UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Early in the summer, long before the college football season, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was asked about losing 15 starters from last season's team, including quarterback Brady Quinn, his top running back, two wide receivers and three offensive linemen. The proud coach, who has a stunning collection of Super Bowl rings from his days with the New England Patriots, became almost indignant. "Tradition never graduates," he barked.
That might be true, but so is this:
Penn State never seems to be without fabulous linebackers.
Dan Connor and Sean Lee, picking up where the great Paul Posluszny left off a year ago, led a Penn State defense that made Notre Dame look sick in a 31-10 win last night. Of course, another white-out crowd of 110,078 -- the second-largest in Beaver Stadium history -- helped, big time. It almost seemed unfair that Weis had to send out freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen for his first serious taste of big-time college football. The poor kid might have been 42-0 as a high-school starter in California and the national Player of the Year last season, but he never had a chance against this Penn State bunch.
"I don't play quarterback, but I can imagine it was pretty tough for him," Penn State defensive end Jerome Hayes said. "When you have 110,000 going crazy in the stands and 11 people on the field who want to rip your head off, it has to be pretty scary."
"I would imagine it was absolutely ridiculous for him," defensive end Aaron Maybin said. "There were times I couldn't hear our linebackers making their calls. That crowd noise had to be pretty nerve-wracking for a young quarterback."
Looking across the line at Connor and Lee couldn't have been very comforting, either. Connor had 12 tackles, including 21/2 for losses, and had one of Penn State's six sacks. Lee was credited with four tackles -- the official statistician had to miss at least five more -- and had half a sack.
"Dan and Sean love to compete, love to play football," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "They were all over the field making plays. Man, I love coaching those two guys."
Weis did his best to protect Clausen, who played briefly at the end of Notre Dame's 33-3 home loss to Georgia Tech a week earlier. On the first series, Weis called nothing but swing passes to his backs or quick sideline passes to his wide receivers. Clausen completed 5 of 6 for 37 yards and produced three first downs before that drive fizzled.
But Weis couldn't do that all night. He had to turn Clausen loose. The results were hideous.
Notre Dame's next 11 possessions were three-and-outs, excluding a brief drive at the end of the first half. Not much good happened on the first 20 times Clausen dropped back and looked down the field. He was 3 for 11 for 19 yards on those plays, scrambled four times for 25 yards, was sacked four times and had a holding penalty wipe out his one big throw, a 42-yarder to wide receiver Golden Tate. By that point, Penn State had its 31-10 lead.
Clausen and the Irish had only one chance of making it a game. Trailing, 17-7, early in the third quarter, they took possession at the Penn State 7 after a 47-yard punt return by Tom Zbikowski. Three plays produced just two yards, and Notre Dame had to settle for a field goal.
"That was definitely a foot-on-the-throat type of deal by us," Hayes said.
Weis might be right about that wonderful Notre Dame tradition never graduating, but he sure lost a lot of talent from last season, especially on his offensive line. In two games, the Irish haven't scored an offensive touchdown. They've allowed 15 sacks and rushed for a grand total of minus-8 yards, none last night.
The good news for Weis, Clausen and Notre Dame is they probably won't face many tougher defenses than Penn State's. Everybody knew the Nittany Lions' linebackers and secondary were going to be strong, but there were questions about the young front four. Through two games, that unit has held its own. "I'm proud of what we did as a group tonight," Maybin said. "We wanted to come out and make a statement to the football world that, despite our inexperience and youth, we have a lot of talent."
That message came across loudly and clearly. Clausen couldn't hear much over that deafening crowd noise, but he definitely got that.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .