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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10

Oct 2, 2011, 2:04 AM EDT

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.

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