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The road to 12-0: Purdue

Dec 26, 2012, 1:29 PM EDT

Robert Maci, Joe Gilliam, Everett Golson AP

The second in a series that will look back at Notre Dame’s undefeated 12-0 regular season. For more, read about the Navy game.

With Notre Dame’s impressive 50-10 victory, the Irish jumped into the polls, checking in at No. 22 as they returned home from Dublin to play Purdue. After watching Everett Golson look comfortable at quarterback, and the Irish defense look impressive shutting down Navy’s potent option attack, optimism was abound.

Back on September 7th, here’s how I described the temperature surrounding this team:

No doubt, expectations have been raised thanks to the Irish’s convincing victory over Navy. But one win is a data point. Two would make a trend. And over the past few years, the trend has never been a good one for Notre Dame.

Let’s take a closer look at the Irish’s home opener, a closer-than-you’d-like 20-17 victory over Purdue.

STATUS CHECK

A week after most Irish fans fawned over Notre Dame’s offensive line, the group was knocked back to reality against a stout Purdue front and a blitzing attack that regularly stuffed the line of scrimmage. Without Cierre Wood for a second consecutive game, Theo Riddick carried the load, but the senior only managed 53 yards on 15 carries, and the Irish ground game was held to just 1.4 yards an attempt on the afternoon. Mike Golic was routinely beat by Kawann Short. Even Zack Martin was flagged for three penalties. The Boilermakers racked up five sacks and eight tackles-for-loss as new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar threw a lot at Everett Golson and the Irish offense.

Golson’s afternoon was also an up-and-down proposition. His passing numbers were excellent. Completing 21 of 31 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown, it was one of the most prolific games of the season for the young quarterback. But as the team lost Tyler Eifert with what looked like a concussion and Davaris Daniels with an ankle injury, Golson struggled to move the offense with the team’s second unit, and in the fourth quarter, he took a back-breaking sack before carelessly turning the ball over deep in Irish territory that led to Purdue’s game tying touchdown.

With just over two minutes left in the game and no timeouts left, Kelly took the ball away from Golson and brought in Tommy Rees, a decision that was met by a cascade of boos heard loudly across Notre Dame Stadium. With only TJ Jones and Riddick remaining from the team’s No. 1 offense, Rees took the Irish down the field, converting clutch third down conversions to John Goodman and Robby Toma, as Theo Riddick ground out a key run before Kyle Brindza kicked the game winning field goal with 27 seconds left.

No doubt, the win felt good. But it supplied a whole lot more questions than answers.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Even before entering the interview room, Kelly tried to diffuse any quarterback controversy, telling NBC’s Alex Flanagan after the game, “There is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State.”

Nonetheless, let’s bullet point some issues:

Was Kelly creating a quarterback controversy again?

Even with Kelly’s on-air proclamation, it didn’t stop the media from asking about the quarterback situation, and Kelly said that Golson had injured his hand on the series beforehand, making it difficult for him to grip the ball.

Whether you believed that or not, that Kelly turned to Rees when the game was on the line puzzled just about everyone, remarkable considering Rees hadn’t taken a rep with the full offense all camp, and had only begun getting work with the first team that Tuesday.

Was this team going to be decimated by injuries?

Overshadowed by the close score was the fact that the Irish lost a ton of personnel during the game. While Irish fans were frustrated with the outcome, Kelly was able to turn the victory into a teachable moment, a bedrock opportunity for one of his teaching philosophies.

“The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: Next Man In,” Kelly said. “We had seven guys go down today. Our key players. We had two captains go down. A leader in the secondary in Jamoris Slaughter. Our guys kept fighting. The next guy came in and battled.”

The injuries all turned out to be rather benign, but the early playing time for guys like Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, and Tony Springmann was critical.

What could we expect out of the Irish offensive line?

Harry Hiestand’s group took a fairly precipitous drop when they faced a Big Ten defensive front. While Kelly talked about the schematic looks Purdue used to limit the Irish running attack, it was probably the worst game of the year for the Irish up front.

