Promises to keep

Irish fullback Aldridge enjoying ND-USC week

October 13, 2009, 9:24 PM

By: Eric Hansen

James Aldridge

AP Photo/Joe Raymond

Senior fullback James Aldridge, who was a recruit in 2005, can still remember then-ND quarterback Brady Quinn's frustration after losing to USC that year.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- James Aldridge remembers the conversation, word for word, emotion for emotion.

In the moments that followed the then-Notre Dame recruit (and seemingly half of the Notre Dame Stadium crowd that day) prematurely spilling onto the field to celebrate what he thought was a seismic upset of USC, Aldridge meandered his way to the Notre Dame locker room.

There he found Brady Quinn, Notre Dame's quarterback at the time, still replaying the final frustrating seconds of the epic 2005 meeting between the Irish and USC.

"He said, 'Make sure this doesn't happen again,'" recalled Aldridge, now a senior fullback for the Irish. "'That's why we're bringing guys like you in.' The message stuck."

But the bottom line has moved drastically in the other direction.

After the 34-31 shortfall in 2005, the Irish fell 44-24 the next year at USC, then 38-0 in the second-most-lopsided loss at Notre Dame Stadium in 2007, then 38-3 in a game last season that was statistically even uglier than the others -- "lowlighted" by no first downs until the third quarter and a coach Charlie Weis era low of four for the game.

Aldridge accounted for 58 of ND's 91 yards in total offense in the 2008 debacle.

"I didn't pay much attention to college football growing up," said the St. Louis native, who played his high school football in Merrillville, Ind. "When I came for the '05 game as a recruit, I was like, 'Holy smokes.' That's when it hit me what this game was all about. I am honored to be part of this tradition between Notre Dame and USC. I just consider it a blessing."

For a while, it didn't look as if Aldridge was going to be blessed to be a part of this year's rivalry renewal between the 25th-ranked Irish (4-1) and No. 6 USC (4-1).

He suffered a shoulder injury in ND's opener against Nevada on Sept. 5 and hasn't played in a game since.

"It was the Bradford injury," said Aldridge, referring to Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. "Sprained AC joint."

And now that Aldridge has fully recovered, can we expect him to throw a few passes?

"I can throw," he insisted.

And run the Wildcat formation?

"We'll see," he said with a laugh.

What Aldridge is certain of is that shades of the atmosphere that confirmed that ND was the right place for him in 2005 are stirring around campus this week.

"It's a buzz," Aldridge said. "Everybody is trying to get tickets. There are cousins coming out of the woodwork. Everybody wants to be a part of this weekend. It's special. It's a special thing to be a part of."

Floyd update

Michael Floyd

Scott Boehm/Getty Images

The Irish got some good news Tuesday when it was revealed that receiver Michael Floyd could be back sooner than expected.

The best news to hit the Notre Dame football program this week has nothing to do with Saturday's showdown between the Irish and USC.

And it got even better after practice.

Injured wide receiver Michael Floyd returned to the practice field Tuesday afternoon -- way ahead of schedule.

Not enough ahead of schedule that he could play in the game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, but an early November return to game action is now possible.

Weis said at his Tuesday news conference that the best-case scenario was Floyd being available as early as ND's Nov. 14 road test at Pittsburgh. But that projection was amended after practice to make it Nov. 7 versus Navy.

Floyd, one of the leading receivers in the nation when he suffered a broken collarbone Sept. 19 against Michigan State, originally was projected to return for a possible bowl game in late December or early January.

The Irish have two regular-season games after the clash with Pittsburgh: Nov. 21 against Connecticut and Nov. 28 at Stanford.

More good news on the injury front: Halfback Armando Allen (ankle) and outside linebacker Darius Fleming (hamstring) are full-go for Saturday after missing entire games or parts of games recently. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen's turf toe injury is better, Weis said, but he admits it won't be fully healed until after the season.

Clausen, in fact, still skips the more taxing agility drills in practice. Floyd did the same Tuesday, and he gingerly ran around in full pads without catching any passes or having any contact.

He did catch plenty of grief from his teammates and Weis, though.

"Oh, you're on the Clausen program," Weis joked.

Irish items

  • Weis' Hannah & Friends charity will hand out 10,000 rally towels to students attending the Notre Dame-USC football game on Saturday.

  • Fred Leahy, son of former Irish coach Frank Leahy, will be in town this weekend and will tour the expanded Notre Dame Stadium for the first time.

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

    Read comments or leave a comment





  • Impressive guest list

    ND to host the largest group of top prospects during USC game

    October 12, 2009, 9:38 AM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He still is weeks away from his next collision with a cornerback; still wearing a sling on his left arm; still limited to "coaching" on game days.

    Charlie Weis

    Matt Cashore/US Presswire

    Mark Sanchez offered Charlie Weis a pat on the back after the Trojans destroyed Notre Dame, 38-0, in 2007.

    That doesn't mean Notre Dame sophomore Michael Floyd won't have an impact on Saturday's showdown at Notre Dame Stadium between the 25th-ranked Irish (4-1) and No. 6 USC (4-1).

    In fact, you can argue, Floyd -- out until at least late November with a broken collarbone -- already has had an impact.

    Dial back to the 2007 ND-USC mismatch, the last time the Trojans came to town.

