Progress report

Notre Dame faces USC next Saturday

October 9, 2009, 4:18 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- For every seemingly miracle-like moment Jimmy Clausen has concocted on the field this season, there suddenly seems to be 10 such stories about the differences he has made in the people around him.

Charlie Weis and Jimmy Clausen

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen has made a difference for his teammates both on and off the field.

There's the thread about how the Notre Dame junior quarterback texted backup running back Jonas Gray every day during the summer, reminding him to "get into his playbook," when the sophomore was starting to slide off the depth chart.

"He'd also go over all the pass protections with me, something I was having a problem with," Gray said. "It's those kind of things that made it easy to vote for him as a captain."

There's the brief-but-bold locker room speech Clausen gave to the team after a 38-34 loss to Michigan that sent the Irish tumbling out of the Top 25 and that could have been the beginning of the end of Notre Dame fifth-year coach Charlie Weis.

And then earlier this week, this one came to light, courtesy of linebacker phenom Manti Te'o.

The freshman from Hawaii didn't just have Clausen-like expectations to deal with when he matriculated to ND from Oahu's North Shore. There was culture shock, weather shock, ND defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta shock and playbook shock.

"Jimmy is one of the great leaders," said Te'o, whose first extensive playing time of the season last Saturday yielded 10 tackles in a 37-30 overtime win over Washington. "He's really matured in the game, and he's one of the guys that during the summer took me in. I went to his house a lot of times [the Clausens, who split the year between California and South Bend, also have a home just west of campus], and he just made me comfortable and assured me everything was going to be all right.

"He's someone I'll always remember and be thankful for."

Clausen always had the pedigree and precision to be the nation's top passer, which is exactly where he sits on ND's open Saturday. What he has become beyond his own statline is what is coaxing this Notre Dame team away from another disappointing finish of its own and an apocalyptic one for Weis.

It's also Weis' crowning achievement so far in 2009.

That's where the Notre Dame midseason report card begins. But given it's one game short of the midway point and there's no USC game to factor in, it's more of a progress report than an actual grade card:

Offense

National Rankings: Rushing, 59th; Passing, eighth; Total, 10th; Scoring, 29th.

Grade: A

The Skinny: The most impressive stretch of offensive coaching by Weis in five seasons has come in the 2½ games since he lost wide receiver Michael Floyd (until at least late November) to a broken collarbone. Weis, who is also the team's offensive coordinator and offensive playcaller, has been both innovative and daring. The coolest wrinkle has been him starting to move Golden Tate around the offensive formations: To running back, to Wildcat quarterback, to slot receiver, to wide receiver. The only question is why didn't he do this when Floyd was still playing?

The Irish have improved significantly from their 2008 numbers, with their No. 34 national ranking in passing their best last season and their No. 100 ranking in rush offense their worst.

Reasons For Optimism: Freshman wide receiver Shaquelle Evans has Michael Floyd-like, deep-threat capabilities, and he is being fast-tracked to make the Irish offense even more dangerous. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, running back Robert Hughes and Tate have all taken giant steps forward with their play in Floyd's absence. And where adversity used to rile Clausen, he now seems to thrive and build off it.

Reasons For Pessimism: The Irish have yet to face a defense ranked higher than 49th, and they'll see five such teams in their final seven games, starting with USC (fifth in total defense) on Oct. 17.

Defense

National Rankings: Rushing, 67th; Passing (Efficiency), 76th; Total, 96th; Scoring, 58th.

Grade: C-minus

The Skinny: The numbers are way down from 2008 in every major category, especially total defense -- 39th to 96th. The only things saving the Irish from an uglier grade are some intermittent game-saving stretches of good defense, the fact they're one of the top red zone defenses nationally (tied for eighth) and that their young stars are starting to shed their growing pains.

Reasons For Optimism: Freshman linebacker Manti Te'o, sophomore linebacker Darius Fleming, sophomore defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. As these three young players settle in, ND's blitzes and movement will become more effective. Also, the veteran secondary is much better than its stats might indicate.

Reasons For Pessimism: The Irish shouldn't have backtracked this badly, even with a younger lineup. A flurry of top-flight rushing teams await them in the second half, and ND may not have an answer at nose guard to deal with any of it.

Special Teams

National Rankings: Kickoff returns, 31st; Punt returns, 43rd; Net punting, 89th; Kickoff coverage, 60th; Punt coverage, 119th.

Grade: C

The Skinny: What pulls this grade out the realm of needing a parent's signature is freshman kicker Nick Tausch. At the same juncture last year, now-backup kicker Brandon Walker was 1-for-7 on field goals. Tausch, after missing his first field goal (a 28-yard attempt at Michigan), has hit 10 straight -- the longest made-kick streak for an Irish kicker since at least 1995. The kickoff coverage is skewed by a 94-yarder for a TD against Michigan. The punt coverage is skewed by a small sample size (two total for the season).