A few factors weighed into this that might have made things tougher on the offensive line. The Irish had no true game tape on Purdue’s defense, forced to look at 2008 Kansas State film to see what Tibesar’s defense would look like. They also were learning what life was like with a young quarterback, who struggled pre-snap with reads and contributed to the five sacks himself. Still, it was a tough afternoon for just about everyone involved, and after playing a very clean game in Dublin, the Irish took a step back with eight penalties.

Was this Notre Dame team mentally different than the others?

Irish captain Zack Martin provided one of the early data points that this football team was built differently than the rest. After gutting out a tough victory and battling back from some early struggles, Martin crystallized a belief that was widely held inside the locker room, but still not obvious to those of us watching.

“A few years before this, the game wouldn’t have gone down like this. We wouldn’t have won,” Martin said after the game. “The resilience of those guys when their number was called, it was a full team effort.”

That the Irish would pull this game off the way that they did, getting contributions from one of the team’s most maligned players — and also one of the team’s most well liked — showed this group to be different. And credit Kelly for playing a gigantic hunch, one that was so unpopular that boos echoed down and Irish centric websites nearly exploded with rage, but one that ultimately worked out perfectly.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17.

You could blame jet lag or the general malaise that mysteriously comes with playing at home, but the Irish’s victory over Purdue feels a bit like a microcosm of the season. It was never easy, but it was awfully fulfilling.

For Golson, you saw a young quarterback that did some dazzling things, yet also made some head scratching mistakes. For Theo Riddick, you saw a veteran that struggled to get much of anything going in the run game, but buoyed the team with 44 critical receiving yards, and a game-clinching 11 yard carry on the Irish’s game-winning drive. For Tommy Rees, you saw the beginnings of a revival that took the quarterback from reviled to respected.

On defense, the Irish found some consistency in the secondary, limiting the Boilermakers to under 200 yards passing and forcing two interceptions. Even without Jamoris Slaughter, who injured his shoulder early on a bone-crunching hit, Zeke Motta held down the fort, helping youngsters like Farley, Shumate and Brown find their spots. While Manti Te’o led the team in tackles with ten, we continued to watch Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt dominate, with the duo contributing 3.5 sacks between them.

Perhaps more impressive than anything that happened on the field, you watched Brian Kelly coach fearlessly. The decision to bring in Rees was one that could’ve easily backfired, yet Kelly played the hand he needed to, and his team responded.

After deciding to hit the reset button on the offense and hand the job to Golson, Kelly knew he would need to delicately balance a flammable quarterback situation and a locker room that was incredibly loyal to Rees. And while the head coach unequivocally stated that Golson was his starter, he created a very important niche for Rees.

“If we feel like Tommy can help us win a game or he can come in in a situation where we believe it’s the right fit, then he’ll be prepared to do so,” Kelly said. “I’ll use this baseball analogy: We would like our starters to finish the game. We want them to go all nine innings. But occasionally, you may need some help. Maybe you need long relief and maybe you need some short relief. I don’t want to take anything off the table.”

After the game, Kelly awarded Rees the game ball as the junior quarterback led the team singing the fight song. Rees responded in kind, playing the role of good soldier immediately after the game with NBC’s Flanagan.

“We’ve got to win this game,” Rees said on-air, before side-stepping a tough question from Flanagan about his role in the offense. “I try to be as positive of a role model as I can and help Everett out when I can. Everett played a great game today. He’s a great player and he’ll continue to get better.”

 

 

  1. bernhtp - Dec 26, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    I was sitting only a few rows in back of the Irish bench when I saw Tommy tabbed to warm up. But he had no helmet on and warmed up with Hendrix, who was wearing a helmet, so I wasn’t certain which way the QB change would go. But despite the helmet difference – may have been purposeful to throw off the Purdue – I still thought that Rees was going in just because of their relative demeanor.

    • nudeman - Dec 26, 2012 at 3:52 PM

      Interesting observation there, bern.

      I wonder if it maybe was going to be Hendrix but something about the field position or something else when they got the ball back made BK turn to Rees. We’ll never know but it worked out. A few other points:

      1) This game seems like 10 years ago.

