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Jimmy Clausen's arm and legacy

The Notre Dame quarterback can begin to leave his mark at South Bend as the Irish host USC.

October 16, 2009|Brian Hamilton

SOUTH BEND, IND. — As a high school football game unfolded before a Cincinnati crowd of about 10,000 in a rain-dappled bowl known as the Pit, eyes strayed to the back of one end zone. There stood a handful of college players, including one wearing an Elder High shirt despite previously never having spent a minute there.

Jimmy Clausen was a weekend guest of Notre Dame teammate Kyle Rudolph, an Elder grad, along with fellow Irish quarterback Dayne Crist. Rudolph outfitted both with the apparel from his alma mater. Camouflage it wasn't, and Clausen became an accidental guest of honor in short order.

Handshakes, autograph requests and congratulations streamed in. In the Queen City, even standing beside a storied Elder alum during their off week, Clausen was king for a night.

"I definitely thanked him," Rudolph said. "Dayne kept saying he likes going with Jimmy and I because he can just lay low."

It was more literally a signature moment than what awaits Clausen on Saturday, in another watershed Notre Dame-USC game. In that, the former Westlake Village Oaks Christian wunderkind can begin to validate his exalted arrival almost three years ago, when he had miles to throw and promises to keep.

He is the nation's No. 1-rated passer, but he has yet to earn a victory over a top-25 team. He has led Notre Dame to three heart-stopping triumphs, but he is 14-13 as a starter.

If there is a legacy to leave -- after talking of four national titles when he made his hyper-dissected college announcement in 2006 -- Saturday can do much to define it.

"You always want to have the ball in your hands at crucial times; you always want to win the big games," Clausen said. "You want to do everything you can to help the team win, whether it's hand the ball off or cheering the defense on or throwing a touchdown pass.

"It really doesn't matter -- all you're trying to do as a quarterback is just help your team win. If that leaves a legacy for yourself, then so be it."

It's a typically elusive answer from Clausen. And the idea of signature games does seem somewhat artificial or overblown when applied exclusively to quarterbacks, as it often is.

But Irish Coach Charlie Weis conceded this is some kind of moment, saying Clausen will be "judged by what he does against USC." To be considered a great player, performance and opportunity must dovetail. Like, say, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

"Not only do you want to play well in the clutch as a quarterback, you want to play big in big games," said ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, who has seen Clausen three times the last two seasons.

"I stop short of saying this is the defining game of his career. If they win and he throws for 350 yards, you might look back on it and say that was when something changed for him from a perception standpoint. But no matter what happens Saturday, he still has to go about preparing and working on Monday for the next opponent."

Maybe it resonates more because this is Clausen's team, after the flogging he took as a freshman and the mercurial decision-making he battled as a sophomore.

A sense of ownership is clear via the eight touchdown passes Clausen has thrown when the Irish have been tied or behind. It's clear via leading a comeback victory at Purdue while battling turf toe. It's clear when, against Washington, the Irish took possession trailing late in regulation and felt relieved.

"Guys were acting like we'd already won because we knew we could go down and score," Irish tackle Sam Young said. "[Clausen] has that confidence and that swagger to know that he's going to make the throws, and it translates through the rest of the offense."

Said linebacker Scott Smith: "One of the biggest things we have going for us is the way Jimmy has been playing. He put us in a position, the way he has played since the start of the season, to win every single game."

If Clausen gives the Irish a real chance Saturday, the Heisman Trophy discussion and the handshakes will continue, if not at fever pitch. If he ends Notre Dame's seven-year twitch against USC? Signature moment or not, there's no telling where this will go.

"I'm not worried about myself -- I'm worried about the team, and that's about it," Clausen said. "It's a huge game for us as a team and as a program. We've kind of been the whipping boys of the USC-Notre Dame rivalry. We want to get on the other end of the stick now."


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