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.


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