Tommy Rees

Michigan State v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 13

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Brian Kelly told us all week that he was expecting an ugly, hard-nosed football game. But even the biggest fan of a defensive battle had a tough time watching Notre Dame and Michigan State’s defenses beat up on the opposition, with neither team able to gain 300 yards of total offense.

Even with eight penalties, a blocked punt deep in their own territory, and just 224 yards of total offense, the Irish pulled off a hard fought 17-13 victory that looked a lot like some of the unglamorous wins that propelled Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season last year.

“If you’d have asked me last week about what this kind of game would be, it wasn’t going to be a beauty contest,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game.  “I felt like it was going to be this kind of game.”

Against a Spartan defense that came into Saturday ranked the best in the nation, Pat Narduzzi’s group certainly played up to their reputation. With Tommy Rees completing just over 40 percent of his throws and relying on the 15-yard pass interference call to be the offense’s most effective weapon, the group missed some open looks downfield in the first half before putting this game on the defense’s shoulders. And after struggling at times early this season, Bob Diaco’s group was up to the occassion, with strong play in the red zone, solid improvement in the secondary, and a pass rush that made things tough on Michigan State at the end of the game.

Thanks to a big rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter and a game-icing 14-yard carry by Cam McDaniel, Notre Dame survived and extended their home winning streak to ten games.

“Somebody was going to have to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “We were able to get the touchdown and hold them from scoring one.”

Let’s find out what else we learned in the Irish’s 17-13 win.

***

While it wasn’t necessarily successful, the Irish offense is going to challenge defenses downfield when presented with man to man coverage.

It wasn’t a secret that Michigan State was going to challenge Tommy Rees to beat them down the field. And while he didn’t do it on Saturday, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Rees threw early and often down the field, taking dead aim at one-on-one match-ups that had the senior quarterback looking down field for most of the first half.

In blustery conditions, Rees wasn’t able to take advantage of the aggressive downfield coverage the Spartans played, completing just 12 of 27 first half throws. Heading into halftime, Brian Kelly crystalized the boom or bust mentality the Irish played when he spoke with NBC’s Alex Flanagan.

“We’re swinging and missing,” Kelly said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities, we just haven’t connected. Were going to keep pushing the ball. We’ve got virtually all man-to-man coverage, and we’re going to have to hook up to score more points.”

From there, the passing game was all but shut down by Kelly, with Rees officially attempting just seven second half throws. Kelly talked about the urge to continue taking shots at a Michigan State defense that was daring the Irish to beat them, but understood that he needed to play strategically and close out the game.

“I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives,” Kelly said after the game. “But we felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they’ve been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense.”

After doing a nice job throwing the ball down the field in the first three games, Rees wasn’t able to make Michigan State pay, just missing TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels multiple times, and only reliably connecting with freshman Corey Robinson. While the Spartans bailed out the Irish offense with some critical (and criticized) pass interference calls, more important than any stat, Rees played a turnover free football game.

“Their corners did a good job of playing man. We missed some opportunities, but we had guys open,” Rees said after the game. “We found a way at the end of the day to put enough points to help our defense win the game.”

Still, in a game plan that needed Rees to complete passes down the field, he struggled to do so. And there’s work to be done for both quarterback and receivers to continue making this offense more efficient, especially against an aggressive defense.

“This was not a hitch, spot, screen, bubble, high‑percentage game,” Kelly said of the game plan. “This is grip‑it‑and‑rip‑it.  That’s the kind of game it was. You’re going to hit big plays.  You’re going to score some touchdowns.  So throw the completion percentage out. You’re either going to make some plays or you’re not.”

Notre Dame didn’t make the big plays, but they also didn’t make the bad ones. That was enough on Saturday afternoon.

***

***

After struggling with the fundamentals, the Irish defense made some changes and made some critical stops. 

Brian Kelly promised some changes after a sloppy defensive game against Purdue. And it didn’t take long to notice them, with senior Dan Fox and junior Matthias Farley out of the starting lineup. While both veterans played, it was likely a shot in the arm for a unit that might have been resting on its laurels after an impressive ’12 season. Without Sheldon Day able to go with a sprained ankle, the Irish defense buckled down and got key contributions from Kona Schwenke up front and an infusion of youth in the secondary.

