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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10

Oct 2, 2011, 2:04 AM EST

Cierre Wood AP

It took roughly 30 seconds to realize that this Saturday might be slightly different for the Irish.

Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush locked onto a crossing route on the game’s first play from scrimmage. He failed to see Gary Gray (let alone Harrison Smith) who locked onto TerBush’s ill-fated throw. Gray stepped in front of the pass around midfield and returned it to the Purdue 35, and just like that the Irish defense was off to a start even Brian Kelly couldn’t have scripted.

From there, it was Tommy Rees‘ turn. Rees dropped back to pass on his second snap of the night, looking to both silence his doubters and find Michael Floyd, running deep on a post route, answering any question Purdue might have had about Ricardo Allen‘s chances to cover the Irish’s best offensive player one-on-one.

Three plays, two big ones. Seven points for the Irish.

The Fighting Irish many people expected in 2011 finally showed up to play, cruising to a convincing 38-10 victory over Purdue on Saturday night. In doing so, they crossed off a laundry list of items that coaches, players, and fans have been waiting to see.

“We got off to a good start obviously on the road against a Big Ten team, which was a key for us,” Kelly said after the game. “Getting Mike Floyd the ball early on really gave us a lot of confidence offensively. Defensively it’s been very similar week after week: making it difficult for teams to run the football.”

Powered by Cierre Wood‘s best game in an Irish uniform, Floyd’s dominating performance, and a defensive attack that held the nation’s No. 11 rushing attack to just 84 yards on 27 carries, the Irish improved to 3-2 on the season, heading into a tricky home date with Air Force before a much needed bye week.

Here’s what we learned:

The Irish threw for show, but ran for dough.

So maybe I’m misappropriating an old golfing axiom, but Rees’ best night of the season wasn’t the story of the game. It was the absolutely dominating performances by Wood and Jonas Gray, each of whom had their best games in an Irish uniform.

“Our running game set up everything that we did today,” Kelly said. “When you can run the game effectively you can be a good play-caller.”

Wood put on a show Saturday night, torching Purdue from the get go, and averaging about 10 yards a touch from scrimmage, an absolutely dominant stat line that was accentuated by a thrilling 55-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Wood looked electric in the open field, ran tough between the tackles, and continued his maturation into a complete running back — having the Irish’s biggest rushing game from scrimmage since Julius Jones ran for 218 yards against Stanford in 2003.

Wood has run for 584 yards on the season, averaging over 5.5 yards a carry. Many Irish fans suspected Wood was ready for a breakout season. What they didn’t see was his back-up statistically out-performing him.

Gray ran for 94 yards and a touchdown tonight, averaging over six yards a carry against Purdue. (If you saw this season coming after Gray coughed the ball up on the season’s opening drive against South Florida, you’re lying.) Gray has looked powerful on short yardage runs, confident in space, and continues to demand a bigger role in the offense. After getting only three carries against Pitt, Gray totted the ball 15 times against Purdue, averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the night. Gray’s season statistics are even gaudier than Wood’s, with Jonas running for 326 yards so far this year, and doing it at over 8.1 yards per carry.

If the Irish have aspirations to have a high-powered offense, they’ll need to continue to run the ball with impunity, opening up a play-action passing game and more vertical threats. If Kelly’s attack is known for its flashy aerial numbers, tonight reminded everyone that the engine that drives the Irish offense should be the ground attack.

2. Another vaunted running attack, another impressive outing by the Irish defense.

We mentioned the Irish’s ability to shut down opponent’s running attack on Friday. Well, it’s time to update the chart:

USF                                             Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                          Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                   Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue                                        Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               84.0                                                       258.7
Average Per Rush                      3.1                                                           5.6

The Irish shut down Purdue’s running attack, limiting Ralph Bolden to just 17 yards and forcing TerBush and Robert Marve to throw the football, something they struggled to do successfully. In fact, Purdue’s 84 rushing yards actually look much better than the Boilermakers actually played, with 40 yards on six carries coming in Purdue’s final drive against Irish reserves. Count that series out and Purdue is looking at an even more anemic 2.09 yards per carry.

3. After some up and down performances, Tommy Rees took a step in the right direction.

We all know that a great running attack is a passing game’s best complement. But Rees also showed how important it was for the Irish to take shots down the field, with the Irish offense adding another vertical element to its attack as Rees threw for 254 yards, three touchdowns, and better yet — no interceptions.