    In the hours following a 38-0 demoralization by USC on Oct. 20 of that year, sealing the 13th losing season in Irish history at a time when anti-Charlie Weis rhetoric was at its peak, Floyd reversed the momentum.

    He verbally committed to the Irish amidst the smattering of boos, the stream of harsh headlines and the statistical carnage of the second-most-lopsided home loss ever by a Notre Dame squad.

    "That commitment really was huge for Charlie and Notre Dame," said ESPN recruiting analyst and former Ohio State assistant coach Bill Conley. "Not only did they get a great player, but they got a player who attracted other great players to Notre Dame.

    "I remember way back in the 1980s, when Chris Spielman and Cris Carter were at Ohio State. They were two of our best recruiters. And that's the kind of impact Michael Floyd has off the field, not to mention the impact he has on the field when he's healthy."

    That 2007-08 recruiting class grew as the losses piled up. And it held together with just one defection -- defensive lineman Omar Hunter to Florida -- when poaching season hit its crescendo in the weeks just before the February national signing day.

    "I think that kind of defined their character," Weis said of the class unity. "Before they got here, you knew you had a special group, because they were getting hammered every day, everywhere they went. By their peers. At school. At the grocery store

    "And certainly by every other college in America. So that's one of the reasons you know they're special."

    Fast-forward to 2009, and the Irish welcome the largest and most star-heavy in-season recruiting contingent ever.

    No fewer than 10 members of the ESPNU 150 will be in attendance. That doesn't count 11 of the 15 prospects already committed to the Irish who will be in the stands, or the 11 elite juniors scheduled to attend on unofficial visits.

    Three of the senior visitors are committed to other schools but open to switching -- free safety Corey Cooper of Maywood, Ill. (Illinois); wide receiver Tai-ler Jones of Gainesville, Ga. (Stanford) and free safety Devon Carrington of Chandler, Ariz. (Stanford).

    Five of the blue-chip seniors are involved in a recruiting tug-of-war between ND and the Trojans, including the highest-rated prospect of the whole bunch, ESPNU No. 4 Seantrel Henderson.

    Henderson is a 6-foot-8, 330-pound offensive tackle from Cretin-Derham Hall High in St. Paul, Minn. -- the same school that produced Floyd. In fact, Henderson dropped the Irish earlier in the recruiting process, but those in recruiting circles credit Floyd with getting ND back in the mix.

    "Seantrel and I are real close," Floyd said earlier in the fall. "That's just how it is. I'm working on him -- we're working on him -- to come here. He's a cool guy and a lot like me, kind of a goofball who gets the job done in school. The guy can play. That's how it is."

    Floyd is one of five Irish starters (or would-be starters) who were heavily involved with USC during the recruiting process and vice versa. The others are quarterback Jimmy Clausen, offensive tackle Sam Young, defensive tackle Ethan Johnson and freshman linebacker Manti Te'o.

    For Floyd, it was easy to see beyond the short-term turmoil when he made his decision.

    "Sitting there and looking at stuff, I just got the feeling that this is the place for me," he said. "I didn't get a feeling like that from anywhere else as much as Notre Dame. This is the spot for me. This is a place I can have a career and keep going. It was just a good school for me to go to."

    Interestingly, two of the other three elite prospects who made recruiting visits to ND that turbulent weekend in which the Irish fell to 1-7 -- offensive lineman Trevor Robinson and running back Jonas Gray -- also eventually ended up committing to Notre Dame. The third, South Carolina lineman Kenneth Page, signed with Clemson.

    "This is going to be an interesting weekend on a lot of levels," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "I can remember three years ago, when the Irish just got it handed to them by USC at the [L.A. Memorial] Coliseum [44-24], and Charlie Weis at the podium talked about a talent disparity and how he intended to close that gap.

    "Well, you weren't going to see that gap close the past two years, because when quarterback Jimmy Clausen walked into that huddle, all he had were other young players around him. Now he's experienced and everyone around him has kind of grown up with him. It's going to be interesting to see Saturday how much the talent gap has closed."

    Conley said very seldom does one singular game, even one of this magnitude, weigh heavily in where a prospect eventually ends up. And Floyd is proof of that. But when a big game leads to a chain of events that either ensures or dilutes a head coach's job security, that's a different story.

    "Recruits aren't talking about Charlie Weis' job right now," Conley said. "They're 4-1 and in the top 25. But things could move in another direction, for better or for worse, after Saturday. I don't think they get Manti Te'o last year if there was an inkling Charlie wasn't going to be around. It would have been a big game anyway for Notre Dame on Saturday. I think the stakes are even higher now."

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

    Read comments or leave a comment





    Irish move back into polls in bye week

    Next week's opponent, USC, moves up to sixth

    October 11, 2009, 1:17 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame moved back into the Top 25 in the Associated Press writers' college football poll on a weekend in which coach Charlie Weis was in South Florida recruiting and the Irish players didn't so much as practice.

    The Irish (4-1), who tumbled out of the poll Sept. 13 after a 38-34 loss to Michigan a day earlier, re-enter at No. 25. Their upcoming opponent this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, USC (4-1), also moved up during its bye week.

    The Trojans will head to Notre Dame ranked sixth, up from seventh a week ago.

