Daily Domer: Pax de South Bend
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When it comes to team bonding, victory is the greatest adhesive. These Irish are a tight bunch, and Charlie Weis conceded on Tuesday that "going through all those tight games at the end of the game has bonded the team even more."
The Irish have won five of their past six, and that one loss came down to one play. Or four. Or a mismanaged final 35 seconds (cue Glenn Frey's "Get Over It"). Whatever. The 6-2 record and the Alcoa "Fantastic Finishes" have certainly done more to unite this team than a trust-fall exercise. However, there is something else at work here: character at the top of the roster.
If you have ever been part of a team in which your best players were far from your top character guys (I have), you know how long a season that can be. At Wednesday's captains presser center Eric Olsen was already seated but quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who ordinarily shares the table with him, had not yet arrived (Clausen was obviously out having his Hummer waxed). I asked Olsen about the lack of off-field drama this season as Clausen entered the room. Clausen went to take a seat beside Olsen just as the senior from Staten Island replied, "We don't really have many drama queens," and then shot his QB a look of mock disdain. The Heisman candidate QB grinned.
As moments go, this was quite telling. There's a beer ad currently running in which the idea is proffered that the ultimate sign of acceptance and/or friendship is when your friends mock you (followed closely, of course, by their ponying up to buy you a pint). To see Olsen teasing the coach's pet openly says a lot about how close those two are (as does the way Clausen leaps into Olsen's arms after a TD pass). You cannot imagine this moment taking place two years ago -- granted, there was far less to celebrate -- and I cannot think of too many players who would have felt courageous enough to have teased BQQB in public back in 2005 and '06.
It's the Jimmy Clausens and Golden Tates of the world who get named Maxwell Award semi-finalists (quickly, 16 players are so designated and the list is whittled to three on November 23. Future foes Dion Lewis [Pitt] and Toby Gerhart [Stanford] also made the cut) and deservedly so. But it's guys such as Olsen, safety Kyle McCarthy, special teams captain Scott Smith, linebacker Brian Smith and offensive tackle Sam Young who have forged the most cohesive unit of the five that Weis has yet assembled here.
Before the season I prognosticated, though no one was listening (and why would they? I was waiting tables in Manhattan at the time), that this season 1) the Irish would have a devastating passing attack, 2) the "experts" would regret not having a single Irish offensive player on their preseason Heisman or All-American lists and 3) would look a lot like 2005.
After eight games the Irish, as they were in '05, are 6-2 with a chance to earn (emphasis on that word) a BCS bowl berth by going 10-2. That record, by the way, would mean that the '09 Irish had equaled their victory total of the previous two seasons combined. Whatever happens, should Clausen return next season (not out of the realm, by the way), a lot of people will look at the returns of Clausen, Tate (possibly), wideout Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph, linebacker Manti Te'o and others and automatically assume the Irish will be even better.
If there's leadership. What will be neglected in the equation is how much Notre Dame will miss players such as Olsen and McCarthy.
The 2005 season was satisfying for Irish followers because the team competed, they were fun and they all appreciated the success based on where they had come from just a year previously.
The 2006 team should have been better, but they were not. They were not as close, either: too many rock stars. And part of the blame there rightfully falls at the feet of Weis, the "60 Minutes" profile head coach who was just as guilty of allowing success to go to his head.
It'll be interesting to see how the Irish handle the success of this season in '10. Will they be the type of team that leaps into each other's arms when they do something spectacular? Or will they be the type who celebrate the way Tate did after his extraordinary catch at the end of the second quarter in the Alamodome? We'll see.
I do not have the foggiest whether Clausen goes. Most of my press box peers consider him gone, but I see the camaraderie between Clausen and Tate (if Olsen were only a junior he'd scare Clausen into not leaving, of that I am positive) and the smiles that were never there his first two seasons and I am not so sure. Clausen is going to be wealthy man in the following decade, but he'll never be able to purchase a senior year of college with Tate, Floyd and Rudolph catching his throws.
What we do know, though, is that should Clausen depart, the Blue-Gold game may as well be canceled. Who would play quarterback? John Goodman?
Clausen and Sharpley would be gone. Dayne Crist would still be recovering from his ACL surgery. Perhaps one of the two quarterbacks who have verbally committed to the Irish --Tommy Rees of Lake Forest, Ill., or Andrew Hendrix of Cincinnati -- could enroll in January. Still ...
If Clausen were to leave, the 2010 Blue-Gold game would be even less compelling than the 2007 edition (Junior Jabbie was the offensive MVP that day).Perhaps it would be better off as some derivation of a reality show. How about "Golden Versus ..."?
Clausen said yesterday that he is 15 credits (i.e. five classes, i.e. one semester) shy of earning his degree. Clausen, a sociology major, needs five more classes, only one in his major and four electives, to graduate. He is on schedule to graduate next May if he chooses to take five classes next semester.
Players were still buzzing on Wednesday about Mike Ragone's Don Beebe impersonation at the Alamodome on Saturday. After Washington State's Toby Turpin blocked Nick Tausch's extra point try after a first-quarter touchdown, Cougar safety Chima Nwachukwu fielded it and raced in the opposite direction for an easy deuce. That's when Ragone did his own rendition of an "Animal Planet" doc on the predators of the Kalahari.
"For me, that's my favorite play of the year so far," Scott Smith said. "You see Mike, he didn't even know the kick was blocked until the corner picked it up and was 10 yards in front of him. You just see him, Kyle Rudolph also, just turn around. I mean, there's really no other way to put it. Mike just hawked that guy down."
"We saw the play in meetings," Kyle McCarthy said. "Everyone just kind of went nuts. We were giving Mike high fives and stuff, just congratulating him. That was a heck of a play. I didn't know Mike was that fast. He impressed me."
Did Ragone know he was that fast?
"He definitely knew he was that fast," McCarthy said. "He's always been trying to tell us, but now we believe him."
Show Team QB not a Slow Team QB
A few weeks ago Weis said that they don't even bother naming a "Show Team Player of the Week" award any more since Evan Sharpley, the fifth-year, third-string quarterback, would win it by a landslide each week. This week, because of Crist's torn ACL, Sharpley has been promoted to second-string and cannot play on the show team. Which is somewhat serendipitous since, because Navy runs a triple-option attack, he would not be in the role of scout team QB, anyway.
This week the scout team (scout team, show team, it's interchangeable) QB is Kyle McCarthy's little (in age only) brother Dan McCarthy, a sophomore safety. Both McCarthy brothers were option quarterbacks at Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown, Ohio.
The Midshipmen have led the nation in rushing the past four years and are vying to become the first school to ever do so five consecutive times. Currently the Middies are third, averaging 279.78 yards per game on the ground. They trail Nevada, the national leader, by a little more than 40 yards per game (319.13). The Wolf Pack opened their season in South Bend, where they were held to a season-low 153 yards rushing.
Don't Bet On It
The Irish are 11 1/2-point favorites in Saturday's game, which (hallelujah!) starts one hour earlier. Kickoff at 2:42 p.m. The Midshipmen have covered the spread nine consecutive times in South Bend dating back to 1991. Just trying to help, pardner.