“We’re just trying to get the right mix and the right lineup and the right guys in the right place,” Kelly said about the changes. “Definitely you could sense that that defense is starting to come together. But I wouldn’t say that we’re at that point where we’re definitely sold we have the 11 guys in the right place. We think we’re closer. We still have to do a little bit more work.”

Where the improvement was most visible was in the red zone. While the Spartans were able to get a bit of momentum running the football, they weren’t able to cash it in when it counted. Michigan State was only able to score one touchdown in its four red zone appearances, also missing a key field goal early in the game after Kyle Brindza’s punt was blocked and the Spartans started with the ball at Notre Dame’s 30-yard line.

“As far as Michigan State is concerned, get down in the red zone, you got to score touchdowns,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “Had our opportunities in the red zone.  Kicked a couple field goals, missed one. You got to score touchdowns in those situations.”

With the Irish offense unwilling to risk giving the game away to the Spartan defense, Kelly depended on the defense to get key fourth quarter stops. They did that, with Stephon Tuitt getting a much needed sack and Prince Shembo providing quite a bit of pressure in three and four man pass rush situations.

“I thought we played very well today up front, getting three‑man pressure and four‑man pressure up front,” Kelly said. “When you can do that, you can drop a lot of guys in coverage.  I think the defenses had a lot to do with today’s ballgame.”

With Oklahoma coming to town next weekend after a week off, the Irish defense will need to build on this performance. But when the chips were down, Kelly bet on his defense. And they rewarded him by icing the football game.

***

While the offensive line held up to Michigan State’s pass rush, there’s still plenty of work to do for Harry Hiestand’s troops. 

When the Irish needed it, Cam McDaniel ran the ball up the gut and sealed the game with a critical 14-yard carry. But other than that the Irish struggled to do anything against Michigan State’s defense, struggling miserably on 3rd and short conversions all afternoon. On 3rd and three or less, Notre Dame converted just five of 13 attempts, with one coming courtesy of a personal foul on an incomplete Tommy Rees pass. Four of those five conversions game through the air.

“We’re too hot and cold right now,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “We have a long way to go. Once this offense figures out how to be consistent, we can be pretty good.”

Kelly talked about the challenge of trying to run the ball against a defense like Michigan State’s, and acknowledged that you need to pass the ball to beat the Spartans.

“You have to win throwing the football against Michigan State. You’re not going to win running the football against them,” Kelly said after the game. “You’re just trying to carve out an existence in the run game against a defense like this. You’ve got to run it well enough to win the game.”

Notre Dame may have done that, but the work is far from done up front.

***

***

After winning a big gamble with Little Giants, Mark Dantonio has come up empty against Notre Dame since. 

There’s no forgetting Little Giants, Mark Dantonio’s heroic fake field goal call in overtime that beat Brian Kelly and the Irish in ’10. But since then, the risks Dantonio has taken have come back to bite the Spartans.

In ’11, Dantonio attempted to follow up Little Giants with another fake field goal as the Spartans were trying to score going into half. The play was snuffed out easily and the Spartans never pulled closer. Saturday afternoon, Dantonio rolled the dice twice with two risky decisions and both went Notre Dame’s way.

The first was an ill-fated halfback pass that completely flipped the second half momentum. After a dominant 15-play, 75-yard drive that took over eight minutes off the clock and resulted in a field goal, Dantonio called a halfback pass with R.J. Shelton, who heaved an ill-advised pass into a flock of Notre Dame defenders that Matthias Farley came down with. A nice return (and late hit personal foul) later, The Irish had the ball at the Spartans 37-yard line, marching the ball down for a touchdown that broke open a tie game.

Dantonio took the blame for the decision, suggesting the play to his offensive coordinator in hopes of catching the Irish napping.

“I made the suggestion on that one because I felt like we needed a big play,” Dantonio said after the game.

The next big decision came late in the game when Dantonio and the offensive staff chose to put the game in Andrew Maxwell’s hands. With Connor Cook only completing 16 of his 32 throws for 135 yards and a touchdown, it wasn’t as if he was dominating the game, but the decision to put the game on Maxwell’s shoulders, especially in a situation where quarterback mobility could really come in handy, was a head-scratcher.