From the game’s opening drive, you saw the Irish stretch Purdue’s defense vertically, with Floyd’s deep post pattern for a touchdown a sign of things to come. Rees didn’t have his most accurate game throwing down field — for the first time this year, he actually over-threw his wide receivers — but the deep throws opened up the underneath routes, where Rees did plenty of damage.

More importantly for the Irish, Rees also showed some progress in his decision making. Rees spread the ball around, throwing touchdown passes to Floyd, Tyler Eifert and TJ Jones, while looking more comfortable in his progressions.

“I saw some really good things. The last touchdown that he threw, where he started his progression with Mike Floyd on an individual route and worked his way back to his fourth receiver, I told him coming off, those are the signs that I’m looking for.”

As the offensive stats show, Rees seemed to do a good job putting the Irish in the right run/pass call, and for the first time this season, the Irish didn’t turn the football over. Rees still wasn’t perfect, and he got away with a few ball throws. While the Irish left some points on the field in the first half, the sophomore quarterback moved the Irish to 551 yards and 34 first downs, easily their best performance of the Kelly era.

Not cashing in on those opportunities in some of the games coming up on the schedule could spell disaster for the Irish. But credit Rees for taking a big step forward with this offense.

4. It’s time for the special teams to pick their game up.

With John Goodman returning punts, it appears Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston are conceding a return game instead of risking another muffed return. But the Irish absolutely need to improve the other facets of their special teams play, which were once again shoddy.

David Ruffer missed two more field goals tonight, with one being blocked in the first half. While Ruffer’s struggling, his holder and snapper aren’t doing him any favors, with long-snapper Jordan Cowart again playing poorly. Cowart has struggled snapping on both punts and field goals, and was replaced by Braxston Cave late in the game on Ruffer’s lone make of the evening. Cowart also found himself deeper inside Kelly’s doghouse after drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He’s got to have his poise and composure,” Kelly said walking off the field at halftime to Holly Rowe. Then he got off one of his best zingers of the year. “He’s got to walk away. He’s a long snapper!”

One-liners aside, the Irish’s special teams has taken a step back this season, even taking into account George Atkinson‘s touchdown return two weeks ago. With Air Force, a bye week, then Southern Cal, expect the Irish to put a few wrinkles into their special teams game. More importantly, expect an added emphasis put on discipline and assignments, two things that go along way in the game’s third phase.

5. Keep a close eye on the Irish’s defensive ends this week.

The Irish quickly found themselves short-handed at defensive end this week. With freshman Stephon Tuitt kept home from Purdue for a class-attendance team policy violation, the Irish found themselves in a sticky spot when senior defensive end Ethan Johnson hobbled off the field in the first half. Down to Kapron Lewis-Moore and Aaron Lynch as regular contributors, Kelly called on Hafis Williams and Kona Schwenke to play some important minutes.

“They needed to come through. We were a little short-handed, so consequently we needed Kona to come in and play for us and he did a good job.”

Johnson’s ankle injury and Tuitt’s one-game suspension forced a plan B on Kelly, who had hinted previously that he was toying with the idea of saving a year of Schwenke’s eligibility by not playing him at all this year if things went well. But Schwenke was forced into the fold with Williams, with Hafis chipping in a tackle-for-loss and two tackles in limited time.

Aaron Lynch got another sack for the Irish, but seemed to tire with the added reps on the field. With Johnson in a walking boot on the sidelines and day-to-day this week, getting stout defensive line play on the edges of this defense will be more important than ever with Air Force’s option attack stressing the fundamentals of the Irish defense.

The Irish were lucky that Lewis-Moore and Johnson survived last season, when there was little depth behind the two starters. Johnson’s injury and Tuitt’s suspension thinned out a position that had just finally developed consistent depth, and Williams, Schwenke, Lynch and Lewis-Moore picked up the slack. But if the Irish want to continue dominating at the point of attack, they’ll need their full allotment of assets.

  1. 9irish - Oct 2, 2011 at 5:29 AM

    Very, very….very, good effort. As usual there was no doubt who the better team was, they just weren’t dropping the ball or throwing it to the wrong team as in weeks past.
    I couldn’t agree more about the special teams. It makes me cringe like I am having teeth pulled. They need to go from a punt catcher to a punt returner, I can’t believe they don’t have a “damn the torpedoes” type of guy in there some where. Ruffer has been very good, I don’t know what’s up. You need to tell the Rulers of the Rules Committee, Keith, to move the hashmarks into the width of the goalposts in college football, like in the NFL. Never understood why kicking is harder in college than in the pros.

