As fans wait to see how Notre Dame responds to its first loss of the season, at least one thing has already changed, Jimmy Clausen got a haircut. Gone are the stringy locks that he has sported since preseason, replaced with the crop cut that he wore last season.
"I cut it off," Clausen said plainly. "I don't know why I really did it, but one of the things I said was I've grown it out for a long time, I said once we lost I'd cut it off…It was getting old."
Clausen admitted that it is kind of weird knowing that a simple act of getting a haircut is going to be news.
"It is interesting actually, but I just got a haircut," he said.
Charlie Weis has hinted that the offensive game plan could change as dramatically as his quarterback's hairdo. The Irish offense has looked best when throwing the football and Notre Dame could be throwing it more early against Purdue, a sign of the progress that Clausen has made as a sophomore.
As a freshman, Clausen was asked to manage the game more than anything, but as his second season continues the quarterback is turning into more of a playmaker. Clausen has thrown six touchdown passes through three games this year, but he also has six interceptions. One of the challenges for Clausen as he becomes a true offensive weapon is knowing when to rein it in.
"I've forced the ball a few times and taken too many chances in the past three games and that's one of the things that I'm working on during practice," he said. "If something is not there, if it's not wide open, check the ball down to the backs. After watching the film where I'm throwing interceptions, the backs are wide open. I've just got to stop taking as many chances as I have and just get the ball to the playmakers.
"(Interceptions are) real frustrating, especially when we're down in the red zone. Like I said after the game, the one I threw to Duval (Kamara) up in the air, Michael Floyd was running an in cut, if I would have thrown it to him it would have been a touchdown. It was a misread by me and it is frustrating when you make bad reads or you try to make a play and it turns into an interception. But you just have to learn from your mistakes and move on."
For a young quarterback with Clausen's arm strength, learning that discipline can be difficult.
"When your confidence is up, you think you can make every throw in the world," Clausen said. "The other guys on the other side of the ball have scholarships too and they're great players as well. I think that's just one of the things learning to be a quarterback is when it's not there, check the ball down and let the running backs run around.
"It's hard because you always want that home run, you always want to score a touchdown. Sometimes it's not there and your confidence level is up and you're going to try to fit it in. If you look at great quarterbacks in the NFL, if it's not there, they're dumping the ball down to their back and their back is running for 15-20 yards. I'm trying to learn and get that."
It's obvious that Clausen has already learned what his responsibilities are when it comes to avoiding sacks. Clausen was sacked three times against Michigan State, but the Irish are on a pace for 12 sacks this season after surrendering 58 a year ago.
"I think he is helping out the team by getting rid of the football and is a little smarter with the protections and experience. All those things go together to make him a wiser football player along with the whole team being a wiser team," quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus said. "You do that and you cut down on bad things happening, for example, sacks. He had a lot to do with it last year and he has a lot to do with it this year."
Powlus helped Clausen learn the Notre Dame offense in the offseason and understanding the protections is one of the crucial things for a quarterback to know.
"Of the utmost importance. Knowing the protections, you know where you're protected and where you're not," said Powlus. "I think last year, Jimmy got to the point where he knew it on paper pretty much, but there's a big difference between knowing it on paper and the chalkboard and on the field and having it happen live to you. It's experience, a lot of it has to do with experience."
Clausen said that he would be thrilled to get to throw the ball more, but understands that balance is a key to being successful.
"I think being able to set up the run is the biggest way to help the passing game," he said. "That's what we've got to do is keep running the ball, keep gaining yards and that will open up things more in the passing game."
Clausen said that the coaches have confidence that the ground game will pick up soon and so does he.
"If they call on me to throw the ball, I've got to get the job done. If they want to keep running it, we've just got to keep running it and working hard," he said. "The running game is going to go sometime and hopefully sooner than later."
But if the Irish offense is going to need to rely on the passing game for awhile, it may have discovered an effective way in the Michigan State game. The Irish moved the ball in the second half when they came out in an empty backfield-shotgun set like what Clausen ran in high school.
"It's pretty similar to what we did. The plays were called differently and we have different plays, but it's pretty much the same operation as I did in high school," he said. "I'm comfortable with that because I did it all high school. That wasn't the only thing that we did was shotgun, five-wide or four-wide, but I'm comfortable with it."
Being back in the shotgun gives a quarterback the chance to see the whole field and get a better look at what the defense is trying to do.
"It makes my job a lot easier," he said. "It's easy for me to be able to just catch the ball and get it to the playmakers because those are the guys that are going to be making plays in the game and scoring touchdowns."
But as with everything, there are pros and cons.
"Sometimes you want to be under center so that you have the ball quicker in your hands so you can get it out faster," said Clausen. "It is faster to get the ball under center, take a three-step drop and get it out rather than be in shotgun and catch it and throw it. But there is good and bad that come with being in shotgun and under center."
Either way, whether it be under center or out of the shotgun, Clausen is going to play a larger role in the success of the Irish until the running game gets things going. With the improvements Clausen has made physically and mentally, the staff is confident that he is ready to step up to that challenge.
"He has shown to have a much better grasp of (the offense) this year," Powlus said. "We knew he could throw but getting better on the college level is very mental. That's what he dedicated himself to in the offseason and he's gotten a lot better at that."