“I think we put him in there just to try to change the pace. Felt like he needed an opportunity, should give him an opportunity,” Dantonio said of Maxwell. “Tough situation to put him in at. I felt like he was a little behind on some throws, needed to mix it up and see what he could do.  Obviously didn’t work out.”

***

There were plenty of special teams blunders to work out, but in the end Kyle Brindza iced the game with two clutch fourth quarter punts. 

The Irish gave up their first punt block of the Kelly era. Senior captain TJ Jones had a very shaky day returning punts, nearly coughing up two to the Spartans. And while Kyle Brindza missed a field goal he should have had, he bailed out the Irish with two clutch punts late in the game to flip the field position.

“He got the game ball for us,” Kelly said of Brindza. “He flipped field position for us in the fourth quarter, which to me was as important as anything that happened today, pinning Michigan State back twice in field position that tilted the field in our favor and allowed them on a longer field.”

It won’t be a good Sunday in the film room for Scott Booker and his troops. Brindza’s punt was blocked because of a high snap by redshirt freshman Scott Daly and a mediocre effort by Jarron Jones. And TJ Jones’s decision to return punts in part to boost his NFL Draft stock won’t be much good if he continues to take careless risks with the football.

But with the game on the line, Brindza nailed two beautiful punts, back-to-back 51-yarders that netted zero in the return game.

***

Rees takes charge as team’s identity comes into focus

Tommy Rees, Brian Kelly
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Saturday’s comeback victory against Purdue was keyed by a second half recovery after a slow start by both sides of the ball. And while it felt like a frustrating slog for most of the game, it didn’t feel like a great escape or death-defying act. And that’s a product of the team understanding what it takes to win a football game.

Brian Kelly stopped by SiriusXM’s College Football Playbook this week and talked about the evolution of his team with Jack Arute and Gino Torretta. And winning games like this has become habit forming.

“I think it’s a culmination of winning 25 of our last 30 regular season games,” Kelly said of his team’s battle back. “That has to have a positive effect on you. When I came in at half time, I said, ‘Listen, we’ve been down this road before.’ We’re going to have to play better, we’re going to have to make some plays. Plays that we didn’t make against Michigan. And I was confident we would.”

There were plenty of interesting morsels that came out of Kelly’s weekly stop, but perhaps the largest was the evolution of Tommy Rees as the offense’s leader. Sure Zack Martin and TJ Jones are the guys with the C on their jersey, but Kelly made it clear that Saturday night, Rees finally became the rightful leader of this offense.

“Tommy Rees finally took this team over,” Kelly said. “He took them on the bench and surrounded himself with everybody and started talking to them like it’s his team. He’s been the quarterback, but now it’s his team. It was a huge moment in the second half where he said, ‘Listen, this is my team and we’re going to win this football game.'”

Kelly also talked about the changes on the defense that’s started out a little bit slower than many expected. Getting ready to take part in a smash-mouth game this weekend, the Irish head coach referenced a few tweaks to Bob Diaco’s troops that he hopes will help straighten out a few of the deficiencies.

“We’re getting closer. We’re not there yet,” Kelly said. “We still have to develop a few key positions on defense that are not there yet. And we’ve addressed that and moving forward we think we have some answers there that you’ll see this weekend.”

Game within the game pits Irish offense against Narduzzi

Tommy Rees, Amir Carlisle
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After starting quickly against Temple, the Irish offense took some time to get started against Michigan and Purdue, with defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Greg Hudson getting their troops to play well early. That challenge will continue this weekend when the Irish face off against Pat Narduzzi, the architect of the blitzing, aggressive 4-3 scheme that has turned the Spartan defense into one of the top units in the country.

While the Irish have had success against the Spartans defense, scoring 30 or more points in three of the last four, a game within the game is likely to break out on Saturday, with Narduzzi’s pressure defense and man coverage going head to head with Tommy Rees and the Irish offense.

With a quarterback and system that looks to isolate and find man-to-man coverage, there is a lot of room for boom or bust plays, as Brian Kelly’s preferred offense is a hurry-up-and-wait system, with Rees often looking at what the defense is presenting, and then putting the team in a preferable look from there. When talking about the team’s success so far pass blocking, Kelly hit on some of the reasons for success, mainly Rees’s ability to give the team the proper look.