    The Irish also moved back into the coaches' Top 25, at No. 25, and made a big leap in the Sagarin computer rankings, jumping to No. 17.

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

    Read comments or leave a comment





    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.

    Read comments or leave a comment





    Golden news

    Tate receives player of the week honors

    October 8, 2009, 9:12 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Even in the bye week, Notre Dame wide receiver Golden Tate found a way to make some news.

    The Irish junior was named the AT&T All-America Player of the Week Thursday after the fifth week of college football action.

    It's the only major college football award chosen exclusively by fans, and more than 50 percent of ballots went to Tate. He is the second Notre Dame football player to be honored this season, joining junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who was selected after the first week of the season.

    Golden Tate

    Brian Spurlock/US Presswire

    Even in Notre Dame's bye week, receiver Golden Tate finds himself in the news.

    The Hendersonville, Tenn., product helped the Irish rally past Washington, 37-30, in overtime Saturday at ND Stadium. He hauled in nine receptions for 244 yards -- most in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season -- and one touchdown.

    The 244 yards receiving is also the second most in school history, just 32 yards shy of Jim Seymour's 43-year-old record.

    The Irish (4-1) began a four-day break from practice Thursday morning. They'll begin preparation for their Oct. 17 showdown with seventh-ranked USC (4-1) on Monday.

    Moving on up

    Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen continues to move up the NFL draft projections.

    ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., has the 6-foot-2, 223-pound junior at No. 11 overall on his Big Board this week and fourth among quarterbacks behind Oklahoma junior Sam Bradford (No. 1 overall prospect), Washington junior Jake Locker (No. 4) and Texas senior Colt McCoy (No. 9).

    Clausen is coming off a career-high 422-yard passing performance in that OT win over Washington that vaulted him to the top spot in the nation's passing-efficiency ratings.

    "You're looking at the growth of a kid who always had the polish and now is gaining the intangibles, the patience and the accuracy," Kiper wrote in his ESPN blog. "I'm impressed with how he always finds the open man and goes through his reads. He also has continued to thrive even after losing a star receiver to injury when Michael Floyd went down.

    Clausen hasn't committed to coming out as a junior, but ND coach Charlie Weis recently acknowledged that his quarterback might have a tough decision ahead of him this season.

    "In Jimmy's case, if you move yourself up so high in the draft that it's an offer you can't refuse, then you have to seriously consider it," Weis said. "But I think that you never want to walk away from a Notre Dame education unless [an opportunity] to complete a Notre Dame education were presented to you.

    "I'd love to have Jimmy here for this year and next year, but if he ends up playing so well this year that it warrants him making that decision, that probably will be a good thing for the success of our football team this year."

    The 2010 NFL draft will be held April 22-24 in New York.

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

    Read comments or leave a comment





    Rising Future

    Clausen making strong case for Heisman consideration

    October 7, 2009, 8:19 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Roger Valdiserri, the man who three decades ago rhymed "Theismann" with "Heisman," preached restraint.

    "Gosh, Jimmy Clausen has matured so much in two years I can't believe it," the retired longtime Notre Dame sports information director and associate athletic director said. "I think he's the best I've seen this year, and I watch a lot of games, because I vote in the Harris Poll. But as far as starting a Heisman campaign, I would wait a couple of more games. They have some tough games coming up. You don't want to shoot the cannon off too soon."

    Then again, the cannon might have a mind of its own.

    The Notre Dame junior quarterback's ascendance to the No. 1 spot nationally in passing efficiency after five largely drama-laden weeks of the 2009 season may not have prompted anyone to change the pronunciation of his name, but he is suddenly embedded in the Heisman discussion, nonetheless.

    Playing on a bad wheel (turf toe) and without one of the most explosive receivers in the country (Michael Floyd) for the past two and half games, Clausen has turned adversity into an ally.

    Jimmy Clausen

    Brian Spurlock

    Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen still faces a tough test against USC, but he's becoming one of the hottest names when talking about the Heisman Trophy.

    The Westlake Village, Calif., product rates third in ESPN's latest weekly Heisman poll, second in Sports Illustrated's and first in CBSSports.com's.

    "I think he's grown up tremendously as a young man and as a quarterback," observed former Notre Dame standout quarterback and 1970 Heisman runner-up Joe Theismann, who himself grew up pronouncing his last name THEEZ-man until Valdiserri got ahold of him.

    "Jimmy's first year, he looked like a deer in headlights. His second year, he looked like a deer in darkness. Now he looks like a quarterback who has a wonderful future."

    The struggle and transformation might be Clausen's greatest Heisman hook. Last year the No. 1 overall college prospect in the 2007 recruiting cycle was 43rd in passing efficiency.

    In 2007, playing with a surgically repaired elbow that hadn't healed completely and behind what was at the time the worst pass protection in Football Bowl Subdivision history, Clausen didn't even crack the top 100.

    "The biggest thing, I think, is the game is coming to him," Theismann said. "I felt like in his first couple of years he felt like he had something to prove. He played like a guy who tried to force issues and make plays. Today what he does, if a guy's not open, he throws the ball away. He's playing very, very intelligent football at the quarterback position.

