For those hoping that Notre Dame would use Saturday night as a sparring session against an outmanned Purdue team, it took just 12 plays to know that this wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Dreams of getting freshmen playing time and defenders stats by the bushel came crashing to a halt as Purdue took it to the No. 21 Fighting Irish for much of the first half, before Notre Dame pulled away late to win 31-24.
After getting smacked in the nose by Cincinnati and barely beating Indiana State, this game didn’t look like it’d be much on paper, with Purdue a hefty three touchdown underdog. But the Boilermakers came out of the gates sprinting, putting together an impressive first half, dominating the stat sheet and taking a lead into halftime with the Irish offense faltering and the defense a step behind and lucky to be down by just a touchdown.
But after some halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball, Tommy Rees and DaVaris Daniels put together a prolific game, while the defense buzzed Purdue quarterback Rob Henry, all but icing the game when senior cornerback Bennett Jackson returned an interception 34-yards for a touchdown.
A win is a win is a win. But Saturday night’s victory accentuated the difference between this football team and last year’s edition, with the defense once again struggling to play the type of fundamental defense that was a bedrock for Bob Diaco’s unit. But the Irish shrugged off a slow start, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to win 31-24, scoring four touchdowns in the second half after being stymied for the game’s first 30 minutes.
Let’s take a look at what we learned during Notre Dame’s hard fought 31-24 victory in West Lafayette.
With no true pass rush to speak of, the Irish need to find a way to get off the field on third down.
We can talk until we’re blue in the face about the Irish’s fearsome front seven. But stats eventually tell the story and Notre Dame’s trio of All-American caliber players, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Prince Shembo have a whopping one sack between the three of them after a quarter of the regular season.
The hallmark of Bob Diaco’s defense will never be rushing the passer, but eventually the Irish are going to need to be able to dial up a pass rush without selling the farm and putting their secondary in man coverage. And while Tuitt got a sack against Temple when head coach Matt Rhule said he gambled by taking on the All-American defensive end one-on-one, this defense desperately needs more out of its star defensive end, who has tallied just one tackle in the past two games.
Nix is playing great football, with the senior nose guard taking on constant double teams while plugging the middle of the field. But Shembo and Tuitt have yet to get on track, with Tuitt a step slow on a number of pass rush opportunities while Shembo seems to be spending a lot of time in pass coverage. (The last time we saw that it was a wasted season for Shembo, who as a sophomore struggled in space while manning the Dog linebacker position.)
The lack of pass rush was apparent for most of the first half, when Purdue converted some tough third downs that just didn’t happen last season. The Irish gave up four conversions of third and seven or longer in the game’s first 30 minutes, lucky to get out of the first half down by just one score.
Even when the Irish defense buckled down there were still some head-scratching conversions, none more so than the 4th and 7 conversion that resulted in a touchdown that got Purdue back within one score in the fourth quarter. With three Irish defenders dropping into zone coverage, Henry had to unload his throw early. But KeiVarae Russell watched tight end Justin Sinz catch a nine yard touchdown in front of him, pulling Purdue back into the game.
That type of defense can’t happen if the Irish want to be a BCS team. After allowing Purdue to convert 7 of 16 third downs and the Irish getting their only sack by Bennett Jackson on a broken play, it’s time for this group to figure out a way to get after the quarterback and get off of the field.
For much of the first half, the Irish were their own worst enemy on offense, refusing to stretch the field.
Nobody will believe that Tommy Rees can throw the ball down the field if Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin don’t either. And that’s what happened for most of the first half as the Irish offense stifled itself, refusing to stretch the field vertically while allowing Purdue to jam the box, play tight on their receivers, and shut down an offense that was supposed to roll.
It wasn’t all playcalling that made things tough on Notre Dame. The Irish dropped four passes in the first half, with Troy Niklas, Amir Carlisle and DaVaris Daniels doing Tommy Rees no favors as they failed to make some routine plays. But with Purdue unafraid of the Irish trying to beat them over the top, defensive coordinator Greg Hudson made running the football mighty tough for Notre Dame, with the Irish averaging a mediocre 2.5 yards a carry against a team that gave up 221 rushing yards to Cincinnati. They also were routinely blowing up the Irish screen game, nearly intercepting a few throws as their defenders went all-in stopping the short passing game.
Rees hit Chris Brown for a beautiful long strike for 40-yards in the second quarter. But it took an acrobatic catch by TJ Jones on the Irish’s first drive of the third quarter for the Irish to consistently challenge Purdue down field, which they did for much of the second half.
Only after stretching the Purdue defense were the Irish able to get some offensive flow going, with Daniels playing his best game in an Irish uniform, leading the team with eight catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, with the highlight being a go route Daniels caught in stride and then tip-toed the sideline while stiff-arming Ricardo Allen away for an 82-yard touchdown. But it shouldn’t take two quarters to remember that this team can strike down the field, and Rees has shown a much better touch downfield than he’s had in the past.
