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.
7. South Florida
4. Michigan State
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.
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.