Things We Learned, Part I: Notre Dame’s aggressive defense finds looks that ‘fit’ in shutting down Purdue

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s defense hardly needed to be fixed; it was far from broken. In the previous three regular seasons, only Clemson in 2020 and Michigan in 2019 broke 30 points against the Irish.

But when that restrictive defense was outplayed, most notably in two College Football Playoff appearances, it did not create enough chaos to counteract the mistakes. Thus, Notre Dame is transitioning on the fly.

While the immediate results at Florida State and Toledo may have been ugly, although ultimately productive, the No. 12 Irish (3-0) offered a more sustainable look in the 27-13 win against Purdue on Saturday.

Defensively, they gave up only three drives that gained more than 32 yards: a 50-yard possession for a field goal, a 75-yard touchdown drive and 64 yards in garbage time that ended with a Kyle Hamilton interception. Otherwise, Notre Dame kept the Boilermakers and star receiver David Bell to sheer frustration, including a first-half stretch of four consecutive possessions without a first down, gaining 18 yards on 13 plays.

Even a middling Big Ten offense — and Purdue should end up in the top half of most Big Ten offensive rankings — should be expected to fare better than 4.4 yards per play in a game, not to mention 3.25 on 10 possessions that covered the bulk of the game (14 total drives, minus those three mild successes and one more garbage-time possession).

Two tackles for loss doomed the latter pair of those four straight Purdue struggles, a byproduct of new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s preferred disruption, a stark difference when compared to the constrictive approach of Clark Lea, a difference initially lampooned after it gave up four big plays against the Seminoles and the Rockets. The Boilermakers managed just two plays longer than 30 yards, neither reaching the end zone.

“That just comes with the process of changing D coordinators that are so different in the way that they conduct their defense,” Hamilton said Saturday evening. “Obviously coach Freeman’s is really aggressive, we’re going to give up big plays at times because of how aggressive we are.

“It’s a plus-minus defense, and I think we will have a lot more pluses as we get more comfortable with it. … The guys are really dialing in at this point, and this is a big turning point for us.”

With Purdue’s leading rusher out for the next 4-8 weeks, Freeman could focus more on stopping the aerial attack. Playing six defensive backs is not new for Notre Dame this season, but playing six at a time in a dime package is, certainly given the regularity of its usage against Purdue.

“We’re really deep in the secondary,” Hamilton said. “A lot of guys haven’t had a shot yet. … Everybody in the back end was really tight today, didn’t really give up too many big plays, tackled the ball when we needed to. That just goes to show how deep we are as a secondary and as a whole defense.

“There’s a couple guys who get a lot of the praise on defense, but I feel like we’re really strong as a unit.”

Hamilton is obviously one of those guys, and the dime package only works if a couple linebackers clean up in front of it, as junior JD Bertrand (12 tackles) and graduate Isaiah Pryor (eight tackles) very much did, but the real success comes from a defensive front able to create pressure without needing blitzes.

The Irish defensive line delivered, as it has all season.

Four tackles for loss came from the defensive line, including all three Notre Dame sacks. It has produced 14.5 tackles for loss (of the Irish total of 25) and 11.5 sacks (of 13) this season. Notre Dame ranks No. 5 in the country in sacks this season and No. 18 in tackles for loss.

Freeman’s defense is coming together. Even if the big plays are not entirely eliminated, the rewards of chaos are becoming more apparent.

“There were lots of conversations about what do we need to do defensively to add to our portfolio, relative to looks,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We hit on some things we really like that fit our guys, and they can execute at a high level.”

Moving from Lea’s conservative — albeit highly effective and successful — defense to Freeman’s aggressive scheme dependent on multiple looks was always going to include a learning curve, both for players and for fans. Finding those looks that fit Notre Dame may have accelerated that process.

Highlights: No. 12 Notre Dame 27, Purdue 13 — Featuring Kyren Williams & an explosive offense

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This is not last year’s Notre Dame offense. This is not the Irish offense of any point during the program’s four-years-and-counting resurgence, not even the 2017 attack that relied on Josh Adams’ explosive runs.

Notre Dame (3-0) is more reliant on big-play scores than it has been at any point during this 48-6 stretch, by a significant amount. The Irish are not struggling to score, averaging 33.3 points per game, but they are not doing it via sustained drives, not that there is anything wrong with that.

“We have a lot of talent out there,” fifth-year receiver Avery Davis said after leading Notre Dame with a career-high 120 receiving yards in Saturday’s 27-13 win against Purdue. “We have a lot of speed, we’re physical, we catch the ball, we make plays.

“Don’t knock us yet. Those guys are special in the locker room.”