      2) Let’s assume BK was undecided as the QBs warmed up; “do I put in AH or TR?”. There is probably no bigger moment, in retrospect, that signaled the end for Hendrix as a guy taking meaningful snaps for ND than BK picking Rees. After the game BK immediately reaffirmed Golson’s status as the starter and Rees’ became Mariano Rivera. Hendrix has since then been the odd man out, and that ain’t gonna’ change anytime soon with Zaire arriving in a few months and GK with a year under his belt and ready to compete in 2013.

      3) We can spend all week on “what if?” BS, but imagine if TR had NOT pulled the game out. BK would have been crucified and maybe AH would have gotten a shot the next time EG struggled. Personally, I don’t think “relief” is Hendrix’s thing. Just watching him in the pocket in non pressure situations in the B&G game and in Dublin, he’s too nervous in the pocket.

      4) Re: Andrew, on one hand I feel for the guy; on the other hand we have all had life experiences where we were in the right place/wrong time or whatever. Welcome to adulthood, kid. IMO, the truth is he is just not good enough on the mental side of the game to be starting at QB for a program like ND.

      5) Last point: Keith, this is the BEST place to go for news and intelligent conversation on ND football. The 4HL has more traffic, more readers, etc. But the dialogue there is embarrassing. Seems like a bunch of 14 year olds who just had their first beer. You do a great job and I hope you get a raise in 2013.

      • bernhtp - Dec 26, 2012 at 5:01 PM

        I am really pretty sure it never was going to be Hendrix. I wasn’t expecting Golson to get pulled, but that was what apparently was going to happen once I saw the other two QBs get up and warm up vigorously. I turned to the guy next to me, pointed at the two, and said there was going to be a QB change. I (correctly) surmised Rees, despite the helmet thing. I doubt that the decision would have been different had Hendrix acquitted himself better in the Navy game. Kelly had his mind made up how to handle situations like this for quite a while.

      • nudeman - Dec 26, 2012 at 7:22 PM

        Well YOU might have been sure, I know I wasn’t.

        Rees was coming off a suspension, hadn’t gotten that many snaps in practice, played AWFUL in the B&G Game, and against FSU, Stanford and BC. Most believed Rees had taken his last meaningful snaps for ND.

        As someone else stated here, his role as a Messiah is a tad overrated. There was the the phantom time out (which should have been a penalty, right?) that showed a distinct lack of poise and awareness, and a moon shot to Goodman that easily could have been a pick 6. Had THAT happened, I’m not sure Rees or BK would have made it to the tunnel alive.

        Rees’ best moment all year was the audible against UM and the resulting perfectly thrown pass to Eifert to seal the game. He is not any sort of an “answer”. The offense was familiarly moribund in his only full game (BYU) and not terribly scintillating against UM where he played over half the game and put up, what? 6 points? 10?

        Let’s not forget Bama scored more in any given 5 min stretch in the 1st half against them. So with all due respect if EG gets hurt on 1/7, they’re done.

      • bernhtp - Dec 26, 2012 at 11:17 PM

        Nude, I don’t disagree with anything you said, but I could sense at the time it was going to be Rees and we’ve learned since that it was always going to be Rees.

  2. thefightinfloyds - Dec 26, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    Talk about changing QB’s, it seemed like Purdue was swapping every other series. After the game I had the feeling that if Purdue would have stuck with Marve the whole game they would have pulled it out. I also remember Kawann Short destroying Golic and the interior of that line. I was certainly nervous going into the State game, I thought ND was gonna come crashing down in East Lansing.

  3. goirishgo - Dec 26, 2012 at 4:42 PM

    At this point I had some real doubts. Inconsistent QB play, bad penalties, and no running game against a mediocre (at best) opponent. Lots of good teams lay ahead on the schedule. In retrospect though, this game was probably foundational in building the mental toughness the Irish exuded the rest of the way. A character building win if you will.

    Regardless, it’s interesting to look back and understand just how much this team has improved over the course of the season. Another reason to like the Irish on January 7….still getting better!

