Michael Floyd Purdue

Opponent preview: Purdue

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This is the fifth of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. You can also read previews of South Florida, Michigan, and Michigan State and Pittsburgh

The Overview:

Head coach Danny Hope had a tough enough task in front of him last season even without the catastrophic injuries that hit his Purdue squad. The Boilermakers lost quarterback Robert Marve to a season ending injury as well as his top running back and wide receiver. With a lack of depth already plaguing his young squad, Hope’s team took a beating after jumping out to a 4-2 record with conference wins over Northwestern and Minnesota.

But the Boilermakers victory against Minnesota in mid-October was the last win Purdue would get in 2010, getting clobbered in the middle of their Big Ten schedule, losing to Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan by a combined 154-39, an average of about four touchdowns a game.

Yet Hope’s team found a way to improve amidst the swoon, having No. 12 Michigan State beat until the Spartans outscored Purdue 22-3 in the fourth quarter to escape 35-31, before an overtime loss to Indiana ended a disheartening year. As Purdue looks to turn the page and enter 2011, they were once again dealt a serious injury, as quarterback Rob Henry, who showed promise playing in the place of an injured Marve, tore his ACL and is out for the season, forcing the Boilermakers to name Caleb TerBush starting quarterback while Marve continues to get healthy. With seven starters back on offense and nine on defense (though missing the Big Ten’s best defender Ryan Kerrigan), things can only get better for Purdue, even if Henry’s injury seemed like the last straw.

Last time against the Irish:

In Brian Kelly‘s debut coaching the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame played a game that was pretty representative of the Irish’s 2010 season. It wasn’t pretty, but the Irish made Kelly a winner 23-12. (Hopefully he’ll have learned the fight song by now…)

Paced by a nice game on the ground by Armando Allen, the Irish overcame a few red zone stumbles with some clutch kicking by David Ruffer. The Irish defense also played well, constantly harrassing Marve and holding Purdue to just 322 yards on 74 plays. Still, after his first victory, Kelly talked about developing the proper mentality.

“I still think it’s about developing a mentality,” Kelly said after the game. “Call it what you want. Just the instinct of a champion senses that he’s got his opponent on the ropes. We have not acquired that yet but we will. Today, obviously, was a pretty clear case that when we had our opponent in a position to put him away, we didn’t execute when we needed to.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Purdue as the eleventh toughest opponent on the schedule.

11. Purdue
10.
9.
8.
7. South Florida
6.
5. Pittsburgh
4. Michigan State
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

The Boilermakers should have a good defense waiting for the Irish in Ross-Ade Stadium, with nine starters returning. (That said, they’ll be missing Ryan Kerrigan, so it remains to be seen if that’s like Pearl Jam bringing everybody back but Eddie Vedder. I digress.) Still Bruce Gaston and Kawann Short are solid contributors with Short logging an All-Big Ten campaign and Gaston turning down the Irish to head to West Lafeyette. Gerald Gooden will try to fill Kerrigan’s shoes at end.

The back seven of the defense is almost completely the same as 2010, with only Jason Werner missing. Dwayne Beckford and Joe Holland should be productive players again and give Hope two athletic starters. In the secondary, Ricardo Allen could be a really good player. He was a second-team All-Big Ten player as a true freshman and the coaching staff seems to think the sky is the limit for Allen. Link Logan has gone from walk-on to the team’s leading tackler and he’ll be back with Albert Evans at safety.

If the Boilermakers can get decent quarterback production out of TerBush, and potentially Marve when he’s ready to return from last season’s knee injury, they’ll need running back Ralph Bolden. One of the best players on the 2009 squad, Bolden tore his ACL before last season, and Purdue was shy its best offensive threat and its starting running back from day one. All reports have Bolden healthy, which should make Purdue fans — not to mention its coaching staff — happy.

Purdue should be able to move the football on the ground, because the offensive line is mainly intact. After a tough season breaking in new players, four starters return including three seniors: left tackle Dennis Kelly, guard Ken Plue and right tackle Nick Mondek. That trio is joined by junior center Peters Drey. If the Boilermakers try to move the ball in the air, they’ll need to do it with new receivers, four of the top five receivers are gone from a passing attack that was ranked 112th in the country last season.

How the Irish will win:

Even in a rowdy environment, the Irish should be able to shut down a Purdue offense that’ll likely be one-dimensional, even after breaking in against Middle Tennessee State, Rice and Southeast Missouri State. Whether TerBush or Marve will be under center shouldn’t matter, as long as the Irish front seven can control Ralph Bolden.

Offensively, the Irish should look better than they did last year, when they had the opportunity to add another dozen points to their tally but stalled out with uncharacteristic mistakes. After three difficult games to open up the season, the Irish put together a big performance in both the running and passing games, and sprint away from an improving Purdue team on its way to a bowl game.

How the Irish will lose:

There’s a way that the Irish walk into Ross-Ade a team in crisis, with tough losses to both Michigan and Michigan State (not to mention an opening game that could shock Irish fans). With Purdue 3-0 and a team with a lot of confidence, TerBush is able to use a strong running game to open up the playaction deep game, and then ride the momentum to a “signature win” for Danny Hope.

If the Boilermakers front four can win the line of scrimmage against the Irish’s offensive line, a one-dimensional passing offense will play into the hands of an athletic Purdue secondary.

Gut Feeling:

In reality, I don’t think there’s much of a chance for Purdue to upset the Irish this season, not with the horrible string of luck the Boilermakers have suffered at the hands of debilitating injuries. Still, coming off a bye week and three winnable games, this might be a lot tougher game than people expect. Even if it’s a tougher battle than people might think, the Irish should pull away and win this game thanks to a strong defensive performance and superior depth.

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.