Hop on my Back, Boys
Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen showed flashes of brilliance prior to this season. He even authored one technical fourth quarter comeback – the 2008 home-opener vs. San Diego State (though neither he nor Irish fans might want to lay claim to that technicality).
Clausen's '09 season has been less about flashes and more about consistent dominance, entering last night's contest with 9 touchdown passes, no interceptions, and three 300-plus yard passing efforts to start the season.
While a continuation of those numbers weren't in the cards for a hobbled Clausen last night, the junior leader managed to offer the signature moment of his Irish career.
"The intent was for him not to play in the second half," Weis admitted in the post-game press conference.
"We wanted to try to get him through the first half with a lead, which we had, and try not to use him in the second half. We were kind of limited with what we could do with him. We were trying to get him in shotgun so he wouldn't have to worry about footwork as much in the game."
Clausen and sophomore backup QB Dayne Crist split four 2nd Quarter series before Clausen yielded the team's next three possessions to his understudy as the Irish offense stalled in the third period and until the final drive of the fourth.
"We started talking about it at the start of the fourth quarter," said Weis of re-inserting his injured starter. "He was already politicking earlier than that; he said he felt fine and if the game got to the situation where we had to put him in there, well put him in there. So I listed to him."
Clausen led the Irish on a 12-play, 72-yard drive in 3:16 seconds that culminated in a 4th-down, two-yard touchdown bullet to sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph for the victory.
Clausen's best moment in an Irish uniform came as no surprise to his head coach.
"The thing that our huddle sees is that he's so calm," offered Weis of Clausen's final drive aura.
"I think he has a very calm demeanor; he never got flustered…he made the big plays, especially the comeback to Robby (Parris) over on the right sideline. That was a heck of a throw for the first down."
Weis admitted things might have turned out differently in past seasons. But this is a different year, one with players that have been battle-tested and now expect to respond and defeat adversity.
"The team has changed. Maybe my teams in the past in the same situation might have been frazzled but this team didn't get frazzled."
The noticeably limping Clausen downplayed his pain threshold when he met with reporters in a cramped Purdue media room.
"That's what the team expects me to do. That's what I expect myself to do. Anyone on the team would have done the same thing (played through injury)."
As for his estimated physical condition entering the contest, Clausen offered a joking, "One hundred percent."
Just Throw Me the (Darn) Ball
Some guys want the ball to pad their statistics. Some guys want the ball when there's no pressure, and because they want to join the party when an offense is blowing an also-ran out of the water.
And some guys, like sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph, want the ball because they want to win the game for their teammates.
"When I broke the huddle," Clausen shared with reporters post-game, "Kyle looked at me and said ‘Jimmy, give me the ball. And I said you better get open and you better catch the ball.'
"He made a big play and after that I gave him a big hug and said ‘that's what all that work in the summertime out in California' (was about). It paid off."
Weis didn't have to dig deeply in the playbook to dial up the game-winner.
"That's a standard red zone play we have," Weis explained of the game-winning, goal line strike from Clausen to Rudolph. "He was detached on the left. His job is to get two yards into the end zone; turn to the outside and if he's covered, pull to the outside. And then we have another guy behind him trying to get over the top of him so we have a high-low combination.
"At first I thought he was going to go to the over-the-top throw but he stuck it in there to Kyle who was just barely in the end zone…where he was supposed to be."
Rudolph was Clausen's first read on the route.
Thanks for the Hospitality, Coach
With less than 40 seconds remaining, junior half back Robert Hughes was stuffed for a two-yard gain to set up 3rd and goal from the Boilermakers 2-yard line. The Irish faced a running clock, with no timeouts, and two more shots at the end zone.
Purdue first-year coach Danny Hope decided this would be a good situation to call a timeout.
"That kind of helped us out a little bit because we were going to clock it to make sure we had one play left," Weis curiously admitted. "We ran the ball on 2nd down and we figured we might catch them in the Cover 7 they like to play, and we might walk in (to the end zone). And as a matter of fact we did get the right coverage we just didn't get it in there."
The Irish didn't score immediately following the timeout, but the break did offer the offense a chance to regroup.
"We had an opportunity to gather our thoughts and get the right call on fourth down."
That call was the aforementioned game-winner to Rudolph, but that's not the call that will have Purdue fans shaking their heads for years to come.
"I wanted to leave enough time to run a couple of plays," explained Hope of his curious clock management. "I wanted to save some time and be able to run three or four plays."
(The Boilers ran four plays and gained 16 yards as the final seconds ticked off the clock to end the contest).
Depth is Indeed the Key
Trailing 7-3 at the start of the second period, Irish head coach Charlie Weis, in a planned effort to protect a pained Clausen, inserted sophomore backup QB Dayne Crist with the Irish at their own 27-yard line.
