A Tale of Three Seasons

A season review and Pre-Camp Player Assessment of junior QB Jimmy Clausen.

In 2007, a misguided Irish offense utilized three quarterbacks during the 12-game season (and in the season's first four quarters, to be exact). When the dust cleared, the team's best signal-caller and the nation's best high school quarterback emerged as the obvious choice to lead the offense in 2008.

Jimmy Clausen started 13 games in 2008 – but he unintentionally channeled the 2007 season's three-quarterback attack over the course of the schedule.

Season One – Growth

Through early October, Irish fans were buoyed by a five-game, 60.8 percent show of accuracy and a 2-1 TD/INT ratio by the second-year signal caller. The Irish were 4-1, putting the 3-9 disaster of 2007 collectively behind them. For the first time in the history of the Associated Press poll an Irish football team was unranked with a 4-1 record, but fans were undeterred with a trip to Chapel Hill and game with No. 22 North Carolina on the horizon. A win at Kenan Stadium on October 11 would put the Irish back among the nation's ranked programs roughly one year after a 1-5 start.

Clausen continued his aerial assault for the game's first 30 minutes, leading the Irish to a 17-9 halftime edge over the Tar Heels on the strength of two more touchdown passes to the now-feared tandem of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd.

When the Irish ran into the tunnel for intermission, Clausen's season stats read: 120 completions in 194 pass attempts (61 percent), totaling 1,447 yards with 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He hadn't thrown an interception in his last 132 passes, and the fault for at least two of those picks lay at the hands of his wide receiver.

He had suffered just six sacks (three vs. Michigan State) in 11 halves of football after the Irish O-Line (coupled with consistent deer-in-the-headlights QB play) had endured 31 sacks over the same 5.5-game time frame in 2007. The Irish were 4-1 with an eight-point lead and the football with 30 minutes remaining in Game Six.

Thus ended Jimmy Clausen's first 2008 season…

Season Two – Unraveling

His next pass, the first of the second half, and now famously etched in Irish regret, went the wrong way for six points. This pass began a string in which 9 of his next 160 attempts were intercepted. Poor defenses picked him off (Washington and Navy, the Midshipmen twice); a stout defense robbed him on four occasions, once for the season's second pick-six (BC); and the nation's best D got him twice (USC). He was sacked 14 times in those next 6.5 games.

Clausen's first 11 halves in 2008 produced a QB rating of 142.1, but that number plummeted to just over 106 in his next 13 halves of game action (in non-nerd terms, Clausen's first 11 halves ranked him 26th in the nation in passing efficiency; his final 13 halves ranked 98th).

Clausen's "Second" 2008 season yielded 6 touchdowns vs. 11 interceptions and more importantly, 2 wins vs. 5 losses.

Season Three – Redemption

The numbers are cartoonish: 22 completions in 26 attempts; 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Three of his four incomplete passes were outright drops. Jimmy Clausen and the Irish passing attack eviscerated Hawaii to capture the school's first bowl win since the 1994 Cotton Bowl. While the team's failures over its previous six games weren't forgotten, Clausen's inadequacies were certainly forgiven, at least by most of the Irish faithful. Sure Hawaii's secondary was borderline incompetent, but even the glass-half-empty fans must agree that a standard, solid college secondary would have succumbed to the Irish offense last Christmas Eve. Clausen had time to throw and was locked in.

The Irish beat a middling team in a middle tier bowl, but the total team effort (eight sacks; the program's first kick return touchdown since 2002; a surreal passing game, both deep and underneath) was nonetheless outstanding.

Clausen's performance in his "Third" 2008 season gave Irish fan's something other than blind faith for 2009.

Clausen's Season Outlook:

I've stated in a prediction that Clausen's TD to INT ratio this season will be 3-1; and that his passing touchdown total will fall somewhere in the 30-35 range. Both are indicators I think he'll enjoy an excellent junior season.

To reach those goals, Clausen must overcome last seasons proclivity for locking on his primary receiver; relying too heavily on check-down throws to Armando Allen when his primary target wasn't available; and committing to the deep ball/fade route prior to the snap (the best example of this is his first interception at USC).

As well, Clausen's maddening, head-shaking, almost impossibly tolerated 22-game recurrence of turning his back to an oncoming rusher to "avoid" the sack cannot be part of his '09 arsenal. (We'll leave any remaining technical flaws in the quarterback's game to the true experts (i.e., his coaches, not his scribes).

The 2009 Irish season rides on Clausen's leadership, courage, and decision-making. He has the arm strength to make every throw, tremendous touch, and an obvious competitive desire (not to mention the best pass-catching WR + TE trio in the nation at his disposal). Clausen and the Irish are still considered by many to be "a year away" – a squad that will reach its peak in 2010. But that's unlikely to happen if the quarterback and the rest of the roster aren't first significantly improved in 2009.

Clausen's Best Moments of 2008:

  • Autumn Growth: From halftime of the Michigan State loss through halftime of the UNC defeat, Clausen threw nine touchdowns and zero interceptions and the Irish outscored their opponents (MSU, PU, Stanford, UNC) 90-64.
  • North Carolina – the Final Drive: The Irish were afforded a final chance in Chapel Hill. Trailing 29-24 with 1:47 remaining, Clausen marched the Irish from his own 18-yard line to inside the North Carolina five, including a 4th and 13 rocket to Michael Floyd on a square-in route. Floyd caught the pass, easily good for an Irish first down, with five seconds remaining. It's hard to fault a freshman for not keeping the game clock in his head, but had Floyd simply succumbed to the tackle rather than attempted to pitch the ball as he was corralled (in Floyd's mind it was surely his only option to keep the Irish alive), the Irish offense would have had anywhere from two to four seconds remaining to calmly spike the ball, setting up a final play.
  • Hawaii: A super-human effort (22-26, 5 TD, 0 INT) – and three Irish Bowl records (completion percentage, touchdown passes, passing yards) that will be difficult to surpass.

Clausen's Moments to Forget in 2008:

  • North Carolina: Clausen offered the Tar Heels hope (and plugged-in the crowd) with an ill-advised pass on the first play of the second half – a short out to tight end Kyle Rudolph that instead hit a breaking UNC linebacker, Quan Sturdivant, in stride for a game-changing 32-yard interception touchdown.
  • Pittsburgh: All quarterbacks miss open receivers, but Clausen's overthrow (into the crowd) of a wide open Michael Floyd in the game's second overtime would have given the Irish a 34-27 lead, forcing the Panthers to match the Irish with a touchdown on the ensuing possession. The Irish instead eventually settled for a field goal; one matched by the Panthers who prevailed in the game's fourth overtime period. Neither team scored a touchdown on a combined eight extra possessions.
  • Boston College: Four interceptions (one for a touchdown) the other three occurring in the red zone - all of which were poorly thrown passes. Clausen was one of several Irish offensive stars top play a sloppy overall game vs. the Eagles' sound defense.

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