As Jimmy Clausen and the Notre Dame offense limped to the end of the regular season, Charlie Weis maintained trust in his sophomore signal-caller leading the unit. Weis said he was confident that the Clausen that everybody saw as the Irish started the season 4-1 was the quarterback that he would eventually be.
After Clausen's four-interception day against Boston College, Weis said, "There are highs and lows, but eventually because you've seen the highs, eventually it's going to settle in and that's what it's going to end up being."
But even Weis could not have predicted what he saw from the nation's former premier prep player in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl. After having three straight career-games in the middle of the season against Purdue, Stanford and North Carolina, Clausen raised his personal bar to another level against the Warriors.
Clausen was 22 of 26 for 401 yards and five touchdowns. His 84.62% completion rate was the second best of any player in a bowl history with a minimum of 20 attempts. His five scoring passes are two more than his previous high and leave him behind only Brady Quinn's six-score day against BYU for the school record. His obscene 277.63-passer rating for the game includes four incompletions that very easily could have been caught.
Even more impressive is the fact that Clausen's numbers came in basically two and a half quarters of football and it is scary to think what they would have looked like had the Hawai'i offense been able to keep pace.
There is no doubt that Clausen's performance in his first-ever bowl game will always be remembered, but what will not show up on any highlight reel or in any record book is the fact that he led the offense without making any significant mistakes.
The knock on Clausen late in the regular season was that he tried to do too much and make plays that were not there. Against Hawai'i, he seemed to find a perfect balance of attacking without taking unnecessary risks. Clausen led the Irish to a touchdown on their second possession before throwing touchdown passes on each of Notre Dame's next five drives.
After throwing eight interceptions in his final four games of the regular season, Clausen's decision-making, accuracy and the return of Michael Floyd prevented him from making any big mistakes against the Warriors.
Clausen has always been an accurate thrower, but Weis felt that the extra practices in preparation for the bowl helped to get him back into top condition.
"He got a ton of throws where you could work on accuracy and footwork and fundamentals and techniques," said Weis. "In the hectic schedule of a normal week you don't have time to slow down and focus on the little things. Well, we had plenty of time to focus on the little things and fortunately that paid off for us."
Weis was joking when he said that he would take credit for the sophomore's accuracy, but Clausen also credited the work he did in practice.
"I started feeling real good timing with the receivers, the tight ends and the backs," he said. "It just kept going on and on and on. We've been practicing like this ever since we started practicing after the ‘SC game."
Clausen has proven that he can kill opponents if they leave either Floyd or Golden Tate with single-coverage on the outside. Notre Dame saw a lot of Cover-2 in the second half of the season that prevented Clausen from hooking up on deep balls and when Floyd missed the final three games with a knee injury, defenses rotated to take Tate away almost completely.
But the return of Floyd, who almost caught a touchdown in the second quarter, opened the field back up to Tate for a six-catch, 177-yard, three-touchdown day that earned him co-MVP honors with Clausen.
"It's great having Michael Floyd back," Clausen said. "A lot of times in previous games they were doubling Golden and they really couldn't do that today with both Golden and Michael on the outside."
The ground game was far from dominant, gaining just 65 yards on 34 carries, but Robert Hughes was effective enough early to force the Warriors to respect the run.
"We wanted to mix the run and pass and if we could get them out of their Cover-2, which is the foundation of their coverage, and get them into post-safety, we figured we were going to take some shots at them," Weis said. "Fortunately, that's what happened."
The offensive linemen did a great job protecting Clausen and he gave them credit along with his receivers.
The question is: Now that we have seen new heights for Clausen and this offense, is this where ‘it's going to settle in?' Is this ‘what it's going to end up being?'
The only bad thing about the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl is that we have to wait until September 5 for an answer to those questions.