“Tommy gets us into the right protections nine out of ten times,” Kelly said. “Whereas last year, Everett was still learning and sometimes he wasn’t able to slide the right way and give us the best look possible.”

That will be a key to Saturday’s game, with Michigan State in the top ten in sacks and turnovers forced. Last year, the Irish beat the Spartans despite only gaining 300 yards of total offense, hitting on a big play to John Goodman on an athletic scramble from Golson, who otherwise played a very conservative game, completing only 14 of 32 throws for 178 yards.

Looking closer at the box score from last year, you get just how good of a chess match this was between the Irish offense and Narduzzi. Notre Dame took a 14-3 lead into half and then relied relied on their defense for the third quarter, going three and out on their first two possessions after the break before a roughing the kicker penalty helped the Irish get the ball to midfield where Ben Turk pinned the Spartans inside their five yard line.

But after another three and out opened the fourth quarter, Kelly turned to Cierre Wood, who anchored the ground game, running for 45 yards on five carries that resulted in a Kyle Brindza field goal, before Le’Veon Bell’s fumble turned into three more points for the Irish. Outside of some success running the football in crunch time, Narduzzi’s unit was all the developing Irish offense could handle.

(Funny to think about now, but Notre Dame’s workhorse runner, Theo Riddick, only managed 2.5 yards a carry, even with a 15 yarder among his 12 totes.)

It’s too early to tell just how good Narduzzi’s defense is this season, especially having to replace three front-line players in William Gholson, linebacker Chris Norman, and cornerback Johnny Adams. But they’ve scored four touchdowns already in three games, out-pacing the offense in the first two weeks.

After watching Rees do some damage down the field this year — Notre Dame fans will be shocked to find out that Rees is averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, good for 21st in the country, even with this offense’s proclivity to throw screen passes — it’s setting up a wonderfully juicy collision course between Notre Dame’s receivers and a Spartan secondary that hasn’t been tested yet.

So something will have to give this Saturday, with Narduzzi likely challenging Rees to beat a Spartan defense that will do its best to pressure Rees and challenge him to make a mistake.

 

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue

DaVaris Daniels, Ricardo Allen
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It was one bizarre Saturday of football, but in the end Notre Dame boarded the bus and headed back up Highway 31 with a 2-1 record, beating a game Purdue team that brought their best to the annual battle with the Irish.

Let’s get down to business and take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Saturday night’s 31-24 victory.

THE GOOD

DaVaris Daniels. The best game of a young career for Daniels, who showed himself to be a deep threat as well as dangerous weapon crossing the middle of an opponent’s defense. After a relatively quiet first half, Daniels broke the game open with Rees, targeting him eight times in the second half, connecting for 130 yards and two touchdowns.

Jarrett Grace. He’s nowhere near the cover man that Manti Te’o was last season, but Grace was certainly active Saturday night, doubling up the next closest teammate making ten tackles on the evening as he starts to work his way into the three man rotation at inside linebacker.

Tommy Rees… and the deep ball?!? No, that’s not a typo. Rees was deadly throwing down the field against Purdue, making the Boilermakers pay when he pushed the ball vertically down the field. Rees threw a perfect pass to Chris Brown late in the first half to open up the deep throwing, then on a play that most will forget from the second quarter, Rees was flushed from the pocket and rolled to his left when he spotted Corey Robinson one-on-one deep down the field. Rees heaved it to Robinson, who was interfered with as he tried to come back and make the play. It’s the type of play that’s very difficult for a defensive back to make and credit Rees for giving Robinson a chance to make a play, and turn nothing into 15 yards and a first down.

After throwing for only 94 yards in the first half on just over 50 percent passing, Rees righted the ship while also taking shots down the field. First, he extended a drive by hitting TJ Jones for a clutch 19-yard gain on 3rd and 9. Next he took a 50-50 shot on a back-shoulder throw to Jones who made a spectacular catch inside the one-yard line. But the best throw and connection of the night came from Rees with just under 13 minutes left, hitting Daniels in stride against Purdue’s best cover corner. The 82-yard completion was the ninth longest pass completion in school history. (Let the record show that Rees threw that ball about 50-yards in the air for a perfect strike.)