    • bernhtp - Dec 26, 2012 at 5:04 PM

      The O-line had a very bad game. We had high expectations for them following a dominant performance in the Navy game, but they really played lethargically against Purdue. They obviously picked it up subsequently.

  4. sbhooridas - Dec 26, 2012 at 5:08 PM

    To my eyes there was never a question of whether Rees would start over Golson. All the media-ites focused on the win so much that they didn’t look at the game. Folks treated it like an Elway-esque kind of performance, but Rees didn’t come in and light the world on fire. He clearly called a TO he didn’t have; and Purdue thought Gary Gray had dressed for them with the way their corner played that wounded duck Rees threw to Goodman.

    Another thing I noticed this game was that I believe Golson got hurt on his TD run. Purdue corner hit him square on his shoulder. He didn’t look injured, but Kelly said Golson’s shoulder had been scoped/worked on the week of the BYU game, and I think it was because of that hit.

    One final thing: I never had a problem with Kelly sitting EG in these early games because when Kelly would try to get his attention as he came off the sideline, EG wouldn’t look at him. Could be that Golson just needed to figure it out for himself, but he cant just blow Kelly off like that. It’s been good to see Golson mature in that sense too; now when he comes to the sideline he acknowledges Kelly and, better yet, looks as though he knows the read he should’ve made.

  5. dutch31 - Dec 26, 2012 at 5:49 PM

    That was certainly a game ND would have lost in years past. Kelly made the right call, he knew the right reads would be way more important than the more talented QB.

    Kelly knew the loss would have been on him. As he describes it when ND was up 17-7, he probably should have gone with much more call it and haul it, as he later described just running a play. It was so painful to watch Golson look to the sideline 3 or 4 different times over 30 seconds at the line of scrimmage. Then there is 4th and 10 at the 17? Or around there. Carlo Calabrese in the slot? ( By the way Calabrese def one of my favorite players. NJ!) if Schumate is in probably no need for The Closer! Just didn’t understand the personnel grouping??

    I took a lot of grief from my buddies who are ND fans, saying I was crazy that they were a legit elite talent team. But that was how I felt even after Purdue, as I recall they finished the game with 7 starters sidelined with injuries. As we know now a win is a win!

    GO IRISH!!

  6. harvupdyke - Dec 26, 2012 at 10:13 PM

    This was a real quality win Rudy fans. Y’all should be really proud of the way y’all handled that 6-6 PahDue team.

    Roll dam tide.

    • fw190wuerger - Dec 27, 2012 at 12:22 AM

      So true, we just couldn’t handle them like Alabama did its powerhouse opponent that weekend — the 7-6 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers team.

      • 9irish - Dec 27, 2012 at 4:29 AM

        good screen name. An often overlooked aircraft.

        Go Irish

    • papadec - Dec 27, 2012 at 1:24 AM

      harv – that was one helluva BAMA win over TAM – oops they didn’t beat TAM – awwwwwwww shucks.

  7. 1historian - Dec 27, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    This team is still a work in progress and I don’t think we’ve seen it at its best from beginning to end. I think the best we’ve seen them play as in offense defense and special teams is the 2nd half of the Oklahoma game, especially after OU tied the game at 13.

    Beginning to end? We haven’t seen it yet.

    The hope here is that on Jan. 7 the dam tide will get that dreaded message – “Welcome to Miami. We’re Notre Dame and you’re NOT.”

    What then? Let the rolling begin.

  8. irishdodger - Dec 27, 2012 at 9:47 PM

    @dyke:

    You’re right Purdue has nothing on powerhouses like Western Kentucky, Western Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee & Mizzou. Talk about a Murderer’s Row!

  9. 1historian - Dec 28, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    The first thing I noticed about this team in the Navy game was the attitude and then the speed. They were good at the beginning of the season and they have been getting better every week. They have also been quite lucky, the Pitt game being the prime example of that.

    Here they (we) are at 12-0 and a little under 10 days away from playing Alabama for the National Championship, which I defy anyone but the most fanatic amongst us to have seen coming on August 31.

    Whodathunkit?

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