Opponent preview: Purdue Boilermakers


This will be the first of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Any suggestions or comments, please leave below or send me an email.

The Overview:

The Brian Kelly era kicks off against one of Notre Dame’s traditional opponents, in-state rival Purdue. Danny Hope enters his second season as the head coach of the Boilermakers, returning after a debut season that had its share of heartbreak, with gut-wrenching losses to Oregon, the Irish (more on that later), Northwestern, and Michigan State. While the end result was a wobbly 5-7 season, Purdue’s 4-4 conference record included a upset win over #7 Ohio State, a sign that the Boilermakers had the talent to play with just about anybody when they kept their turnovers in check.

Last time against the Irish:

It’s tough to forget the late-game heroics of Jimmy Clausen, who rifled a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph to escape West Lafayette with a win. The Irish, playing without starting running back Armando Allen and wide receiver Michael Floyd, were dogged by penalties, including a procedure call on Golden Tate that cost both the Irish and his stat ledger a touchdown.

Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott built on the alarming trend of quarterbacks having career days against the Irish with 289 yards passing and three touchdowns, with Keith Smith catching 11 balls while tying a then personal record with 136 receiving yards and a touchdown. Purdue took the lead with four minutes to go on a play-action pass with broken coverage, resulting in Jaycen Taylor running untouched out of the backfield for a 38-yard touchdown. While Clausen’s heroics are what remain in the memory of Irish fans, some befuddling play-calling that included a failed draw play to Robert Hughes with no timeouts left and a defensive timeout by Danny Hope that stopped the clock for the Irish resulted in the final touchdown with 24 seconds left.

Said after the game by the Purdue blog Hammer & Rails:

“Even when we did stop them on 3rd down, I knew we couldn’t do it on fourth down. We’re Purdue. It does not work out that way for us.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Ranking the 12 opponents of the Irish, I slot Purdue in as the eighth-most difficult game on the schedule. That said, getting Purdue on opening day is both a blessing and a curse, as the Boilermakers will have all summer to get up for a game in Notre Dame stadium, a place they only won twice in the last 26 years. 

The Match-up:

Purdue played some pretty solid football down the stretch last season, going 4-2 in its last six games including the upset win over Ohio State. They’ve also added high-profile transfer quarterback Robert Marve to the mix, giving them a dual threat former blue-chip recruit to replace Joey Elliott. While running back Ralph Bolden is still recovering from an ACL tear that has him at only 50-60 percent, wide receiver Keith Smith returns along with three of the top four receiving targets. The offensive line is a question mark, returning only two starters.

On defense, the secondary needs to replace all four members, but early returns on freshman Ricardo Allen are good. The front seven returns almost in tact, with the defensive line considered one of the best in the Big Ten, anchored by All-Big Ten defensive end Ryan Kerrigan.

How the Irish will win:

Want to neutralize a good pass rush and swarming front-seven? Get the ball out quickly and spread the field, a Brian Kelly specialty. While Robert Marve isn’t a freshman, walking into Notre Dame stadium for Game One of the Brian Kelly era is hardly ideal. Doing it behind the least experienced offensive line the Irish will see all season doesn’t help either. Plagued by penalties, a gimpy Jimmy Clausen, and missing two of the Irish’s best offensive weapons, the Irish still managed to win in West Lafayette, bad game management and all. On home turf, the new defensive system will bring effective pressure from near and far, and torture a Purdue offense that needs to find time to throw. Vegas has this a double-digit victory for the Irish. If things go the Irish’s way, that should be the case on September 4th.

How the Irish will lose:

Nothing takes a crowd out of a game like an effective opposing offense, and a mobile quarterback like Marve will take his cues from Tate Forcier and keep the chains moving with his feet. Keith Smith wreaked havoc last season, and he’s a year better on the edge, racking up big gains and explosive plays. Ryan Kerrigan feasts on newbie offensive tackles, forcing a turnover and spending much of the afternoon in the backfield. Dayne Crist, in his first start as the Irish quarterback, turns the ball over a few times, giving the Purdue offense the extra chances it needs. Purdue has a chance to surprise some people, and they begin on opening day.

Gut Feeling:

I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how Purdue wins this football game, even though I think they’ll finish the season in a bowl game. I wouldn’t run to Vegas and lay down the point spread, but I think Bob Diaco’s defense, with very little game tape of the Irish personnel available, is the key to victory.  

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.