The Fighting Irish came to life Saturday just in time to avoid a home-season sweep and salvage Senior Day as Notre Dame dominated the even-more hapless Blue Devils 28-7 in South Bend.
Up until the last two-and-half-minutes of the first half, the contest was a study in futility, a contrast of the ineptitudes of two 1-9 opponents. The teams traded missed field goals, and although Notre Dame was hit with a bogus celebration penalty at the Duke 5 to deny them an early touchdown opportunity, the Irish couldn't argue with two boneheaded personal fouls and its tdo-many-to-count dropped passes—including an absolutely perfect strike from Clausen that Robby Parris mishandled for a first down on 4th and 17. But Notre Dame's one-two punch of penalties and dropped passes was more than equalized by Duke's penchant for fumbling the drizzle-soaked wet football, and after the Blue Devils coughed it up at the Irish 42 with 2:29 left in the second quarter, the Irish finally got its act together. First, Robert Hughes, the hard-running Irish freshman, still mourning the recent death of his brother Tony in a back alley Chicago shooting, having the breakout game I hoped he would have last week, rambled 24 yards on 4th and 1 to the Duke 25 to set up a potential touchdown pass from Jimmy Clausen to David Grimes. This time David hung on, and the Irish led 7-0.
Moments later the Blue Devils fumbled again, and with four seconds left in the half, Clausen heaved another 25-yard throw into the Duke end zone, and Duval Kamara made good on my pre-game prediction of a great touchdown catch by out-jumping the Duke defender and making the score 14-zip at intermission.
In the second half, Robert Hughes continued his hard running that would earn him the NBC Player of the Game honors, first with a tackle-breaking 13-yard touchdown run in the third, and then three straight runs for 42 yards (including an inspiring never-give-up 33-yard romp) to set up Clausen's third touchdown pass of the day and Notre Dame's final tally, a 9-yard toss to John Carlson.
The game ended with a bit of humor, as Coach Weis finally allowed Tom Zbikowski, the Notre Dame defensive back and part-time professional boxer, to relive his high school glory days by taking snaps at quarterback. Fittingly, Zibby's charges had two penalties before they even ran a play, but after a Duke personal foul and a nice run by Travis Thomas, Travis and the Irish coughed up the ball and the Blue Devils recovered, later scoring on Notre Dame's senior defensive subs for their only points of the day.
Hughes finished his huge day with 115 yards on 17 carries, as well as the honor of leading the Senior Day locker room singing of the Notre Dame Fight Song. Clausen's stats (16-32 194 yds. 3TDs) no doubt would have been stellar without the drops, but his six touchdowns in his last six quarters bode well for 2008, if not next week. The singing of Notre Dame Our Mother (sung with a mixture of nostalgia, humility, and gratitude), was captured by the NBC cameras and proved more tear-jerking than usual, as a national TV audience saw the big guys salute and serenade Our Lady. The Irish close out the season next Saturday at Stanford, thankful for all their blessings ("It was just awesome playing in front of all these great fans," said senior Notre Dame defensive standout Trevor Laws. "It was just pure joy.") and, with freshman Clausen, Hughes and Kamara now at the helm, hopeful of things to come.