And in that corner… the Purdue Boilermakers

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Little has gone right for the Purdue Boilermakers the past two weeks. After outplaying Oregon in the always intimidating Autzen Stadium, Purdue inexplicably lost to Northern Illinois, giving the Big Ten another black-eye courtesy of the MAC. New coach Danny Hope has brought a new attitude to West Lafayette that hasn’t been seen in last years of the Joe Tiller era, but the team is still in the midst of a program defining transition.

Travis Miller runs the Purdue fan site Hammer & Rails, one of the better named sports blogs out there, and an off shoot of his popular Purdue football blog Off the Tracks. Travis was kind enough to take some time and answer a few questions I had on the Boilermakers, and to see if they were taking away sharp objects from the guy in charge of banging the World’s Largest Drum yet.

Inside the Irish: Where do Purdue fans stand right now after two soul-crushing losses?

Hammer & Rails: It is hard to say where we stand right now. Last week at this time, we were sky high because we had played a great game at Oregon, only to beat ourselves. We were encouraged that we went into one of the most hostile venues in college football, fought off giving the home team 17 points on turnovers, and still had a chance to win. Unlike last year’s Oregon loss, I felt we had played a better game and had a better attitude coming out of it.

Then Saturday happened. Not only did was lose to a mid-level MAC team, they dominated us in all phases of the game. There was no excuse for it and no one expected it. We had absolutely no energy at all. Right now, I don’t know what Purdue fans expect. I know we can compete with anyone on our schedule, but it is clear that if we lose our focus things can get ugly in a hurry. Personally, I still think this season can be salvaged, but a win this weekend is absolutely necessary. Everyone expected us to be 2-2 after the Notre Dame game anyway, so beating the Irish erases the Northern Illinois loss in my mind.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory this weekend?

H&R: We have to stop beating ourselves. Our own mistakes killed any chance at regaining the momentum against NIU. At Oregon, we gave up 17 points on two defensive TD’s and an interception deep in our own territory that led to a field goal. By simply cutting down on our own mistakes I think we can compete with Notre Dame.

We also need to regain the edge we had in the first two games. Everyone on offense looked about a step too slow against Northern Illinois. We cannot afford to have that again against Notre Dame because the talent difference between the Irish and Huskies is huge. Finally, we have to tackle better. The return of our top cornerback, Brandon King, should help there.

ITI: The Irish defense has been anything but impressive. Who will haunt us this year? Who will be the next Kory Sheets or Desmond Tardy?

H&R: I think at receiver it will be Keith Smith. He is the big target we have not had since Dustin keller was playing for us. He had an off game against NIU, but was very good against Toledo and Oregon. Then there is Ralph Bolden. Much was made of NIU “holding” him to just 64 yards after an explosive first two games. In truth, we did not have the ball enough to give him more touches. He still averaged over 5 yards per carry and had a couple of nice catches on our final drive as we scrambled to tie the game. Last week we fell into the same trap we did last year in South bend. We fell behind and panicked even though there was plenty of time left. We went away from what was working, the running game, even though it would have allowed us to rest our defense and move the ball while wearing down the team with less depth. If we stay committed to the running game this week I like our chances.

ITI: With Joe Tiller gone, Purdue’s identity is still being determined. What do you make of Danny Hope? How do you look back on the Joe Tiller era?

H&R: I like Danny Hope’s fiery attitude. Near the end, Tiller just did not seem to have any kind of fire and the entire team was complacent. I think coach Hope has this team thinking it can compete with anyone in the country. The one positive I can take from last week as that we kept fighting. We were down 28-7 at home and most of those late Tiller teams would have folded. Despite every mistake, we kept fighting. If we had stopped the fact punt or had NIU simply punted at that point, I was absolutely confident we were going to go down and tie the game. Even though we got pushed around all day long, the offense was finally moving and probably would have scored to tie if we had just one more minute.

As far as the entire Tiller Era, I haven’t made up my mind about it. It was obviously one of the most successful eras in school history, and was especially welcome since it came after 12 straight losing seasons. I think in the end Tiller’s greatest success ended up being his greatest failure. Before he came, we did not have more than four wins in one season since 1984 (I don’t count the 1992 season where a loss to Michigan State is no officially a win via forfeit, making us 5-4-2). He immediately made us believe that Purdue’s program could be successful. Unfortunately, we never sustained that success and made the jump to being a consistent championship contender. It is unfortunate, but we are still under the specter of The Fumble.

We were ready to make that jump when we were ranked #5 in 2004 with Wisconsin and College GameDay in town. We blew a 10 point lead in the final eight minutes, the final six coming on Kyle Orton’s infamous fumble that was returned for a touchdown. We were inches from rising even higher, but since then we have not been able to recover, going 28-32 since that game. It sucks, but that Fumble was Tiller’s final epitaph because it ultimately comes back to him for us not recovering.

ITI: How does a Purdue fan look at the Notre Dame rivalry?

H&R: I view it as our biggest football rivalry, and it has gotten here because of what Joe Tiller. It was his modest success, going 5-7 against the Irish after a 12 game losing streak in the series, that elevated the rivalry above Indiana. At the same, Purdue dominated Indiana much like Notre Dame dominated Purdue for years. I don’t think it is even so big as it is to us if not for the fact Tiller’s first win came in a shocking upset in 1997.

I know Notre Dame will never take the rivalry as seriously as we do, but beating Notre Dame, even a historically awful team like in 2007, is still a name win for Purdue. For one day we have the entire country looking at us. I think some people still view any win we get over the Irish is an upset no matter how good we are. It is that perception that adds to the rivalry because it comes off as disrespect toward our program. Those people cannot believe it is possible Purdue could compete with the vaunted Irish. These people ignore the history in the series where Purdue has numerous wins over Notre Dame, more than any other program in the country save USC and Michigan State.

ITI: Are you excited for the Robert Marve era? Are you worried about the headaches, or just looking forward to the potential?

H&R: I don’t think there is any guarantee he will be the starting quarterback in 2010. Since my wife is a Miami alum, I watched his freshman year at the U and was not impressed. When the recruiting frenzy for him was reaching its peak I actually wrote that I did not want him. I have since changed my mind, but I want him to earn the job. We are also going to have a scramble for the starting quarterback job next year. Marve will be competing with current backup Caleb TerBush, current true freshman Rob Henry that is very similar to Marve in style, incoming true freshman Sean Robinson who is having a very impressive senior season, and possibly Justin Siller who could return from a one year university suspension.

If Marve has his head on straight I think he is the best of those candidates. He is the most polished, but a torn ACL has prevented him from even practicing so far. This hurts his chances because he does not get that year of practice to learn the system. Marve, Henry, Siller, and Robinson are also mobile quarterbacks that can escape the pocket, so it will be hard to distinguish between them. Siller has an edge in that he was likely going to start this year before his suspension. Henry and TerBush can each practice right now and get better in the system. Robinson is a bit of a wild card in that he is still in high school.

Ultimately though, Marve did not come to Purdue to sit the bench. I would say it is his job to lose, with either TerBush or Henry as his top backup. I have no idea where Siller would come in if he came back.

Here’s wishing Hammer & Rails and Purdue best of luck when the Big Ten season starts. Check out their site for some great ND coverage this week.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.