In the first couple of games of the 2008 season, Irish fans across the nation caught a glimpse of the aptitude Jimmy Clausen had to throw the deep ball. Saturday against the Cardinal the young talent displayed the skill to go deep, but perhaps more importantly, the ability to check down and navigate through his progressions.
Clausen eclipsed his career-high numbers in virtually every passing category with a 29 for 40 day, good for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns. Although he found his receivers through typical and traditional routes, the Oaks Christian High School product spread the ball around the field, completing passes to seven different receivers. This was highlighted by a number of passes to his halfbacks as check downs. In the first half, Clausen completed six passes to Armando Allen for a total of 62 yards including a score. These plays usually weren't designed to end up in Allen's hands, but once Clausen saw that the rest of his targets were shadowed, he dumped the ball off to the runningback, who used his speed to gain yardage.
For head coach Charlie Weis, this is an aspect of Clausen's game that he has been trying to cultivate — and one that seems to be paying off.
"It's a miracle," Weis said with a grin of Clausen's propensity to check down against Stanford. "I can't tell you how many times I've met with him in the beginning of the week and the end of the week with Jimmy and Ron [Powlus] and myself, and I kept on saying ‘check downs, check downs, check downs, check downs,' so when he throws the first touchdown to Armando, that's a check down, so I couldn't wait until he got to the sideline, I just couldn't wait until he got there."
According to Weis' experience, the ability to dump the ball off can be a huge difference maker between a good quarterback and a great one.
"A long time ago, when I was a very young coach in the NFL, Phil Sims had said to me, ‘the difference in the NFL between throwing for 3,000 yards and 4,000 yards is flare control,' that means dumping the ball off to the guys that are involved in the pickup, when everybody drops out of there. I think it's a major step. When the quarterback doesn't force balls down the field and is willing to throw to his flare control, that's a major step."
The Clausen that showed up to play Saturday was a different one from the freshman who entered Stanford Stadium last November and pulled out an Irish victory. Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh was ready to attest to the maturation process Clausen has shown.
"Well, I think first of all, he's much improved," Harbaugh said. "We've seen it on tape, he's very, very good now on getting to his second and third reads, and throwing the ball accurately. I'm impressed with how he's driving the ball too. He's getting his legs underneath him and getting set to make those throws and he's putting them on the money. He was very impressive today and he has been all year."
The Westlake Village, Calif. native has found a new target he can consistently turn to in freshman tight end, Kyle Rudolph. Throughout the first games of the year, Clausen had occasionally gone to Rudolph. Saturday, however, Clausen went to the 6-foot-6 tight end early and often, as Rudolph controlled the middle of the field finding seams in the zone defense.
After the Irish defense stopped the Cardinal in their opening drive, Clausen led the offensive unit down the field for an 80-yard drive, characterized for its efficiency. To start out the series, Allen caught a quick swing pass and turned it upfield for 20 yards. The next completion in the drive was to Rudolph who sneaked past a linebacker and found a perfectly placed ball by Clausen just out of the defender's reach for 24 more yards. Concluding the nine-play drive was another completion to Allen for 21 yards and the first touchdown of the game. In this play, Clausen looked poised in the pocket and waited for the play to develop to deliver the ball to a wide-open Allen for the score.
Another freshman target that has been key in Clausen's maturation process thus far has been Michael Floyd, who picked up his second 100-plus yard receiving in as many contests. Clausen found Floyd on slant routes for intermediate gains, and looked to the freshman standout on several go routes. With just over four minutes to go in the first half, Clausen lofted a high spiral that fell neatly into the hands of an open Floyd for a 48-yard touchdown pass to put the Irish up 21-7. Clausen knows that despite a lack of experience at the collegiate level, Floyd can make an array of catches when the ball is thrown his way.
"Yeah, when he dropped that one, I got in his ear a little bit," Clausen joked. "He's a playmaker, and he told me to throw it back up to him again and I did and he made a great play."
In the third quarter, with the Irish up by a pair of scores, Clausen and the offense looked determined to add some more insurance, and that's exactly what they did with a seven-play, 75-yard drive. In the series, Clausen went 5-for-5 for 82 yards, hitting Floyd for passes of 13 and 41 yards, Grimes for gains of three and nine and Rudolph for the 16-yard score.
With the victory, this young Irish squad knows that there is still work to be done. After last season, and with building momentum coming off of consecutive wins the team is motivated and looking to prove doubters wrong.
"Last year was last year," Clausen said. "We've moved on and this is a different team than last year. We've just got to go out each and every day during practice and get better. We can't take any days off, like I keep stressing and just come out and get ready to go on Saturdays."
As the season progresses and the sophomore quarterback continues to improve with experience, his confidence is also building — confidence that helps him make a number of throws.
"Yeah, I'm real confident in my ability to make every throw that needs to be made on the football field. I'm not done yet, I've got a long ways to go to be a good quarterback and I'm just taking it one day at a time."