In the second half, Rees had incompletions that included a throw away, a ball that Daniels caught JUST out of bounds after a perfect throw rolling left, and one where Daniels stepped out before making the catch. (Two red zone incompletions hit Daniels and Jones in the hands, but were just dropped on tough catches.) After rewatching the tape, it was a really impressive second half by Rees, who had the offense on point.

Cam McDaniel. You aren’t going to look at his numbers and see a dominant performance, but never did 3.5 yards per carry look so good. After getting his head split open before half, McDaniel was the back who had his number called to finish the football game, with ten carries on the Irish’s final drive, milking the last 7:22 off the clock.

McDaniel also looks to have taken the role of goal line back, the runner of choice when the Irish had first and goal inside the one. While most called for Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston to get a shot running the ball it was McDaniel who took charge of the position battle after being largely forgotten against Michigan. (As a bonus, he went out and made a tackle on special teams on the ensuing kickoff.)

Sheldon Day. The sophomore defensive lineman was all over the field, a nuisance lined up both inside and out along the line. Day had four tackles, including one for a loss. He was all over Rob Henry, and while he didn’t get a sack, he caused numerous throw aways.

Bennett Jackson. Hard to ignore Jackson’s game-changing pick six. A confident play by the guy that needs to lead the secondary, undercutting a crossing route and taking it in for the touchdown.

THE BAD

Early Drops. You can count four early drops that go against Tommy Rees’ stat ledger, and need to be had by Notre Dame receivers.

Ugly First Quarter. This one isn’t all on the offense, but still — the Irish had just one first down in the first quarter, gaining just 29 yards while letting Purdue possess the ball for over ten minutes. That’s two weeks in a row on the road that the Irish offense didn’t get off to a good start, and with Michigan State and the No. 1 defense in the country coming to down, that’s not a feeling that gives you the warm fuzzies.

Punting. Kyle Brindza certainly didn’t have his best night, averaging just 36.3 yards a kick and failing to get any of his kicks inside the Purdue 20 yard line. After claiming he was an option for two weeks, Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck kicked one time for 38 yards, but did pin Purdue inside their 20.

The run blocking. Whether the credit is deserved by Purdue’s aggressive front or not, there just wasn’t much there for the Irish in the run game, with Purdue defenders all over the place. While the second half showed that the Irish can make a defense pay by taking the ball over the top, expect opponents to copy Greg Hudson’s formula for pressuring the Irish offense.

The Irish’s Zone Defense. A season after using a zone defense that allowed Manti Te’o to nearly lead the country in interceptions, Rob Henry found quite a few holes in the Irish zone.

Henry finished 25 of 40 for 256 yards and three touchdowns. That’s 100 yards better than he did against Indiana State, and the career best game Henry played. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Irish pass defense.

Kickoff coverage. There was too much there for Purdue, who took advantage of a nice wrinkle by faking a reverse on just about every return.

Missed tackles. It’s tough to watch film of this defense after seeing last year’s team seek and destroy just about everything (minus Alabama). Matthias Farley had an ugly missed tackle on Purdue’s first drive of the second half, letting Purdue retake the lead. Throw in some other misses by guys like Cole Luke, Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, and it’s clear this defense needs to continue stressing the fundamentals.

Not turning and looking for the ball. Both Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley fail to look back as Rob Henry heaved a prayed down the field. While the Purdue receiver adjusted for the ball, neither Jackson nor Farley did, and it ended up putting the Boilermakers in a position to score again.

THE UGLY

A tough win. Perhaps George Atkinson’s night best encapsulated the Irish’s win. On paper, you’d think the junior running back had a nice night, averaging 5.4 yards per carry again on his five runs and chipping in 11 yards on his one reception, a quick shovel from Rees. But Atkinson still has a really difficult time making defenders miss, and for a 220-pound running back with home run speed, he sure goes down mighty easy, with broken tackles few and far between.

But after watching a crazy Saturday of football, which included one of the worst officiated late game sequences I’ve ever seen, courtesy of a Pac-12 officiating crew in the Wisconsin-Arizona State game, it’s good to escape West Lafayette with a win.

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, Purdue 24

Notre Dame v Purdue
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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.”