    "He's allowing the defense to go do their job. He's allowing the receivers to go make plays. He's allowing the running backs to go do their job. You're sort of the conductor of an orchestra when you play that position.

    "In the first couple of years, it looks like he wanted to be not only the conductor but wanted to play the percussion section and the horn section and a few other things."

    The melody, when converted to numbers, looks something like this:

  • Clausen is 100-of-148 (.676) for 1,544 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions, which translates to the nation's best pass-efficiency rating (179.25).
  • Clausen's 179.25 pace is far better than the Notre Dame all-time record of 161.4 by Bob Williams in 1949. By comparison, Brady Quinn's best numbers were 158.4 in 2005 and 146.7 in 2006, when he finished third in the Heisman balloting.
  • Clausen has been at his best when the game is on the line. In the fourth quarter and overtime of ND's five games this season, the 6-foot-3, 223-pounder is 29-of-45 for 396 yards and four TDs with no interceptions.
  • And the stat of most significance for the long haul: The Irish have played 20 quarters of football this year -- 10 with Floyd, 10 without the injured standout wide receiver.
  • While Clausen's and ND's overall offensive numbers shriveled last year during a three-game absence by Floyd, that doesn't appear to be the case this year.

    In the 10 quarters with Floyd, Notre Dame had 11 passes of 20 yards or more. In the 10 without, Notre Dame has 11 passes of 20 yards or more.

    And yet Clausen's most impressive game was the one where his numbers were the worst. In a 24-21 victory at Purdue on Sept. 26, Clausen played only about half the game with an injury that would have kept some players on the sideline.

    In the end, he threw for a mortal 171 yards (15-of-26) -- his only game among his past six dating back to the Hawaii Bowl last Christmas Eve in which he didn't amass 300 yards or more. He had one touchdown and his first interception of the season.

    But 69 of those yards came as the junior quarterback drove the Irish 72 yards in 12 plays, connecting with tight end Kyle Rudolph on a fourth-down scoring play with 24.8 seconds left as Notre Dame survived.

    "I got more text messages [that night] from NFL people saying that same thing: 'Good to see a quarterback with some guts,' " ND coach Charlie Weis said. "The word might not have been 'guts,' but I got several of them on the way home, and they were impressed."

    After an open date this Saturday, a date with destiny looms Oct. 17, when seventh-ranked USC comes to town.

    Whatever flaws the Trojans have shown offensively, they have yet to show on the defensive side.

    USC is the only team in the country that has not allowed a TD pass, and the Trojans have surrendered only three touchdowns period.

    "Every football player wants to be in a game like this," Theismann said. "You want to be Jimmy Clausen in this football game, because it's an opportunity to measure yourself against an extremely good football team.

    "Now how do you measure yourself? You measure yourself by decisions. You measure yourself by performance. He's got a week off to get healthier, so the stars are aligned. He has a chance to do something special. And you know what? He's earned it."

    Wheels in motion

    Brian Hardin, ND's current sports information director for football, started thinking about ways to accelerate Clausen's Heisman candidacy over the past couple of weeks. He is in the process of putting together a Web site that will have stats and video highlights for Clausen, Rudolph, safety Kyle McCarthy and wide receiver Golden Tate.

    "We'll probably will do something extra with Clausen, but making sure it stays within the parameters of what the university stands for," Hardin said.

    He also knows not to get too ornate.

    Hardin studied a 2005 dissertation by Florida State doctoral candidate Clark D. Haptonstall. Among Haptonstall's findings:

  • Heisman Trophy voters rely more on information about a candidate they collect on their own than information provided by a university.
  • Ninety-four percent of the voters view a player's performance in marquee games as important or very important in determining who ultimately receives their vote for the Heisman Trophy.
  • Candidates with national TV exposure have a decided advantage.
  • Only 6 percent of the voters thought a weekly postcard with updated stats was even "somewhat important." E-mail updates didn't prove to be much more fruitful.
  • Things like billboards. bobblehead dolls, posters and bumper stickers get plenty of attention but have no positive effect on voting.
  • A dedicated Web site was ranked 27th on a list of the 30 most important factors, and voters disliked Web sites with obvious propaganda.
  • Only 10 percent of Heisman voters thought pro potential was important.
  • Strength of schedule matters a ton.
  • "If I could make Clausen rhyme with Heisman, I'd do it," Hardin quipped. "Really, we're in a fortunate position, because at Notre Dame, we don't have to create awareness. The best promotion for Jimmy is what he does every Saturday on national TV."

    History lesson

    It's been 22 seasons since Tim Brown became Notre Dame's record seventh Heisman Trophy winner. Since then, USC and Ohio State have both caught up.

    Rocket Ismail's second-place finish in 1990 has been the closest for a Notre Dame player since.

    There's a common thread that runs through all seven Irish winners: Humble beginnings.

    Brown was a freshman about to embark on his first season playing for Gerry Faust in 1984, when Faust told him just days before the season kicked off that he would be eased into the Irish lineup for Notre Dame's opener with Purdue in Indianapolis.

    "The coaches knew, down here in Dallas, I had never played in front of more than a couple of hundred folks," Brown recalled. "But when [coach] Gerry Faust is giving his big speech in the locker room, he ends it with, 'Tim Brown, I want you to return the opening kickoff.' I was just shaking in my pants, man."

