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Sunday, September 09, 2007


posted by John Vannie
Despite a promising debut by freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame turned in its second consecutive dismal offensive performance as the Irish fell 31-10 to Penn State. While Clausen completed 17 of 32 passes for 144 yards and flashed the talent and poise that fans had hoped to see, the offensive line crumbled around him. The Irish allowed six sacks and once again failed to establish a running game.

Notre Dame’s defense played well until the weight of offensive ineptitude took its toll. In a pathetic stretch that defies explanation, the Irish failed to record a first down after the opening drive until the fourth quarter. Amazingly, Notre Dame was still in the game, thanks to a shaky performance by Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli.

Darrin Walls intercepted a Morelli pass on the Lions’ first series and returned it 74 yards to give the Irish its first touchdown and first lead of the season. Penn State fumbled on its next possession, and the day appeared to belong to Notre Dame. The first of many false start penalties by the Irish and a sack led to a missed 50-yard field goal attempt, and the visitors would get no more scoring opportunities for the remainder of the half.

Meanwhile, the Lions got on the board on a 78-yard punt return by Derrick Williams. This came after the Irish lost good field position near midfield due to a personal foul penalty on Travis Thomas during a Penn State punt. Momentum switched to the Lions as the quiet capacity crowd came to life on the play, and Notre Dame did not recover it.

The Irish fell into the familiar pattern of three and out on offense and poor field position for the defense. Penn State gained possession at midfield midway through the second quarter and pushed across a touchdown on a short pass by Morelli to Jordan Norwood. The Lions led 14-7 at the half despite a late fumble by Morelli with insufficient time remaining for Notre Dame to muster a threat.

Two outstanding special teams plays in the third period led to an exchange of field goals. A.J. Wallace returned the second half kickoff for the Lions deep into Irish territory, but the defense held in the red zone this time. Trailing 17-7, Notre Dame countered when Tom Zbikowski returned a punt to the Penn State 7. In typical fashion, the Irish offense could not find the end zone and settled for a 17-10 deficit midway through the third period.

Morelli hit his only significant pass on the ensuing series, a 51 yard deep slant to Chris Bell. This was the only true defensive breakdown on the night by the Irish, and it could have been avoided had free safety David Bruton taken a proper angle to the ball. In any event, the Lions proceeded to score and extend their lead to 24-10.

Notre Dame had one more scoring opportunity in the fourth period when they found themselves with a first and goal at the Penn State ten yard line, but Clausen could not connect with his receivers in the end zone. A fourth down pass was rushed as the freshman once again was running for his young life.

The Lions added a final touchdown with 7:40 left in the game, but by then the issue had been decided and the Irish defense had nothing left in the tank. The final margin of 31-10 did not reflect their heart and determined play, but the offense crumbled under the weight of sacks, silly penalties and poor execution. The lack of any semblance of a running game is the single largest disappointment in this 2007 season, and both the coaches and the offensive linemen are accountable.

Reviewing the key elements that determined the outcome:

Which team can establish the run? Penn State was able to run, but only after the Irish defense was too exhausted to stop them.

Will Weis effectively utilize Allen in his game plan? I’m not sure that Weis knows who Allen is.

Will Notre Dame handle the blitz? Not at all. Dan Connor and company were not blocked all night.

Will Morelli strike for long plays against the Irish? Only one, but it was enough to put the game out of reach.

Which team will force the other into third and long situations? Both defenses did a good job until the Irish grew tired.

Who will win the turnover battle? Notre Dame won 3-1, but they could not capitalize.

Notre Dame fans had hoped for significant improvement after the 33-3 pounding at the hands of Georgia Tech, but the offensive line continued to play poorly. At Penn State, the problems were more physical in that the Irish seemed to know whom to block but could not sustain the effort. A rash of dumb penalties was also costly, and both the offense and special teams lacked discipline.

Grumbling can already be heard across the Notre Dame fan base regarding Coach Charlie Weis, and for the first time there are legitimate doubts about his ability to succeed at his alma mater. While it’s too early to panic in the face of a rebuilding year, it’s safe to say that no one expected the anemic performances by the offense.

The bright side is that Clausen looked like a star in the making despite extremely adverse conditions. If Weis and Corwin Brown can build a complete team around the Californian, the Irish just may get themselves out of this mess. In the mean time, patience is wearing thin.
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