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.

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.