After sparking two Irish comeback bids in relief duty this season, Evan Sharpley will get the starting nod this weekend when USC travels to South Bend. Sharpley, who leads Notre Dame quarterbacks with three passing touchdowns, will be making his first career start Saturday against the 14th ranked Trojans while freshman Jimmy Clausen will start the game as the second quarterback.
“First of all, a couple of our own personnel issues. Evan Sharpley will start at quarterback,” Charlie Weis said in his opening remarks at today’s weekly press conference. “Evan and Jimmy were told that yesterday afternoon after I had time to visit with our medical staff and our coaching staff, and that’s the way we’re going. So Evan will be one, Jimmy will be two.”
The move comes after Clausen has been fairly ineffective as the starter over the previous six contests. In those games, Clausen has thrown just one touchdown compared to five interceptions. Clausen has also taken a beating this year behind a porous offensive line which hasn’t exactly allowed his arm to which he had off-season surgery to get back to 100%.
“It’s a combination of one guy has been in there and banged around pretty good. He’s not injured. Is he hurt? Yeah, he’s hurt,” Weis said of why he is making the switch. “I think that the separation between the two of them isn’t big enough for a banged up guy getting a nod over a fresh guy, and that’s why we’re going in that direction,” he would add.
Physical setbacks aside, the game also appears to be coming at Clausen a bit too fast right now despite him looking better in practice throughout the year. “I think this gives you an opportunity to stand back and watch the game,” Weis said he told Clausen yesterday. “The game slows down for you when you’re not in. The game happens really fast when you’re in there.”
Sharpley wasn’t just named the starter, however, because Clausen is banged up. He’s earned this opportunity for his performances in the second halves of the Purdue and Boston College games. Against the Boilermakers, Sharpley entered the game with the Irish down 26-6 and rallied them back to within seven points before Purdue added a late touchdown to pull away.
Against Boston College this past weekend, Sharpley entered the game with the Irish down 20-0 and rallied the troops to within six points at 20-13 before the Eagles responded with a touchdown. In fact, Sharpley was a holding call away from bringing the Irish back to within six points a second time in the fourth quarter as well.
In his two relief appearances, he has completed 27 of 55 passes for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns compared to 1 interception. What has really set him apart, however, has been his ability to get the ball downfield – something Clausen just hasn’t been able to do consistently to this point – and his ability to make some ad lib plays. Sharpley has averaged 11.1 yards per completion compared to just 7.6 yards for Clausen.
Sharpley has also been able to keep his eyes downfield better when flushed out of the pocket and has been able to hit some passes downfield on those occasions. Last weekend we saw a glimpse of this when it appeared he was destined to get sacked, but he escaped and found John Carlson who nearly converted a third and long on the play. In fact, the original spot on that play gave the Irish a first down, but a review brought the ball back a yard and set up the fourth and one which resulted in the holding call that negated the touchdown.
Despite the spark he’s provided for the offense, though, Sharpley’s game has been far from perfect and he will need to take every advantage out of getting the snaps with the first unit. Against Boston College, Sharpley missed quite a few open receivers and struggled with accuracy and at times was still holding onto the ball too long. On the touchdown that got called back, Sharpley held onto the ball just a bit too long and it almost gave the safety time to recover.
Sharpley has also been prone to more mistakes than Clausen, who to his credit has been good at avoiding mistakes. The difference is that while Evan has been more prone to mistakes, he’s also been more prone to making big plays so you have to take the good with the bad.
It will be interesting to see how Sharpley responds to getting the extra reps and if he will be able to have the same success with the game on the line as he has had when he’s come in down 20 with not much to lose.
Should Sharpley stumble out of the blocks this weekend, it sounded as though Clausen would get a chance. “We’re just talking about USC. That’s all we’re talking about. Evan Sharpley is the quarterback for USC. That’s all we’re talking about,” Weis responded when asked if this was a permanent move. He would later add, “Jimmy can play; I don’t think he can play as good as Evan, that’s why Evan is going to quarterback.”
So for now the Irish will have their third different starting quarterback of the season and we’ll find out Saturday if this move will give the Irish offense the spark it has been desperately seeking all season long.