So much for starting fast. So much for pounding the football.
Notre Dame did neither in its season-opening game against San Diego State on Saturday, but still managed to pull out a 21-13 victory.
Charlie Weis said that he would be unhappy if the Irish sputtered in any of the three phases of the game, but there is no other way to describe how the Notre Dame offense started. Weis said that he wanted to pound the football, but the most success they found all day came when they committed to Jimmy Clausen and the passing game.
Notre Dame took its first lead of the game - 14-13 - with 9:43 left in the fourth quarter after a drive that saw Clausen go 5 for 5 for 76 yards, capped with a beautiful 38-yard scoring pass to Golden Tate. The Irish added another touchdown on their next possession with Clausen hooking up with David Grimes on a 6-yard fade.
But that was not what Notre Dame's offense looked like from the start. In the first quarter, the Irish ran the ball six times for 24 yards and gained just 62 total yards. Notre Dame ran only 13 plays in the opening quarter and trailed the time of possession battle 9:01 to 5:59.
The Notre Dame defense that maintained it would get after the offense with a new sense of aggression did just that. The Irish stemmed around, confusing San Diego State's offense at times and were in quarterback Ryan Lindley's face for much of the day. They were hit by some big plays on a couple of shovel passes, but for the most part were stout early.
The Irish special teams made plays to set the Irish offense up with opportunities, but the offense threw most of those away. In the end though, Notre Dame took advantage of what may have been its final chance. The Aztecs led 13-7 at the start of the fourth quarter appeared poised to put the game away until running back Brandon Sullivan was stripped as he was crossing the goal line and David Bruton recovered for the Irish.
"They make a game-changing play down on the goal line, they keep San Diego State from going in," Weis said after the game. "(San Diego State) had a chance to put the game away in that situation."
Clausen then led his team on an 80-yard drive in just over two minutes to put Notre Dame on top for the first time. Clausen finished the game 21 for 34 for 237 yards three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, with a large portion of his yards coming in a no-huddle situation.
"In a situation like that you can get some rhythm going, but a lot of it's dependent on the quarterback," Weis said. "The quarterback grew up a whole bunch today because he was in a situation where he's down and he leads the team down the field twice."
The Irish defense played strong in the in the first half and the offense had its chances but most of them were squandered.
Notre Dame earned just one first down on their first two possessions while San Diego State gained 101 yards on their first three possessions.
A pass interference penalty against the Aztecs on a pass intended for Duval Kamara gave the Irish the ball at the San Diego State 29-yard line, but two incompletions and a run for no gain forced a Notre Dame field goal attempt. Brandon Walker's 47-yard try missed wide right and the Irish were shut out in the first quarter.
Clausen moved the Irish inside the San Diego State 10-yard line on Notre Dame's first drive of the second quarter, going 5 for 5 for 60 yards, but Robert Hughes fumbled on the San Diego State 3-yard line and Luke Laolagi recovered for the Aztecs.
San Diego State gained one first down on the ensuing possession before the Notre Dame defense forced another punt.
The Irish took over at their own 43-yard line with 6:56 to go in the second quarter, but turned the ball over again and this one was just as costly. Clausen's 3rd down-pass bounced off Kamara's shoulder and was intercepted by T.J. McKay, who returned it to the Notre Dame 43-yard line. Lindley hit Darren Mougey with a 42-yard pass on first down and Lindley scored the game's first touchdown on a one-yard sneak a play later.
The teams traded possessions before Armando Allen's punt return and a San Diego State penalty set the Irish up with the ball on the 13-yard line going in. The Irish offense again stalled and had to settle for another field goal attempt, this one unsuccessful after holder Eric Maust dropped the snap.
Notre Dame finally got on the board after a blocked punt gave the Irish the ball just outside the San Diego State 20. Clausen had an incomplete pass and Armando Allen lost a yard before Clausen floated a perfect pass into Michael Floyd's arms for a 22-yard touchdown to tie the game with 1:14 left in the half.
The start of the second half was more of the same with Notre Dame starting the third quarter by going three-and-out followed by the defense making a big play. Kerry Neal intercepted Lindley on a middle screen, setting the Irish up with 1st and 10 at the San Diego State 11. But Clausen's fade pass on 1st down in the end zone to Kamara was picked off by Vonnie Holmes.
The Notre Dame defense did not get as much pressure on Lindley in the second half as it did in the first and the Aztecs took their second possession of the half 80 yards, capped with a 15-yard scoring pass from Lindley to Mougey. The drive was kept alive when Notre Dame jumped offsides with the Aztecs set to punt. San Diego State missed the extra point and took a 13-6 lead.
Notre Dame turned the ball over again when Allen hit a hole and bursted for 13 yards before getting drilled and fumbling. The Irish defense again was able to hold the Aztecs and force another punt, but the offense was stuffed on a third-and-one play as Hughes lost four yards to stop the drive.
The Aztecs had the ball as the third quarter ended and drove 82 yards before the Sullivan fumble.
Lindley passed 59 times, completing 29 of them for 274 yards a touchdown and an interception. Sullivan had 66 yards on 10 carries, but had the costly fumble. Matthew Kawulok led the Aztecs had nine catches for 60 yards.
Allen rushed for 59 yards on 17 attempts while Hughes had 54 yards on 16 carries. Tate led the Irish receivers with six catches for 93 yards and the touchdown. Kyle McCarthy was solid on defense for Notre Dame with 14 tackles.
"Are you happy to win ugly? I told them yes, you're happy with an ugly win because it's better than an ugly loss," Weis said. "I'll take an ugly win any day of the week."