This week’s Lessons Learned column comes a bit late, but here are my final thoughts on Notre Dame’s win over Purdue.
Clausen has a ton of heart. Needless to say, Clausen showed a lot of heart on Saturday and really put his name into the Heisman race with his performance. His stats were modest (he only played 2 quarters) and he did throw his first interception of the season, but he came off the bench and led a last minute touchdown drive capped off with a 4th and goal touchdown pass. While we might not have envisioned Clausen making drives that to win games against teams like Purdue, that is precisely the kind of drive we all figured would become common place with Clausen. So far this year it has been. Saturday was the third straight game in which Clausen lead a 4th quarter scoring drive to take the lead. Clausen has become, by far, the unquestioned leader of this team and the team rallies around him. If he continues to play like he’s been, he’ll be in the Heisman race all season.
Nick Tausch is showing why he won the kicking duties by a wide margin. After seeing Tausch kick for four weeks, I’m willing to say this his first miss of the year was just nerves since he’s 5 for 5 on field goals since and has looked good doing so. Tausch is improving on his kickoffs and boomed the final kickoff into the end zone on Saturday. I don’t remember the last time a kickoff reached the end zone for Notre Dame at a critical juncture like that so it was very nice to see Tausch get that much leg into it. Given Notre Dame’s recent history with place kicking, it will be a couple weeks of similar results before most Notre Dame fans feel comfortable on all field goals, but the early returns on this freshman kicker are looking very promising.
Notre Dame is still in search of a second (and third) wide receiver. Given the time needed to implement the Dayne Crist package with Clausen banged up, it’s easy to see why another receiver might not have stepped up just yet, but the Irish need to find a second and third receiver in a hurry with Washington this weekend and USC in two weeks. Duval Kamara was the second wide receiver for most of the game, but ended up dropping two easy catches and getting called for two illegal formation penalties – that can’t happen for this offense to keep moving. Shaq Evans, Deion Walker, and John Goodman all saw the field, but none really established themselves. I would have liked to see how open Evans was on the interception before Clausen had to double clutch with the ball getting hit though. Robby Parris came up with the clutch catch of the game with a 15 yarder on 3rd and 14. Parris might not have the speed to create separation from elite corners, but I think we’ll see a lot of him as a third receiver out of the slot. I would imagine Evans, Walker, and Goodman will get more chances this weekend.
Manti Te’o needs to play more. Manti Te’o recorded his first career sack on Purdue’s final last ditch drive and needs to play more. I think the staff would have liked to bring him along slower so that he isn’t forced to learn on the fly, but Toryan Smith’s limitations in pass coverage were really exploited by Purdue. Weis said on Sunday that the staff met and decided that Te’o needs to see the field more even if it means living with the mistakes that are bound to happen with a true freshman linebacker. Weis didn’t say where Te’o would line up though. Conventional wisdom might be to slide Brian Smith over to the middle with Te’o playing the weak side, but Smith has struggled in the middle and Te’o eventual future is as a middle linebacker. If you are going to play him and live with the mistakes, I say play him where his future lies.
Tackling is still an issue. It’s a little troubling how many missed tackles there have been this season since tackling was not nearly as big of an issue the past few seasons as it’s been this year. On Purdue’s first touchdown, three Notre Dame defenders missed the tackle and a fourth was taken for a ride for the final few yards. With the bye week coming up next weekend, I hope the staff uses some of the time to work on fundamentals.
Less was more when it came to blitzing. Notre Dame played more cover-2 defense and sent a lot fewer blitzes and the pass rush was actually improved. Notre Dame did a decent job generating pressure with just the front four at times and the defense played better because of it. The Irish defense had Purdue pretty much bottled up until the fourth quarter when Purdue marched down the field twice. Notre Dame recorded two sacks which sadly matched a season high. With a mobile quarterback coming into town this weekend in Jake Locker, I would think we’ll see a similar approach since Locker can really hurt you with his legs if you don’t get him with the blitz.
Running back depth looked much better this week. The depth behind Armando Allen looked a little iffy as weeks 2 and 3, but with Allen on the shelf last weekend Robert Hughes really stepped up. Hughes ran as hard and as effectively as we’ve seen him with 68 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. His numbers dipped in the second half when Purdue keyed on the run after it became clear that Notre Dame wasn’t going to pass much with Dayne Crist in. Theo Riddick took his only carry 24 and looked very quick in the process. Jonas Gray struggled running the ball with just 18 yards on 9 carries, but was an effective weapon out of the backfield. As a team, Notre Dame ran for 167 yards with its starting running back on the bench.
Charlie Weis came up with a good game plan. Weis still makes some very questionable in-game decisions (see the 4th and 10), but he did come up with a very good gameplan that took Purdue by surprise. The Purdue defense was on its heels in the second quarter when the Irish ran the ball out of multiple formations for back to back scores. Purdue eventually adjusted, but considering Weis had to come up with a gameplan that didn’t include his starting quarterback, running back, and top wide receiver all in one week I think he did a pretty good job.
Dayne Crist looks like he’s going to be very good. Crist was played well considering this was his first stint of real playing time. He did have one throw I’m sure he’d love to have back though. Crist over threw what turned out to be a wide open Golden Tate early in the 4th quarter for what would have been an easy touchdown. Those type of throws will become a lot easier as Crist gets more and more playing time. With some more seasoning Crist looks like he has all of the tools to be a very good quarterback for the Irish. I just wish Weis would have let him throw the ball more since Purdue really keyed on the run in the third quarter.
Darius Fleming is developing nicely. Fleming had a little bit of a rough start to the season, but had by far his best game of the year against Purdue. He recorded three tackles for loss, including a sack. Fleming is taking to playing the linebacker position well after playing a lot of defensive end against the spread teams. Fleming definitely came to play on Saturday though and was a big reason why the Irish defense held Ralph Bolden in check.
Kapron Lewis-Moore has started to develop as well. “KLM” had a rough start to the season. Considering he went from not playing a single down as a freshman to being a starting defensive end in one off-season it was expected that he’d have some growing pains. Lewis-Moore took a nice step forward on Saturday though. His stats weren’t overly impressive. He totaled just four tackles. He was a force in bottling up the Purdue running game though and his four tackles were nice plays where he fought off a block to make a tackle. Add this to the big time hustle play he made against Michigan State to force a fumble and it’s easy to see why he made the leap he did this off-season. There will no doubt be some more growing pains along the way, but it looks like he is progressing nicely and with 3 seasons of eligibility left after 2009 there’s definitely some reason to be excited about his future.