BY SHANNON O’KEEFE
NOTRE DAME INSIDER
A week after one of Notre Dame's most embarrassing losses, Jimmy Clausen will start at quarterback against the Nittany Lions on Saturday. At this point in the season (already we've arrived at that dismal sounding phrase), Irish fans should be grateful for the so-called quarterback controversy that has shrouded the team to date. This smoke screen has allowed fans to look elsewhere, to consider the future of the Notre Dame offense at a time when it's too painful to look back.
Clausen will be the first freshman quarterback to start a game this early in a season in the modern age at Notre Dame. But it appears as if this may be a year in which records beg to be broken, given that last Saturday's loss to Georgia Tech was the worst opening performance in Notre Dame's storied history -- as in 119 years -- as in ever.
Coach Charlie Weis said watching the film made him want to vomit. Understandable.
The Irish were held to 122 yards, including minus-eight rushing yards on 41 carries and failed to score a touchdown. More than the numbers can convey, they looked sloppy, inexperienced, and very, very beatable. They couldn't read the blitz, despite having practiced all but two of the scenarios that emerged against Georgia Tech, couldn't protect their quarterback(s), couldn't stop the run and finally couldn't score. What all of these contractions add up to is a team with gaping holes at every level.
While a trio of struggling quarterbacks were laying in the backfield at Notre Dame Stadium - literally on their backs a combines 9 times – Anthony Morelli was lighting up Happy Valley, going 23-of-38 for a career-high 295 yards, including three touchdown's, while leading his team to a 59-0 rout of Florida International.
Penn State was getting it done on both sides of the ball. Not only did their defense hold FIU scoreless, they held their opponent to just 114 yards and hammered seven sacks. Special teams also looked fierce, forcing several fumbles.
So, what hope does ND have upon entering Happy Valley, one of the loudest places in college football, before nearly 110,000 rabid fans?
Honestly, not much.
"We're going to go out and we're going to execute and we're going to try to string together a number of good plays this week and hopefully our offense will be successful,” said John Sullivan, ND's talented fifth-year center.
That doesn't sound like the impassioned voice of a team leader. The idea of stringing a few decent plays together does not a victory make, but Sullivan's not wrong. With Clausen as the undisputed started and a return to Weis' patented offensive scheme, familiarity may breed stability, if not success.
That being said, the offensive line is going to have to protect their young quarterback against the blitz, and Clausen is going to have to find some reliable ways to get the ball downfield. Look for James Aldridge to get the bulk of the carries going forward, though Travis Thomas will still get the official start. Also, look for Tom Zbikowski to turn it on at long last - he's overdue for an exciting return.
If ND has one intangible on its side, it's hunger. It has been a tough and embarrassing week for Notre Dame's players and coaches, and one can only hope that they show up on Saturday determined to prove us all wrong. The hope is that they play nasty, as Weis was so quick to coin upon taking the baton. If they're going to start, this is the time.
Look for weekly updates on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish from Shannon O’Keefe.