While using a lot of personnel is a good thing, being predictable certainly isn’t.
Last year, Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly showed a propensity for using different players for different jobs. Troy Niklas was a glorified offensive tackle. Theo Riddick was the Irish’s lone pass catching option out of the backfield while also doubling as the short yardage running back. Calling plays that utilize players’ abilities is a good thing. But being predictable certainly isn’t.
Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell verbalized one of the knocks against Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy at half time when he credited film study for knowing what and where the Irish offense would be.
“They’re doing a good job of recognizing some formations and some tendencies out of formations,” Hazell said of his defense.
The Irish offense was almost burnt a few times when the Purdue defense keyed on formational tendencies tells you that some formations are starting to become a giveaway to opposing defenses.
It’s not just Notre Dame fans that know when Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas are split out wide, it’s usually because they’re blocking. Defensive coordinators notice that, too. And while you need to give credit to Chuck Martin for calling a quarterback draw out of the empty set (Rees converted it for one of the ugliest two-yard gains of the night), it’s time for the Irish to make sure they’re doing enough self scouting.
A year after doing all of the little things right, the Irish’s growing pains on defense are quite obvious.
That the Irish defense isn’t the dominating group that most expected is a surprise. But on second thought, maybe it shouldn’t be. While it’s easy to point to the large group of returning starters, the leader of every unit needed to be replaced. Kapron Lewis-Moore’s void on the defensive front is felt. Losing Zeke Motta as the leader of the secondary is glaring. And Manti Te’o’s absence is painfully obvious. For all the punchlines that came with Te’o’s catfishing and draft slide, his instincts are sorely missed at linebacker.
Kelly talked about the defense’s struggles last week on Sirius XM radio with Jack Arute and Rick Neuheisel, speaking candidly about the transition.
“You know I don’t have Harrison Smith, who’s starting for the Vikings, and I don’t have Zeke Motta, who’s with Tampa Bay, and those were my last two safeties,” Kelly said. “Our safeties have to play better, there’s no question. And our corners have to improve. Our backer play is getting better, we’re playing a true freshman at the outside backer position. Those are the guys we’ve got. And we’ve got to get them better and coach them better. Our front is getting the job done, but we have to play better in the secondary and we’re committed to making sure that happens.”
Getting back to the basics — especially for young players — will be key for this group. Guys like Cole Luke are being counted on to play a lot of snaps, and learning from your mistakes will be important. Credit Luke for not getting beat inside on a slant route after having it happen to him earlier in the game. But after playing major minutes last season, it’s still clear KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley are still learning on the job. That’s fine for a guy that’s playing a complementary role. It’s a lot tougher when you’re counting on them to be frontline starters.
A season after riding ugly victories all the way to the National Championship game, give credit to Tommy Rees and the Irish for getting out of West Lafayette alive.
Selective memory is a wonderful thing. As the Irish were struggling to hang in there during the first half, the groans from the fans grew louder and louder (on the live blog at least). Some called for Tommy Rees’ head. Some questioned if Bob Diaco had lost it. Others yearned for the days of Charlie Weis the playcaller. (Really, I’m not kidding.) But on a Saturday night where not everything went right, give credit to Notre Dame for doing everything it needed to do in the second half to go home a winner.
“We didn’t start very well, but we hung in there,” Kelly said after the game. “We kept playing, kept fighting. I told our team we’re still kind of defining who we are. We’re still trying to find ourselves. Here’s what we did. We played hard for four quarters and we fought our butts off. Then we found a way to make some plays, and we feel really good about our kids and the way they played.”
At running back, Cam McDaniel was the guy that got the call, brushing off four stitches to the head at halftime to carry the ball ten times as the Irish held onto the ball for the game’s final 7:22 to run out the clock. And after struggling last weekend in coverage, captain Bennett Jackson made a huge play running back a pick six while also getting a sack on Rob Henry.
Nobody did more in the second half than Tommy Rees. After struggling with the offense in the first half, Rees played a lights out second half completing 13 of his 17 throws 215 yards and two touchdowns, while converting a clutch five of six on passing third downs.
“I’m really proud of the way he settled down in the second half and helped our football team win,” Kelly said after the game.
In the end, it wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. On a day when Michigan stopped Akron on two plays inside the five yard line to pull out a win and Army gave Stanford all they could handle, an ugly victory counts the same as a dominant one. But if this team is going to achieve what it needs to, there’s work to be done.
And don’t think for a second Brian Kelly doesn’t know it.
“We know we’ve got good players and we’ve got good personnel,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to figure out the parts and the pieces and where they go and I really like the way they fought and some of the things that came out tonight.”