    Go Irish

  2. yaketyyacc - Oct 2, 2011 at 5:33 AM

    watced pitt destroy USF. watched MSU thrash The Ohio State. all I coud think, Notre Dame, you are really good.
    And making Purdue look like pop warner, only solitified this assessment, and has validated Bran Kellly’s choice as coach. cannot rest on our laurels, as Keith pointed out, there is room for improvement. Thanks Keith for another focused and sober accounting of where we are and weere we have to go.

  3. notredave - Oct 2, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    Nice win. No turnovers was huge. Lets hope they build on it. Yeah…after seeing the USF/ Pitt score, I was thinking man…what if.

    I’m wondering if Stephon is starting to feel the pressures of college academia/life? Could be homesickness or self doubt creeping in as well. Hope things work out for him at ND.Seems like a good kid from the few interviews I’ve seen of him. A gentle giant.

    • notredamegrad - Oct 2, 2011 at 9:30 AM

      So fantastic to see the Irish dominate an inferior opponent, instead of playing down to them! The defense is so impressive, and it’s good to see the offense’s mistakes not biting them the way they often do; great running from #s 20 and 25, too.

      I wouldn’t worry about Tuitt – ND is mostly very careful about class attendance (you can fail a course for missing a total of four class meetings, in many cases, and I’m sure that athletes are allowed to miss very, very few per team rules). Faculty have to submit individual reports several times a semester on student athletes’ attendance, tardiness, in-class behavior, quality of work, current grade, etc., and it’s tough for any freshman to handle all of that right out of the gate, especially with lots of early morning classes. He’ll be fine.

      Go Irish!

  4. barneysbullet - Oct 2, 2011 at 8:59 AM

    Well, hopefully the guys keep backing up my post after Keith’s article “The good, bad, and ugly vs South Florida.” I said, win or lose at UM, we should be good to go…

    So keep it rolling guys, next week’s a WHOLE ‘nother challenge!!

  5. barneysbullet - Oct 2, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    Also, I would have liked to see me some Hendrix and more running back depth for 4th quarter, just to see what we have there…oh well, I’m sure they’ll get there chances, yet :)

    P.s. Lovin that Irish run D! (along with that finally super efficient O-game)

  6. gtizzo - Oct 2, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    Well Keith,

    Nice article and there is no reason the first comment about “running for dough” won’t be the same next week. Air force gave up a ton of yards on the ground to Navy, and they should give up a bunch to ND. Everything the Irish did on offense should work against the falcons.

  7. Jennifer - Oct 2, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    Keith, best photo EVER on today’s Five Things entry!

  8. frankbjr - Oct 2, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    response to notredame grad: you are right on the money, it is about time ND stops playing down to its opponents. Purdue is awful, so while I am pleased, I am still not overjoyed. Purdue shot themselves so many times in the foot it is a miracle ND did not score 60-70 pts.

    A little concerned about the linebackers some seem to be all over the place. What is wrong with Theo Riddick, did he touch the ball last night?

    • bernhtp - Oct 2, 2011 at 10:39 AM

      You’re correct about Theo. We saw Floyd, TJ and Eifert make big contributions, but Theo was mostly absent. I guess I need to watch the game again to see what was going on with him. Most of us were expecting a far bigger presence for him this year.

  9. domer77blowsgoats - Oct 2, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    Hmmmm, what to post i wonder, very tempting to post something else w/ my old friend 9irish making his season debut, but….

    7-1 as a starter…..

  10. txbeej - Oct 2, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    I didn’t really understand some of the early offensive playcalling in this one. Run – pass ratio was 21/12 twenty minutes in (including a sneak), which, given how the Irish seemed to be able to just gash Purdue at will, had me in a bit of a froth. Things improved marvelously from that point though.

    Of course I’m delighted that there’s a run game to rely on at all, quite a far cry from the later Weis years. And I did like that they unleashed Rees to take a few more shots down the field. There were plays to be made there, definitely, just … true sophomore quarterback and all that.

    Not much else to nitpick here. No turnovers, another solid defensive performance, Goodman and Turk were … oh wait, yeah.

    • txbeej - Oct 2, 2011 at 11:06 AM

      My kingdom for an edit function. I reversed the numbers on the ratio.

  11. nudeman - Oct 2, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    It’s hard to find anything wrong with this effort.