Reasons For Optimism: Weis inserted freshman punter Ben Turk into the lineup for the first time Saturday against Washington. Turk figures to give the Irish better hang time and direction on punts. Freshman kick returner Theo Riddick seems to get better every week. Punt returner Golden Tate is due to break one at some point.

Reasons For Pessimism: As much emphasis as Weis puts on the importance of special teams, you'd expect better numbers across the board on a consistent basis.

The Next Step

A year before coach Tyrone Willingham was purged after year three at Notre Dame and Weis walked into the void in December of 2004, the then-New England Patriots offensive coordinator made up his mind he wanted to be a college head coach.

So he studied closely the pro coaches who had parachuted in successfully and those who never adapted. And of the four models he found to be worth emulating, USC's Pete Carroll topped the short list.

Charlie Weis

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ironically, Charlie Weis has modeled himself after USC coach Pete Carroll.

You won't be able to tell that on Oct. 17 with a passing glance, though, when offense-dominant Notre Dame (4-1) hosts defense-dominant USC (4-1).

But a closer look reveals the two elements that Weis did borrow successfully -- getting heavily involved in recruiting on the road and keeping his hand in his area of expertise on game day and in the meeting room. It just so happens Weis' and Carroll's expertise are on opposite sides of the ball.

As far as recruiting goes, Weis and Carroll were so dominant in the May evaluation period -- setting the stage for commitments later in the recruiting cycle -- that opposing coaches who didn't like to go out in May (and pushed their assistants to the front lines instead) successfully petitioned to have the rule changed.

Weis' and Carroll's first head-to-head matchup on the field was one of college football's all-time classics -- a 34-31 narrow victory for the Trojans in 2005 that thrust both teams onto BCS tracts. The next three meetings have been humbling for Weis -- a 44-24 loss in 2006 with a BCS Irish team, no less; a 38-0 loss in 2007 at South Bend during the 3-9 lost season; and 38-3 last November in Los Angeles, a loss that left Weis' future at ND hanging for a couple of days.

"I love this year's matchup," said ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso. "As great as Notre Dame's offense and Jimmy Clausen have been playing, they've seen nothing like USC's defense this season.

"But, USC has seen nothing like Notre Dame's offense."

The numbers bear that out.

USC hasn't played a team ranked higher than 40th nationally in total offense or scoring offense and hasn't played a team ranked higher than 55th (Ohio State) in passing offense. The Irish have faced the Nos. 49, 91, 94, 103 and 107 teams in total defense.

Purdue (40th) is the best pass defense the Irish have faced, Michigan State (22nd) the best rush defense. USC is ranked no lower than fifth in any of the four major defensive categories -- and that is after losing eight defensive starters from 2008.

"I think somehow their defense is as good as last year's," said Corso, who saw the Ohio State-USC game in person. "The strength of their defense is their quickness, and they're getting better each game, it seems.

"The thing you love about Notre Dame is the way Clausen and the rest of the Fighting Irish are playing, that they're never out of a game. The belief that they can win close games is a big difference over last year's team.

"The USC game won't define them, win or lose. They've got a lot of football to play after it. But they're an exciting, intriguing team. Where they go from here, you just don't know, but it's going to be fun to watch."

The Long Road Ahead

The man who brashly brushed back the media at his introductory press conference in December of 2004, who uttered the words "decided schematic advantage" during his grand entrance into college football and who made Notre Dame Nation squirm during a raw "60 Minutes" piece in 2005 doesn't exist anymore.

At least not in his totality.

There may not be a coach in the country who has evolved as much in the past four years -- and had to evolve, in order to stay in what has become his dream job.

It was that evolution, the promise of a higher ceiling, that drove Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick's decision to retain Weis last December -- not the Bob Davie/Tyrone Willingham-esque bottom line (29-21).

But the bottom line does figure more into the equation going forward. The evolution must translate into victories -- signature victories as well as mundane ones.

It's seemingly impossible to find a recruiting analyst who would tell you anything but the assessment that Notre Dame now has more talent than 11 of its 12 opponents. USC is the exception. There is no bad bubble of Willingham leftovers poisoning the upper classes. There are not that many perceptual battles to fight anymore.

Yes, there's a part of the ND old guard that may never embrace Weis, and yes there's stories about off-the-field run-ins and arrogance. But when you dig down to the roots, most of them turn out to be more urban legend than fact, and they just keep regurgitating themselves.

Again, the Weis of 2005 off the field is a caricature that doesn't fit. So who is the Weis of 2009?

He's a guy who started the season likely in a BCS-or-bust mode, with the bar likely lowered slightly to 9-3 because of Floyd's injury and the positive way his team has responded to it.

He is a man who, between coaching staff shuffling and persistent recruiting, has aligned his stars with the ones in the sky for his best chance at success.

He is one play away from being 5-0 and three plays -- and perhaps a fortuitous timeout -- away from being 1-4.

His first five games in the 2009 season are probably his finest body of work today. But what about the ceiling that sold Swarbrick last December? How high is it really?

Over the next seven games, we're about to find out.

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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