Last week, we set the stage for the 2009 football season and the wild ride ahead for Notre Dame. This week is game week, as the Irish took on the Nevada Wolf Pack on September 5th in South Bend.
Here Comes the Pistol
The teaser for this game mentioned Colin Kaepernick, who might be the most universally known QB in America today (for many reasons). In 2009, Kaepernick was coming off two seasons of tremendous play in the now-defunct WAC, throwing for 41 touchdowns and running for 23 while being named Offensive Player of the Year in 2008. He was the real deal, even as a young buck playing against the New Mexico States of the world.
Chris Ault’s pistol formation seemed like an exotic concept at the time and I remember everyone made it seem like ND was about to play an offense that was invented by aliens. Nevada ranked 24th in Offensive S&P in 2008 and Kaepernick was en route to becoming the first and only quarterback in the history of Division I college football to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in a career.
Luckily the Wolf Pack were pretty bad on defense, ranking 92nd in S&P from 2008 and dead last in allowing explosive plays. If the Irish were going to win, it would be because they abused this unit. The Irish were 14.5-point favorites, but there was plenty of skepticism after the near-death experience from the previous year against San Diego State.
Looking back at the highlights, here are some things I noticed:
- Isn’t it a little annoying that Charlie Weis didn’t try to put more points on this team? The Irish could’ve won this game by 50 but essentially chose not to in the third quarter. Also, despite the title of “offensive guru,” Weis’ ND teams never scored more than 50 points in a game, something Kelly has done eight times.
- Could this have been Colin Kaepernick’s worst game of his college career? Two interceptions, just 188 yards of total offense and no touchdowns. Hard to say what the Irish defense did well, but Kaepernick definitely was not as bad as he looked that day.
- Clausen’s first two touchdowns were just perfect throws that remind me just how talented that guy was. Against Nevada and Hawaii, he was 37-44 for 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. Insane.
- Brian Smith flashed a couple of times, sacking Kaepernick and disrupting other plays. However, it was Manti Te’o who stole the show with some big hits. Sometimes, you just know a player is going to be good the first time you see them.
- As much as Irish fans love players like Jeff Samardzija, could he do even half of what Michael Floyd could athletically? Mind you, this was Floyd as a sophomore doing things like sprinting 70 yards for a touchdown or bullying a defensive back on a jump ball. That guy was special.
- Speaking of Floyd’s 70-yard touchdown, don’t you just love that quick pass out to the flat? It was one of my favorite Weis era plays and I wish more teams would take that free yardage.
- Theo Riddick looked soooo much better wearing #6 as opposed to #32 when he was a freshman.
- Some early sightings of players who would go on to have good careers at ND. Te’o, Jonas Gray, Riddick, and Robert Blanton all flashed during this game.
A Promising Start
As Tom Hammond said at the end of the game, it was “as good as it gets.” The Irish defense shut out a genuinely great Nevada offense that would go on to rank 17th in Offensive S&P that year. Jimmy Clausen and the future pros on offense were as good as advertised. Most importantly, the game was a relatively painless affair that saw the Irish lead by 28 at halftime and cruise to victory without breaking a sweat.
Looking at the box score, there are a couple of concerning signs that would prove ominous. Nevada’s Vai Taua had 114 yards rushing at a 6.3 clip, despite fumbling a walk-in touchdown to preserve the shutout. The Wolf Pack moved the ball on occasion but either shot themselves in the foot or turned the ball over in the red zone. Don’t get me wrong, it was an impressive performance by the Irish defense but this shutout was a fluke.
The Irish run game was good, but the rushing attack under Weis was never known for explosiveness. Against one of the worst defenses in D1 football, the likes of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes could only grind out 4.3 yards a carry with just three runs over 10 yards. Soon enough, the lack of a consistent and dependable run game would put the entire offense on the shoulders of Jimmy Clausen.
Regardless, this was a dominant win that flashed a higher ceiling for the 2009 team. They did something that was somewhat of a rarity for Weis’ teams: defeat an opponent that would finish above .500. Little did we know at the time, this blowout would prove to be an outlier in a season full of barnburners. The real test would come the week after in the Big House against the new look Wolverines and their shiny new QBs…