    Surprised that no one mentioned the offensive line; or did I miss it? Seemed like every time they ran the Purdue D-Line was pushed back about 5 yards and there would be a hole any of us could run through (well, maybe not notredan, but you get the point).

    I know they outweighed the Purdue D-Line significantly, so maybe the explanation is as simple as that. But I’d love to know that it’s because they’re developing and coming together as a unit. No sacks either.

    This is a very very good sign.

  12. mattnef - Oct 2, 2011 at 12:06 PM

    What a fun game to watch! So nice to see this team handle its business, especially with a dominant effort at the line of scrimmage …
    … But (and it is a half hearted, happy “but”) it isn’t like Rees didn’t try to keep up his turnover streak going. He should have had 2 INTs (one probably a pick 6) with two horrible throws and a fumble he recovered. That will fly against a bad Purdue team, but not USC or Stanford. And what about that screen pass throw from Crist (just trying to cause trouble) good to see him in the game.

    • nudeman - Oct 2, 2011 at 3:05 PM

      I think that’s a little unfair.

      No one has been more critical of Rees than me. But there is no QB at any level – HS, NCAA, NFL – who can play an entire game, air it out as many times as he did and not “almost” throw a couple INTs.

      What I saw was PROGRESS. There were very few mistakes, he threw the ball downfield (finally) and overall played a great game. On a scale of 10, I’d give Rees’ performance an 8.75. Not perfect; but very, very good.

      The question we have to ask is “Was this because they’re developing nicely? Or was this because Purdue stinks?”

      I suppose the answer is “a little of both”. But I’m happy with the game, Rees and the overall effort.

      • bernhtp - Oct 2, 2011 at 7:27 PM

        Rees did make very good progress. A few areas where I hope to see more improvement are:

        1. Fade routes. Rees has two tall, strong and athletic receivers in Floyd and Eifert that can out jump defensive backs. Rees has been missing these throws, unlike his predecessors Clausen and Quinn. He typically overthrows them, and I can’t help this is due to his obvious concern about turnovers, but improving here will exploit and advantage our offense has and increase our red zone conversion percentage.

        2. Roll-out throws. Whether it’s being flushed from the pocket or a play action roll, Rees doesn’t seem comfortable in this position and he generally has poor results. He was fortunate that the interception of one of these was dropped.

        3. Deep. Rees didn’t throw deep down field against Pitt and little against MSU, obviously cautious about turnovers. His efforts against Purdue broke with this trend, but with poor results other than the TD on Floyd’s initial post route.

        Rees is getting better, and improvement in these areas will make a huge difference, especially against higher-quality opponents.

    • notredamegrad - Oct 2, 2011 at 3:51 PM

      Mattnef, I agree – excellent game to watch, dominant play at most positions, so nice to be able to relax (as a fan) through the fourth quarter and see our less-experienced guys get some game time.

      I think your half-hearted “but” is completely fair – you’re right – Kelly said as much in evaluating QB performance after the game. Rees escaped what would have been a few certain turnovers against a less-inept defense. It’s hard to judge “progress” in a game like this one, where there’s such a mis-match in ability. I’ve got to withhold judgment on Rees’s progress until next week, at least.

      What I found most frustrating (as Rees apparently did, too) were all the shots over the heads of receivers standing in the end zone – there must have been four or five of them that Rees put out of reach of his receivers, missing opportunities to put up 6 points. Kelly cautioned that he can’t do that against stiffer opponents.

      And yes, great to see Crist take a few snaps and throw that nice screen. That was the only time our QB faced pressure all night, and he handled it beautifully. Glad Kelly gave him that shot, and glad he took it.

  13. joeschu - Oct 2, 2011 at 12:57 PM

    Spot-on Keith. Playing Purdue every week would certainly help the general optimism of just about any football team. Here’s what I saw:

    1) Variety is the spice of life. Either Tommy “low ceiling” Rees is starting to finally get it, or BK is opening up the book a bit more, or both. There was more variety in the playbook tonight in both the run and pass games, and that’s a good thing to see. Pitt figured us out, and we’re very lucky Danny Hope is no Todd Graham. Opening up that playbook a bit more, and becoming significantly less predictable, will keep Rees bumping his head more than thumping the floor.

    2) Not-so special. This has been beaten to death, but the 2 biggest questions remaining on this topic are: do we have another long-snapping option? I’ve heard no. Also, can McDaniel not catch punts? Goodman gets his sure hands by parking stationary under the ball (then getting creamed). Watch any dominant punt returner, and they back up on the ball (like an outfielder gunning a ball home) so they can catch it with forward momentum. Goody is a fair catch machine, and it is better than a muff machine (a former nick name of Keith’s).

