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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.”

 

 

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