    So shaken was Brown that he forgot his helmet in the locker room and had to run back to get it. That was the last vivid memory of the opening moments of the game.

    "I can honestly say I don't remember what happened," he said with a chuckle. "All I know is they squib kicked the ball to me. I remember getting over to it and getting my hands on it. And I saw a hole and started running.

    "It was weird, because I'm like, 'Why isn't anybody trying to tackle me?' At some point. I must have dropped the ball. I must have freaked out, went into shock or something, because I have no recollection of fumbling the ball. I know I didn't get hit. I finally turned around, and it was like, 'What happened?' What a way to start your career."

    John Huarte (1964) earned his first letter at Notre Dame after winning the Heisman. He had barely played as a junior or sophomore, and no freshmen played in that era.

    Paul Hornung (1956) had to endure a coaching change -- the legendary Frank Leahy to the mortal Terry Brennan -- after his freshman season and played with an extremely inexperienced supporting cast his senior year and with two dislocated thumbs in his final game.

    John Lattner (1953) was told he wasn't fast enough or flashy enough to make it at Notre Dame by friends and neighbors in his Chicago West Side neighborhood. He also had to overcome five fumbles his junior season in a game against Purdue and the wrath from Leahy that came along with it.

    Leon Hart (1949) was so fired up when he was called into his first game, he collided with a teammate on his way from the sideline to the huddle.

    John Lujack (1947) was thrust into action in the seventh game of his sophomore year when 1943 Heisman Trophy winner and starting quarterback Angelo Bertelli was called up by the Marines just before Notre Dame's showdown with third-ranked Army in '43. Lujack then had to face eighth-ranked Northwestern, No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight and powerful Great Lakes to finish the season. He then missed almost three years of school, including two football seasons, serving his country in the Navy during World War II.

    Bertelli (1943) had to learn a new offense in 1942, when Leahy bagged the old Notre Dame box for the T-formation. Then he didn't even think he would play in 1943 due to an imminent call-up by the Marine Corps during World War II.

    Clausen's crash into Notre Dame fans' consciousness came in a white stretch Hummer limo.

    He flashed rings and talked of multiple national titles. He reeked of privilege and pedigree.

    But when he was almost obliterated by his inexperience and the circumstances he was swimming in the past two years, Clausen was viewed as a flop. As a spoiled, white-collar quarterback who couldn't rise above his affluence.

    And then one day, between a humiliating season-ending loss to USC last November and the breakout performance in the Hawaii Bowl, Clausen pushed back.

    And when more puffs of adversity came his way, Clausen used them to make himself stronger.

    "Jimmy has always wanted to be good, but he never quite knew how," Theismann said. "I think Jimmy's in a very unique position. When he came out of high school, he was the most highly touted quarterback in the country. He was the one everybody wanted. And from Jimmy's perspective, it's almost like it's back to a couple of years ago, where everybody's talking about Jimmy Clausen being really special.

    "I think when he came to Notre Dame, he believed all that. He's a much more mature young man right now and he knows that every snap in practice and every opportunity he's taking advantage of."

    And now comes USC, the backyard school the Californian turned his back on a few years ago to take a chance with Weis.

    "When somebody's been beat down and beat up and rises to the occasion like he has, you've defined yourself no matter what happens against USC," Theismann said. "He really looks like he's having fun playing football. He's jumping around. He's excited. Jimmy is in control of this football team. He's turning this into a movie. And it's getting started."

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

    Read comments or leave a comment





    Arrow pointing up for Te'o

    Weis says the time was right to give linebacker more time

    October 6, 2009, 10:07 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Along with a scintillating 10 tackles in Notre Dame freshman linebacker Manti Te'o's coming-out party Saturday, came roughly an equal number of visible growing pains.

    At least by Irish coach Charlie Weis' unofficial count.

    But on Tuesday afternoon came the payoff. The first time Te'o stepped on the field since Notre Dame's 37-30 overtime survival of Washington, the vaunted 6-foot-2, 244-pound bundle of exuberance from Hawaii had perhaps his best practice in an Irish uniform.

    "I think the arrow is pointing way up on Manti," Weis said.

    The timing couldn't be better. Seventh-ranked USC (4-1), the team Weis wrested Te'o from on national signing day in February, comes to town Oct. 17. Both teams have an open date this Saturday.

    While quarterback Jimmy Clausen has put the Irish (4-1) on the periphery of a BCS trajectory, to what extent the Notre Dame defense can improve in the weeks to come is likely the determining factor in whether the Irish can lock into that BCS tract or fade into mediocrity in the second half of the season.

    Te'o is one of the players who could move that joystick around the most. In the only game in which he played more than a quarter this season, he actually passed, on the list of season tackle leaders, the player he replaced in the lineup (senior Toryan Smith).

    "Nevada's offense was totally different from Michigan's offense, which was totally different from Michigan State's offense, which was totally different from Purdue," Weis said of his reasoning for bringing Te'o on more deliberately.

    "But we just made a decision that regardless of which offense was coming up next, we needed to put him in there and start the natural learning curve that you go through at this time. I think we gained more than we lost."

