Michael Floyd Purdue

Opponent preview: Purdue


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
7. South Florida
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.

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.