Crist promptly sprinted off the right edge for a 16-yard gain for an Irish first down.
"The first play we had it so he could either hand off or keep it," explained Weis of Crist's road debut in an Irish uniform. "I could have bet a million dollars he was keeping it.
"I said that to a couple of my guys, ‘I'll bet every penny I have that he's not handing this off.'"
Crist and a trio of Irish runners: freshman Theo Riddick; junior Robert Hughes; and junior wide receiver Golden Tate powered the offense to consecutive scoring drives that turned a four-point deficit into a 17-7 halftime advantage.
The quartet accounted for 135 rushing yards on 16 carries, utilizing both the sprint-option and Wildcat formation, the latter of which resulted in a 14-yard touchdown sprint around the (right) corner with 4:43 remaining in the first half.
Crist, however, struggled in the passing game, notably in the third period when the Irish took 21 plays to travel 60 total yards (possessing the football for nearly 12 minutes in the quarter).
"There were a couple of throws we'd like back," Weis admitted. "Golden runs right by their guy (Purdue CB Brandon King fell in coverage) and he (Crist) threw a line drive rather than putting some air under it. But I thought he really managed the game very well.
"He came in when the game was tight… and he managed the team to that 17-7 halftime lead."
Clausen agreed with his coach's assessment of the young signal-caller.
"Dayne stepped up big for this team. I'm banged up and (Crist) going out there…he played great."
Some of Crist's heroics are likely due to a little extra study time, courtesy of his Football 201 professor, Jimmy Clausen.
"I just tried to help him with whatever he needed to do, whether it was watch extra film; go over reads; watch practice right after practice was over…we did that Tuesday and Wednesday," Clausen explained of his tutoring sessions.
"Whatever he needed of me I was going to be there to do it for him."
Rebirth of Robert
One curious in-game development was the apparent acquisition of a new half back by Coach Weis and the offensive staff.
There was a new guy in the backfield, one that ran hard inside and used one cut to make defenders miss. He showed speed to the outside and ran with a physical forward lean, finishing off each run as if it were his last.
You can't blame me for not recognizing that the ND's newest backfield addition was actually playing in his 27th career game. Junior halfback Robert Hughes looked like a different football player than we've seen over (at least) the last 15 contests.
Hughes finished the '07 season with back-to-back 100-plus yard rushing efforts vs. Duke and Stanford (which would be great if the Irish were in the Final Four) but has since rarely resembled the hard-charging runner Irish fans found in matchups with that season's fellow cellar-dwellers.
I'm not sure why Hughes took an unplanned sabbatical from displaying his talents on Saturdays, but he couldn't have picked a better week to return to his late-freshman form.
"That's the hardest I've seen him run," said Weis of his reborn junior bruiser. "Maybe not necessarily ‘the best' but this is a guy that wanted the ball. He wanted to run people over."
Hughes finished with 68 yards and a touchdown for an Irish rushing attack that totaled 167 yards to the Boilers' 74 on the ground.
The Irish are now 18-0 under Weis when rushing for more yards than the opposition.
Tale of Two Halves
The Irish offensive line and a bevy of ‘backs set an early tone with 22 carries for 138 rushing yards over the game's first 30 minutes, but that same group was held to a mere 29 yards on the ground (on 21 attempts) as the Boilers' stormed back in the second stanza.
What was the difference? I'll allow you to first decipher Weis' coach-speak response.
"Well we did go back to it (the wildly successful "Wildcat" rushing attack) in the second half, but there were a couple of different formations we wanted him (Golden Tate) in. We wanted to run him on sweeps when he was the motion guy; and hand the ball off to him as the inside guy.
"When he was inside they started bringing outside pressure from both sides…the couple of runs we'd like to call vs. outside pressure weren't the ones we were dialing up at that time."
I'll go with penalties (two), missed blocks, a dropped pass, and an overall lack of offensive balance as the main culprits that caused the second stanza stagnation.
Lost in the late-game heroics of Clausen and Rudolph was the momentum-changing hustle, speed, effort and athleticism shown by 5th-Year senior Scott Smith, who sprinted to corral Purdue punt returner Aaron Valentin in the opening field, limiting the speedster to a 31-yard return past midfield and in the process, saved the Irish seven points and end-half momentum that might not have been regained.
With just over two minutes remaining in the first half, Valentin, who returned a punt for a score last week vs. Northern Illinois, caught a bouncing, shanked Eric Maust punt at the 22-yard line and sprinted full speed past the (naturally) over-pursuing Irish coverage unit.
The alert Smith showed a second gear (I think it's commonly referred to as "fear") as he angled Valentin from behind to make the open-field stop at the Irish 41-yard line.
Purdue gained five yards on four plays and turned the ball over on downs for their final meaningful first half possession.