Jimmy Clausen's hot start to the 2008 season actually had fans legitimately wondering if they would get four seasons out of him or if he would bolt to the NFL after 2009. When Clausen reeled off consecutive career-games against Purdue, Stanford and North Carolina, it appeared that he was on track to possibly surpass the uber hype that he earned as a prep player.
But cracks started to show on the first play of the second half in Chapel Hill. The pick-six was the first of 11 interceptions that Clausen would throw over the next six and a half games. Defenses adjusted to take away the deep ball from him and Clausen struggled as Notre Dame lost four of its last five games.
In fact, after leading the Irish to four victories in the first five games, the sophomore had a combined 311 passing yards and one touchdown pass in Notre Dame's two wins in the second half of the season.
But that was before his legendary performance in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl. Clausen did not look like the player who threw for 12 touchdowns in the first five games…he looked better. He completed 22 of 26 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns, and the four incompletions could have been caught.
During the second-half slump, Charlie Weis said that he was confident that Clausen would end up being the player that he was in the first five and a half games, but it is doubtful that he expects him to be the player that he was in the bowl game. More than anything, the bowl performance gives Clausen, Notre Dame and Notre Dame fans a positive feeling heading into the offseason.
Midterm Grade: A-
Regular season: 246-414 (59.4%), 2,771 yards, 20 TDs, 17 INTs.
Hawai'i Bowl: 22-26 (84.6%), 401 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs.
Offensive line: C-
The offensive line managed a decent grade in the first half of the season even though it never attained Weis' ‘pound-it' mantra because it kept Clausen upright and allowed him to do his thing. But as the regular season wound down, this unit was doing neither.
The Irish got off to a good start to the second half with 252 rushing yards against Washington and 115 rushing yards against Pitt, but Notre Dame followed that up with 66 rushing yards in the shutout loss to Boston College. After gaining 230 yards against a weak Navy defensive line the Irish ran for 41 and 50 yards in the final two games of the season.
But again, the running game was never truly consistent this season and the lower grade has more to do with the fact that the line allowed defenses to dictate to the Irish offense rather than vice versa. Once opponents realized that they could sit back in a Cover-2 shell, take away any deep threats, bottle up Notre Dame's running game and still get pressure on Clausen, the Irish offense began to sputter.
Hopefully the offensive line, which will bring back five of six contributors in 2009, will be able to take away as much from the bowl game as Clausen can.
Midterm Grade: B-
Regular season: 402 rushing attempts, 1,361 rushing yards, 3.4 average, 20 sacks allowed.
Hawai'i Bowl: 34 rushing attempts, 65 yards, 1.9 average, 2 sacks allowed.
Running Backs: C-
In the first half, the offensive line was given a slightly better grade than the backs because of pass protection, but for reasons mentioned above, the two units are now equal. While roles were more defined among the backs in the second half of the season, the ground game never really got going.
The final six games of the regular season looked like what Weis had been talking about in preseason with Armando Allen, Robert Hughes and James Aldridge splitting carries, but with the exception of games against poor defenses like Washington and Navy, the production was not there. Allen grabbed the lead back position while Aldridge became the short-yardage runner and Hughes was on the outside looking in at both.
Again, this unit took on a much different look in the bowl game as Aldridge was banged up during preparations and Allen suffered an ankle injury in the regular season finale, leaving Hughes as the top guy. The Irish only gained 65 yards on 34 attempts, but Hughes had enough success early to force the Warriors out of Cover-2, opening up the field for the air attack.
Despite the low level production in 2008, the future of the Notre Dame backfield looks solid with Aldridge returning for his senior season while Allen and Hughes each have two years of eligibility left. Throw in Jonas Gray, who showed flashes in limited action as a freshman, and the additions of incoming freshmen Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick and running back will be one of the deepest positions on the roster.
Midterm Grade: C+
Regular season: 130 rushing attempts, 576 yards (4.4 average), 3 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 4 rushing attempts, 9 yards (2.2), 0 TDs
Regular season: 90 rushing attempts, 357 yards (4.0), 3 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 1 rushing attempt, 0 yards (0.0), 0 TDs
Regular season: 95 rushing attempts, 327 yards (3.4), 3 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 17 rushing attempts, 55 yards (3.2), 1 TD
Regular season: 16 rushing attempts, 77 yards (4.8), 0 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 5 rushing attempts, 13 yards (2.6), 0 TDs
Wide Receivers: B+
The wide receiver position had to be one of the most pleasant surprises of any on this year's Notre Dame squad, but the unit drops down a bit because a lack of depth was exposed in the second half.
The concerns that many had about the receivers coming into the season were replaced by the immediate impacts that were made by sophomore Golden Tate and freshman Michael Floyd. The underclassmen had 98 of the 156 receptions by the receiving corps in the regular season (58%) and 14 of the 17 touchdowns scored by wideouts (82%).
But as teams started to play two-deep and take away the long stuff, the production slowed. When Floyd went down with a knee injury on the first drive of the Navy game, the numbers slowed even more. Tate managed to have a career-day with seven catches for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Syracuse, but he was shut out against the Midshipmen and had a pair of meaningless catches at USC.
The emergence of Tate and Floyd as a duo was spectacular, but the offense was definitely hurt by the freshman's absence. But those concerns should be alleviated in 2009 when Notre Dame adds highly-touted prep star Shaquelle Evans along with John Goodman and Deion Walker, who sat out the season as redshirts.
Midterm Grade: A
Regular Season: 52 receptions, 903 yards, 7 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 6 receptions, 177 yards, 3 TDs
Regular Season: 48 receptions, 702 yards, 7 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 2 receptions, 17 yards, 0 TDs
Regular Season: 31 receptions, 287 yards, 2 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 4 receptions, 34 yards, 1 TD
Regular Season: 17 receptions, 185 yards, 1 TD
Hawai'i Bowl: 3 receptions, 21 yards, 0 TDs
Regular Season: 11 receptions, 66 yards, 0 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: n/a
Regular Season: 1 reception, 6 yards, 0 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: n/a
Tight Ends: C
Freshman Kyle Rudolph played admirably all season and this grade is not an indication of his performance. Rudolph was named to various Freshman All-American teams and deservedly so, but with offensive linemen and fullbacks playing alongside him for the most at the position, the tight end was not nearly utilized as much as Weis would have preferred.
Rudolph finished the regular season with 25 catches for 262 yards and a pair of touchdowns before snagging four passes for 78 yards in Honolulu. But Mike Ragone's preseason surgery and Will Yeatman's suspension after the third game of the season left Rudolph as the Irish's only reliable option at tight end.
But like the rest of the roster, Rudolph's experience in 2008 will pay dividends down the road, especially when Ragone returns in 2009 and classmate Joseph Fauria gets to play a larger role.
Midterm Grade: B-
Regular Season: 25 receptions, 262 yards, 2 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 4 receptions, 78 yards, 0 TDs
Regular Season: 2 receptions, 6 yards, 0 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: n/a
Regular Season: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 TDs
Hawai'i Bowl: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 TDs