    Irish Items

  • Roughly 10 frontline Irish players spent Tuesday's practice in the training room convalescing from injuries -- including quarterback Jimmy Clausen, leading rusher Armando Allen, leading receiver Golden Tate and leading tackler Kyle McCarthy.

    Another handful of starters -- among them tight end Kyle Rudolph and offensive tackle Sam Young -- had limited contact and did not practice in full pads.

    A funny thing, though, happened after practice. Clausen, who has played the past 2½ games with a painful turf toe injury, complained about missing practice.

    Weis also wanted to give the junior Wednesday off, as well, but Clausen vetoed Weis.

    "This is the only week I can really give him as much rest as I can," Weis said. "He asked to go tomorrow, so he'll end up going at least the first half."

  • Starting fullback James Aldridge had his first full-contact practice since suffering a shoulder injury in the season opener with Nevada on Sept. 5 and could return to action Oct. 17 against the Trojans.

  • Freshman tight end Tyler Eifert has a back injury that is likely to require surgery in the coming days, Weis said. He would be eligible for a medical redshirt year.

  • A couple of sophomore backup linebackers who see a lot of action on special teams for the Irish -- David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald -- will both have to pass cognitive tests before returning to full contact next week. Both suffered blows to the head against Washington, with McDonald's serious enough that he actually started running the wrong way after the hit.

  • USC is starting to get healthy at the right time. Even running back Stafon Johnson, in the hospital after a recent weightlifting accident, is making significant progress. Listed as probable for the Trojans at this point are linebacker Malcolm Smith (ankle), wide receiver Ronald Johnson (collarbone), defensive tackle Armond Armstead (foot) and fullback Adam Goodman (shoulder). Listed as questionable are linebacker Jordan Campbell (ankle), linebacker Nick Garratt (ankle), cornerback Brian Baucham (abrasions) and offensive guard Martin Coleman (foot). Out for the game with the Irish, beyond Johnson, are wide receiver Scott Stephens (knee), defensive tackle Hebron Fangupo (ankle), cornerback Marshall Jones (neck), tailback Marc Tyler (toe), tight end James Boyd (knee), wide receiver Robbie Boyer (hand) and cornerback Shareece Wright (ineligible).
  • Johnson has a Web site through CaringBridge.org, where fans can read his journal and leave him messages: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/stafonjohnson. He is also on Twitter (@stafon13) and has more than 10,000 followers.
  • Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

    Read comments or leave a comment





    Where's the love?

    Weis is wondering why Notre Dame isn't ranked

    October 4, 2009, 3:07 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis played the respect card Sunday.

    For the 24th time since the inception of the Associated Press college football poll in 1936, the Irish football team finds itself 4-1 five games into a season.

    Clausen

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Jimmy Clausen leads the nation with a 179.25 passing efficiency rating.

    It's only the second time in those 24 seasons that a 4-1 Irish squad was unranked.

    The first time? Last season, when a 4-1 start evolved into a 7-6 finish that tested Weis' job security.

    Among the 22 ND teams that were ranked when 4-1, two were coached by Weis (12th in 2006, ninth in 2005). The highest-ranked among all of them was the 1965 team (fourth). One of them, the 1977 squad that was 11th when 4-1, went on to win a national title.

    "I think if you look at some of the other teams that are playing and look at how their games have gone, tell me where the difference is," Weis said Sunday, less than 24 hours after his Irish survived Washington, 37-30, in overtime.

    It was ND's third straight win and fourth consecutive game decided in the final minute of regulation or overtime.

    "I can go right up to the Top 10 and work right on down," Weis said. "You tell me what teams that are in there that haven't had some trouble in their schedule. I mean, almost everybody has. If you compare apples to apples, I think that we deserve to be there right with everybody else."

    The Irish garnered nine points in this week's AP Poll, two more than last week. In the coaches poll, the Irish were just three spots removed from the top 25 with 57 points, up from 23 the week before.

    What some voters might get stuck on isn't the closeness of ND's games, but why they're close. The Irish are 96th nationally in total defense.

    After an open date this coming Saturday, Notre Dame will have a chance to earn its way into the top 25 when seventh-ranked USC (4-1) visits Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 17.

    Irish items
    •The nation's No. 1 prospect in the 2007 recruiting cycle finds himself atop the nation's passing-efficiency standings for the first time in his career this week.
    Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen moved from No. 4 to No. 1, and sports a 179.25 rating. Boise State's Kellen Moore (176.31) is second, with 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida third (170.31).
    Clausen is at his best when the game is on the line. In the fourth quarter and overtime of ND's five games this season, the 6-3, 223-pounder is 29-of-45 for 396 yards and four TDs and no interceptions.
    And he has played the past 2 games with a painful turf toe injury.
    "Maybe we should give him another turf toe," Weis joked. "You know what I'm saying?"
    •Irish receiver Golden Tate's 244 receiving yards on nine catches against Washington, is the most by a receiver in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision this season.
    •Freshman kicker Nick Tausch's streak of 10 straight made field goals -- including a school record-tying five against the Huskies -- constitutes the longest by an Irish kicker since 1995.

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

    Read comments or leave a comment





    Where to start?

    Many great plays, performances, but goal-line stands stood out

    October 3, 2009, 10:48 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The first overtime victory of Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis' collegiate career Saturday featured 987 yards in total offense, seven lead changes, three goal-line stands by the Irish defense, and a whole lot of questions about where this crossroads team is headed.

