting that much distance with accuracy on his passes.
"I think you guys can see it out there for yourselves," Clausen said of his improved arm strength. "Last year, I wasn't that healthy. Coming off the elbow surgery and being hurt throughout the season. I feel great right now. I feel 100-percent, back to where I'm supposed to be. It's just great to have Golden Tate where you just throw it as far as I can."
With the ball now marked at the eight yard-line and under 50 seconds to go, It was time for Clausen and his teammates to shine. After three incompletions in the end zone, it came to a fourth-and-goal from the eight.
As Clausen dropped back, he immediately looked to his left for his taller target in Kamara. Working on Gray, the current freshman from Hoboken, NJ. used his height advantage to soar over the freshman cornerback and hauled in the pass, getting one foot inbounds for the score. With the contest now knotted up at 46, all that was needed for the Blue team to prevail was a Ryan Burkhart field goal. After the junior-to-be kicked the ball through the uprights, the Blue squad simply kneeled the ball to clinch the win.
Clausen had faith in his 6-foot-5 receiver in the red zone leading up to the scoring drive. As they huddled up looking to score, Kamara simply told his quarterback to put the pass within his reach.
"It was great," Clausen said of the victory-sealing drive. "It was pretty much like a game situation. In the fourth quarter, we have to score to win, and Duval made a great catch. I just threw it up there. That's the kind of confidence we need to have. When we needed a big play, Duval just said, ‘throw it up,' so I just heaved it up and he got it."
Kamara finished the contest with four receptions for 48 yards, while Tate added 73 on three catches.
The game didn't start so promising for Clausen, however, who threw a pair of incomplete passes followed by a sack in the opening drive. In the next series, offensive coordinator Mike Haywood resorted to the run to give the Blue a lengthy, manufactured touchdown run by Robert Hughes. The entire drive consisted of 15 plays — all runs that totaled 65 yards and the score.
The running game showed its consistency throughout, with freshman Hughes and Allen leading the charge. Both backs had an average of 4.5 yards per carry, Hughes producing 100 yards on 22 carries, while Allen picked up 50 on 11 attempts. Both backs complimented each other well, as Hughes could find holes and carry defenders with his large frame. Allen used his quickness to break outside and displayed the ability to make precise cuts, and turn up field. A testament to Allen's toughness came on the second drive. After breaking a run to the left side, Terrail Lambert shed a Tate block and leveled the Hialeah, Fla. native short of the goal line. Allen sat out for a few plays, but returned to the action later and went on to have a productive afternoon.
Honorary coach Allan Pinkett offered some encouraging words of Hughes' day and his potential as a game-changing back.
"He's light on his feet for being 240 pounds," Pinkett said of Hughes. "But he still maintains that power, so if somebody wants to challenge him, he can deliver that blow. And he's one of those types of backs, it's pretty normal, that the more carries he gets, the better he gets."
In terms of the defense, Irish fans finally got the chance to see the newly installed package when Harrison Smith drops into the box, playing from a hybrid safety-linebacker position. Early on in the second half, the formation produced a highlight play, and the only defensive touchdown on the day. As Clausen dropped back to pass, Smith was hovering on Mike Ragone and jumped the pass picking it off and returning it 15 yards for the score.
"It was a basic call," Smith said of the play. "Ragone ran an out route, and I just kind of waited on the ball, kind of got set up and just took advantage of it."
For Harrison, the opportunity to exhibit what he is capable of on the football field has been a refreshing experience.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "Last year, you obviously try to help the team in practice and doing show team and all that stuff. Finally getting out there and playing with the big boys, it's a lot of fun."
After the play, however, tempers flared, as Ragone became involved in a minor altercation with Raeshon McNeil. Weis liked to see the emotion, but at the same time feels as though his young squad has to keep their composure at times to avoid costly penalties.
"I think probably the only real disappointment out of this game right here was your trying to coach emotion, and you saw a lack of composure at the same time," Weis said. "And it was a few times. One you wouldn't have noticed as much in the first half, but they would've called an unsportsmanlike on Robert Hughes on that touchdown when he flipped the ball up in the air. So now you score a touchdown, which is a big momentum play for you, but now you're kicking from the 15, because they would've called an unsportsmanlike conduct."
Despite the negatives, Weis has plenty of positive impressions to build upon as his team heads into the summer.
"Well there were a lot of good things that came out of the game," he said. "Obviously we can run the ball better, the offensive line is more physical, Jimmy's got good zip on the ball. I wish we would have caught a few more of them … Obviously he can sling it. I'm disappointed with some of the drops on the day, but I like the physicality on offense. What I really liked the most on defense is in the first half things didn't go as well for them and they came out at half time, you see there's both sides of the fence here. You come out in the second half and the offense is flat and the defense regains the momentum, and they make the charge and then Harrison makes the game-changing play."
As the next action the Irish will partake in lies months ahead, the team now knows where they stand — although still a work in progress, Notre Dame is starting to make plays, and enjoying itself while making them."I think that the only time you're having fun is when you're making plays," Weis said. "It's not fun when you're out there getting your butts kicked. That's not fun, in case you're wondering. You only have fun when you're making plays, so making plays was the emphasis, and fun was a residual positive effect that came with making plays."