    3) Andrew Hendrix got screwed. The best QB in the spring game never will get a fair shake. Going back to Dayne was so damn pointless. BK has lost major points with me on this front. Andrew’s eligibility is burnt, get him in a game. We’ve seen what Crist can do, and I’m not sure I care what happens in his remaining year of eligibility. Rees’ eligibility eclipses Dayne’s and we know that BK favors Rees, so why would Dayne ever see the field again? Hendrix, however, has an additional year, that apparently BK wants to waste on the bench. Sad.

    4) Tuitt needs to get his s*&% together fast. Our D-Line is dominant right now, and much of that dominance is driven by depth and keeping guys fresh. If this game was in doubt in the 4th quarter, with that tiny rotation, I think you see a Michigan-esque collapse as guys get gassed. Luckily, Robinson was busy beatin’ down the Gophers, so it wasn’t an issue Saturday night. To that end, getting Wood and or Jackson a few snaps at corner to spell Gray and/or Blanton seems prudent throughout the course of a game, but it never seems to happen.

    5) Run the f’ing ball. Pound pound pound. We won’t see a team that can match our front 5 on offense other than USC and (maybe) Stanford. Turn Rees back in to a simple game manager (below his low ceiling) and roll off wins like the end of last year. I wish we would have figured that out before imploding our BCS dreams.

    I don’t know whether to be thrilled that this team looks like it could roll up a bunch of wins, or to be irate that they took this long to remove their heads from their collective backsides after 2 of the more painful losses in recent memory. I think it adds up to whether or not BK (and Rees) have the low ceiling I suspect they do. An optimist would say they have BCS-level upside, but I haven’t seen evidence of that**.

    **And if anyone brings up BK’s other BCS experience. I lived in Cincinnati. That’s like comparing the CFL to the NFL. The Big East is a joke. Look at their schedule from that year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Cincinnati_Bearcats_football_team) and compare it to ours in 2012 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre_Dame_Fighting_Irish_football_future_schedule).

  14. smurphdoggy29 - Oct 2, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    OK everybody breath in…
    Exhale…
    Relax and enjoy, now we remember how much fun it is to watch our beloved Irish, especially when
    they play to the best of their ability.
    Good progress for Rees and the offensive display showed it.
    Defensively the depth was on display and I agree with prior sentiments on Tuitt, hope this
    is just a blip, and nothing more ominous.
    Great win, great fun, and lets take care of business versus Air Force and get to the break !

    GO Irish !

  15. rpbags - Oct 2, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    Nice win for the boys last night and its amazing to think about what this team could do if it dose not shoot itself in the foot each week. J gray is a beast and C wood is starting to come into his own, o line did well and i think the defense gets better each week! Do we have another punter? Omg i think i could go out there and punt a ball 35 yards right? Need to work on that and tighten up the special teams play and this team could make a real run at 10-2 and a nice bcs bowl game…..Keep a eye on A force, but if we do what we did this week is also should be what i like to call a no doubter……………………..Have faith and LET’S GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. waydomer - Oct 3, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    The problem on punt returns is not all Goodman’s. Not that he shows the potential to make a big play, but the ND’s blocking of the gunners has been horrific. Most punts they are downfield next to Goodman before the ball gets there. There must be someone on that team he can block those guys.

  17. fitz79 - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    I agree that there is very little fault to find with this effort. For the most part it was pure Domi(nd)nation! The only thing I can really think of is Keith’s number 4, special teams. I’ve said it a few times on a different ND blog but Goodman is just plain no kick returner. Might as well have a scarecrow back there catching the ball. And how about that punt that landed at the Purdue 35, but Goodman waved for fair catch and ran away from the ball as though it were landing at the goal line, and the ball rolled well inside the 20. Luckily our offense was so good against Purdue we could make up for the bad field position but I’m just concerned that if we don’t account for these mistakes special teams will end up costing us a close game or 2 this season. I say give Riddick one more chance to return punts. I know he fumbled one this year but so to did Goodman. Maybe ever Atkinson? Same goes for Ruffer needing to get his confidence back. He hasn’t seemed to be there mentally this year and his snapper/holder are doing him no favors. And don’t even get me started on the punting of Ben Turk haha. Luckily I think we have the right guy in Kelly to right the ship. I’m sure he’s gonna start recruiting some guys with special teams in mind. Go Irish!

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