    Charlie Weis

    Brian Spurlock/US Presswire

    Charlie Weis smiles after his first OT victory at Notre Dame.

    For the short term, Notre Dame rolls its 37-30 overtime subduing of Washington at soggy Notre Dame Stadium into a much-needed bye week.

    Quarterback Jimmy Clausen's turf-toe injury barked so loudly on one play, he almost was coaxed to the sidelines. And it hindered his scrambling to the point on three plays that he slipped down untouched behind the line of scrimmage.

    And yet, he somehow found a way to throw for a career-high 422 yards and two touchdowns (22-of-31). He shook off two early turnovers to push deeper into conversations about serious Heisman Trophy candidates this December and potential first-round draft choices next April.

    Leading rusher Armando Allen limped to the sidelines late in the third quarter, reinjuring the right ankle that kept him out of last week's 24-21 survival at Purdue. But his replacement, Robert Hughes, was ND's leading rusher for the second straight week (70 yards, eight carries, 1 TD and a two-point conversion run) -- and did it in less than a quarter and a half.

    Leading pass-rusher Darius Fleming tweaked a hamstring in pregame warm-ups, yet his replacements -- Kerry Neal and Scott Smith -- combined for 12 tackles (two for losses).

    Saturday was Notre Dame's fourth straight game decided by a touchdown or less, and the third in a row in which the Irish have come out on the winning side.

    "They just keep on fighting and fighting and fighting," said Weis, who had lost his three previous overtime affairs. "Four weeks in a row you get into the same situation, and the first one doesn't turn out the way you want it.

    "And now three weeks in a row, they've come up big. There was a lot of bad stuff in the game, but I'm going to have a tough time feeling bad tonight."

    The bye week will be a time to heal up and grow up. First, a look back at the Washington game:

    Player of the Game: It would be easier to name who wasn't.

    Clausen had the best performance of his career. Freshman linebacker Manti Te'o had 10 tackles in the first extensive action of his career. Freshman kicker Nick Tausch tied a school record with five field goals. Kyle McCarthy had a team-high 12 tackles, including teaming up on a concussion-causing hit on D'Andre Goodwin in overtime that jarred loose what looked to be a 31-yard completion on fourth down. Wide receiver Golden Tate corralled nine passes for 244 yards -- second most in Irish history ... but we're going to give it to the Irish goal-line defense. That unit stopped Washington on 14 plays inside the Irish 8-yard line on two separate possessions, late in the third quarter and again late in the fourth.

    Play of the Game: Toryan Smith stuffing Washington quarterback Jake Locker on the ND 1-yard line on third down late in the fourth quarter, coaxing the Huskies to settle for a field goal.

    What we learned about the Irish: Te'o is going to live up to his hype -- and then some. Clausen is playing his finest football in what may be his final season at ND. What ND lacks in style points, it makes up for in toughness. But it's going to have to be a team that starts moving toward its ceiling if it's going to stay on a BCS arc.

    What Weis said: "When I saw him hit him, the next thing I was thinking: 'Is that ball going to bounce to somebody else?'" Weis said in talking about the game-saving defensive hit by safeties McCarthy and Harrison Smith in overtime. "The way this game is going, would it have surprised you? When that ball hit the ground, there was nobody happier than me, I promise you."

    What he didn't say: How many Rolaids he's ingested the past four weeks.

    Players' perspective: "It was all heart, staying low and wanting it more than them." -- Irish defensive tackle Ethan Johnson.

    Spinning forward: The Irish have two weeks to prepare for rival USC's arrival at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 17, but the first week will likely be spent more on getting extra reps for the young Irish players and holding out hobbled veterans like Clausen and Allen. The Irish can't keep repeating their heart-stopping wins. At some point, they have to build off them and evolve into a more dominant team.

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

    Read comments or leave a comment





    Countdown to kickoff: Notre Dame-Washington

    Freshmen Turk, Te'o to see larger roles against Huskies

    October 2, 2009, 3:41 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    6. Raising the Barr: One game before Notre Dame hosts its biggest in-season recruiting weekend ever (USC, Oct. 16-18), one of its top targets is making an important official visit Saturday.

    Anthony Barr will be in attendance for the Notre Dame-Washington game, part of a small but key contingent of Irish prospects.

    He is the son of former Notre Dame running back Tony Brooks and nephew of former Irish All-American Reggie Brooks, who works for ND as the manager for monogram/football alumni relations.

    The 6-foot-4, 230-pound running back at Loyola High School in Los Angeles recently suffered a broken ankle that required surgery and ended his senior season. He projects as a multi-position talent in college. ND likes him as a linebacker. Cal, Michigan, UCLA and USC are also in his top 5.

    Also visiting from Los Angeles is Hayes Pullard, another multi-position prospect. The 6-2, 220-pound Crenshaw High senior is also strongly considering ND's Saturday opponent, Washington, as well as Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, UCLA and USC.

    St. Rita (Chicago) defensive tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. is taking an unofficial visit to ND this weekend. The 6-2, 290-pound senior is also considering Arizona, Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin.

    Not visiting this weekend (but having received a scholarship offer Friday) is an elite prospect with Notre Dame ties -- offensive lineman Conor Hanratty.

