There was his career-high performance against Purdue, in which he gained 275 yards and three touchdowns. Then there was perhaps his best overall game as a starter against Stanford the following week, in which he picked up 347 yards in addition to three more scores. Perhaps more importantly, however, it was the method that Jimmy Clausen was using to pick apart opposing defenses that displayed the strides he has made since last year's debacle.
Most evident in the past pair of contests, Clausen has found the propensity to check down and look towards the lower options in his progressions. Against both the Cardinal and North Carolina, the sophomore quarterback has connected with his runningbacks for eight passes in each of the games, in an attempt to move the ball down the field. Armando Allen has largely been the beneficiary of this, picking up 14 receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown in the past two games. Earlier in the season, head coach Charlie Weis spoke of the maturation process his quarterback has undergone, culminating with his ability to check down.
"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," Weis said. "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."
Additionally, Clausen hasn't been on his back as much, thanks largely in part to the improvements along the offensive line. The sophomore from Westlake Village, Calif., however, has done his part to grasping the kinks of protection. Through six games this season, Clausen has been sacked only nine times as opposed to the 32 given up at this point last season.
"Well, I think knowledge of our protections," quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus said of the one greatest improvement Clausen has shown. "How to keep himself protected and get himself protected and avoid sacks and I think he's made great strides this season in getting better at that, because again, it's one thing to know it on paper, and it's another thing to have to do it in person and he's getting better at managing that."
A recent trend has shown that Clausen is throwing for more and more yards as the season progresses. As the offensive philosophy continues to lend itself to a more pass-oriented scheme, Clausen's numbers have increased. Ever since the Purdue game, in which he accumulated 275 passing yards, his following totals have been 347 and 383. As a result, the sophomore is averaging 271.3 yards per contest, good enough for 14th in the nation. All these yards, however, have come with a cost.
In both Irish losses, Clausen has turned the ball over a total of five times, directly leading to 21 points scored by the opposition. Many of these turnovers have proven to be momentum-shifting errors that have altered the nature of the game. For instance, after Clausen's interception to North Carolina's Quan Sturdivant that was returned for a touchdown, the Irish still maintained a slim lead but the Tar Heels found renewed energy and passion that carried throughout the second half. In the four Notre Dame victories, the quarterback has only given the ball away four times resulting in 16 points. Powlus doesn't believe that his quarterback has to make these errors to learn from them, but now that he has, there's only one way to go — up.
"You learn from mistakes," Powlus said. "That's part of developing, learning and growing and experience and all those things kind of put together. I don't think you have to have mistakes to learn how to succeed, no I don't think that's the case at all. Can you learn from them? Absolutely. That's what we're doing and that's the way it goes and that's the situation we're in."
Coach Weis wasn't as discouraged from Sturdivant's pick-six as he was encouraged from Clausen's response.
"Well, you never want to make mistakes," Weis said. "I mean, it isn't like you're rooting to make a mistake. But probably the most telling thing, Jimmy in that last game, not to go back to the last game, was after throwing that interception for a touchdown, shortly thereafter leading us down the field and going back and getting a touchdown back. And only really good players can do that, because usually they'd be shell shocked, like ‘oh, no, here we go. Your eight-point lead just went down to one,' but shortly thereafter it's up to eight points again. So that's the signs of a guy who has a chance of being very, very good. It isn't like I'm going to go out and practice him throwing interceptions or getting strip sacked. But at the same time, it's how they respond — the bigger question is how they respond when it happens than it actually happening."
So now that Clausen has half of his sophomore season under his belt, what does he need to do to become the efficient leader of this Irish squad? According to Powlus, it's all about practice and fundamentals.
"It's to continue to develop," he said. "He has to understand what we're doing and what's happening around him. He certainly has done a good job developing his game and furthering his game and becoming a better player. But the quarterback has a lot do with what happens with the offense and we count on Jimmy to do a lot of things and he's doing a lot of things really well. But it's continued work, it's continued practice and development on the little things that help make you better and the details of the game and of defenses. We're just going to keep working on the things we do good and keep getting better at them and the things that need work, we'll keep practicing and working."
Many across the nation expected this budding Irish squad to be where they are now that they stand at 4-2, but the team is at a crossroads. With four of the final six in hostile environments, and unit being winless on the road, Notre Dame must find a way to prevail away from South Bend if it is to make this season one truly worth remembering. As the Irish open the stretch at Washington, the primary responsibility will fall on young quarterback. The second half of the season will resolve a pair of issues for Notre Dame: firstly, it will tell if 2007 can be set aside and locked away as a memory of growing pains, and finally, it will declare whether or not Jimmy Clausen has reached the next level.
According to Weis, there's only one thing left to do — it's time to see how Clausen responds.