    The 6-foot-4½, 296-pound junior plays offensive tackle at New Canaan (Conn.) High School. Hanratty has offers from a number of other schools, including Iowa, Wisconsin, Stanford, Cal, Boston College, Connecticut and Duke.

    5. Youth movement: Two of ND's freshmen are expected to see significantly larger roles Saturday against the Huskies.

    Punter Ben Turk actually will see his first action of the season, replacing struggling senior Eric Maust. And don't be surprised if the 5-foot-11, 193-pounder from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., makes a tackle or two.

    His max bench press is 405 pounds. And before the start of the season, he benched 225 pounds 26 times in one session. To put that in perspective, linebacker Aaron Curry, picked third in this year's NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks, benched 225 a total of 25 times at the draft combine in February.

    "My brother [Ben Young] and Ben Turk are pretty good friends," said ND senior offensive tackle Sam Young, also a St. Thomas Aquinas graduate. "My brother used to call me up all smug and say, 'What did you guys lift today?' And then he'd say, 'Oh yeah, well, Ben did that, too.'

    "I talked to my old high school coach about him. He'd kid with Turk and say, 'Stop lifting. You're a punter, for God's sakes.' Apparently he didn't listen."

    Manti Te'o

    Brian Spurlock/US Presswire

    Notre Dame freshman Manti Te'o is set to see more action Saturday vs. Washington.

    Also expected to make some tackles is freshman linebacker Manti Te'o. He'll see his first extensive action of the season Saturday after making cameos in ND's first four games.

    "It's not a question or not of whether Manti is athletic enough," Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said of the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder from Hawaii. "Obviously, he has top-line athleticism. I think it's taken him a little time to just get comfortable with the position. All the formation recognition that goes on is totally different from when you're in high school.

    "[It's about] just getting settled into a comfort zone of knowing what to do, because the sky's the limit for him. Once he knows what to do, he's going to be able to do it and do it very well."

    4. Hart to heart: Former Washington defensive line coach Randy Hart, now in his first season at Notre Dame, played down Saturday's ND-Washington clash as just another game -- in public.

    Behind closed doors, Hart delivered an impassioned speech to the Irish team.

    "He's all Notre Dame," Weis said, "but after 21 years in one place, it's tough not to feel a passion for Seattle and the University of Washington, which he always will.

    "I told him he could talk as long as he wanted to, but when he was done, there wasn't anything else to be said. Thankfully, I talked before he talked, because I wouldn't have known what to say after he was done."

    3. Un-Tyed: For the first time in the past four meetings in the series, this ND-Washington game will not involve Tyrone Willingham.

    Willingham was the winning coach in 2004, when he led the Irish to a 38-3 victory. In 2005 and 2008, he was on the losing end after moving on to Washington. In the head-to-head meetings with Weis, the Huskies lost 36-17 (2005) and 33-7 (2008).

    So who will his rooting interest be Saturday? Good question.

    Willingham has been keeping a low profile since being purged after last year's 0-12 run.

    He did pop up on a radio show on Detroit station WJR-AM 760 a couple of weeks ago, when the Michigan State graduate and former two-sport walk-on returned to the East Lansing campus.

    "Right now I am working very diligently at not working," Willingham said with a laugh. "They say I go after everything 100 percent, and that's what I'm doing. I have no idea what the future holds."

    Willingham did suggest that he may not be finished with coaching.

    The weekend of the interview, Willingham did deliver a speech to the current Michigan State team. The Spartans lost to Central Michigan, 29-27.

    2. Playing with pain I: Freshman Theo Riddick, ND's primary kickoff return man, will play with a small splint on his right arm Saturday.

    "He had a little crack in a bone, so we had a soft cast on early in the week," Weis said.

    Starting running back Armando Allen is projected to be 100 percent. Starting fullback James Aldridge (shoulder) remains out until at least the USC game.

    "We're putting all of our eggs in one basket here to get to that point," Weis said of gutting through some minor injuries to get to next week's bye week. "That's the right perspective for us to be taking, because if you get to the bye 4-1, it's a totally different scenario than getting there 3-2.

    "So you can worry about bumps and bruises next week. We've got time to recover next week. We don't have time to worry about them this week."

    1. Playing with pain II: Quarterback Jimmy Clausen continues to play with a painful turf toe injury suffered during the second quarter of a Sept. 19 win over Michigan State.

    Unlike last week, when his practices were limited and his game snaps were solely from the shotgun formation, Clausen was able to take some snaps from under center and did not take a day off from practice.

    "To be honest, last week after the Michigan State game, after I got injured, it was pretty painful," he said. "I could barely walk on it. Just to translate that to this week, I feel a lot better than I did. After the Purdue game, I felt pretty good on Sunday and [Tuesday] when I was out there to practice.

    "I don't think I'll be 100 percent healthy until the end of the season or after the season. Next week is going to be big for me just getting my rest and resting my toe as much as I can."

    Clausen has retained his sense of humor, if not his mobility, during the ordeal. When asked whether the protective plate in his right shoe inhibited his running ability, Clausen chuckled.

    "To be honest, I'm not very mobile as it is, whether I'm healthy or not healthy," he said.

    Read comments or leave a comment