When it comes to individual and impactful plays, Davis is correct. The Irish have shown special plays. This weekend marked a five-year high in that regard, but the trend has shown itself all season.

Of Notre Dame’s 343 total yards against the Boilermakers, 152 came on what will be categorized as explosive scores, touchdowns of at least 20 yards: junior running back Kyren Williams’ 39-yard touchdown catch, Davis’ 62-yard scoring snag and Williams’ 51-yard dash to the end zone.

No other game since the start of these years of success has had an explosive scores yardage percentage as high as that 44.3 percent, and the only two other games to crack 40 percent were against New Mexico in 2019 and Miami of Ohio in 2017. Purdue may not be a Playoff contender this season, but it is far ahead of those two teams.

The highest percentage (the math here is simple: explosive scores yardage divided by total yardage) against a Power Five team was the 2018 win at Virginia Tech, 38.1 percent, a day best remembered for Dexter Williams’ 97-yard run to silence Lane Stadium’s upset hopes.

The Irish have not relied this much on explosive scores to drive their offense, not even when broadening the sample size from one game.

To date, Notre Dame’s offensive production has been 28.7 percent explosive scores in 2021. The previous season-high came from that 2017 Adams Heisman campaign, topping out at 18.5 percent.

This is a new version of an Irish offense, a boom-or-bust look that may fit the modern game more appropriately than plodding drives did.

PLAY(ER) OF THE GAME
Williams’ 51-yard, starting-and-stopping endeavor to the end zone in the fourth quarter sealed the win for Notre Dame, and his ability to shed multiple tacklers before they could get a real grip on him was a masterclass that distracted even his teammates.

“He’s insane,” Davis said. “His ability to just maneuver through tight spaces to make people miss, the strength to stay up — I was right next to him so I probably didn’t have the best view of it, it was just incredible. Just watching him for a second, I forgot I had to block for him at the same time.”

But the bolder play may have been the fourth-and-one that became a 39-yard touchdown. Quarterback Jack Coan threaded a needle to get the ball between two defenders and to Williams, and then there was little left to do but head to the goal line.

The call set a tone for the Irish: They were not going to be conservative. Just as offensive coordinator Tommy Rees dialed up a downfield pass to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer on the season’s first drive in a similar fourth-and-short moment, Notre Dame is not afraid to push the ball no matter the circumstances.

Hence the unexpected explosive score yardage percentages.

Some of that ties to analytics, some of that ties to gut.

“I still think you have to get a feel and a flow for the game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We use the analytics, but I think there were a couple of times today that I decided it would be best to do something different.”

QUOTE OF THE GAME
“I’d pay to watch him play.”

Even with the implementation of name, image and likeness rights, Kelly probably cannot pay junior safety Kyle Hamilton, and finagling the deal through the Kelly Cares Foundation would likely draw more scrutiny than it would be worth.

But Hamilton’s fourth-and-one stop with Purdue driving in the first quarter, already holding a 3-0 lead, was worth the price of admission all on its own.

Fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa insisted he was trying to make the play, but the ball carrier was just too fast.

“Then I just saw Kyle come out of nowhere.”

STAT OF THE GAME
74,341 fans filled Notre Dame Stadium, an improvement of more than 14,000 compared to last week but still more than 3,000 from capacity, even with the in-state influx brought by the Boilermakers fans.

Again, the University’s refusal to implement a vaccine mandate for ticketed fans has done it no favors in filling the Stadium.

Brian Kelly ties Knute Rockne atop Notre Dame’s record books the same way he got his first win, by beating Purdue

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Much has changed during Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure — from a video board and artificial turf in the Stadium to four straight years, and counting, of double-digit wins — but some things remain the same. Kelly’s record-tying 105th win leading the Irish came at the expense of the same team he beat for his first, a team that has not beaten Notre Dame since 2007.

Notre Dame’s defense led the way in a 27-13 win against Purdue on Saturday, giving Kelly six wins against the Boilermakers as he tied Knute Rockne for the most victories as Irish head coach with 105. Junior running back Kyren Williams (at top) sealed the win with a 51-yard touchdown run, cutting past multiple would-be tacklers halfway through the fourth quarter, his second trip of the day to the end zone.

“He’s insane,” fifth-year receiver Avery Davis said of Williams, who finished with 130 total yards from scrimmage. “His ability to just maneuver through tight spaces to make people miss, the strength to stay up, I was right next to him so I probably didn’t have the best view of it. It was just incredible, just watching him for a second, I forgot I had to block for him at the same time.”

Both Kelly and Rockne took 12 seasons to reach 105 wins, but Kelly knows and acknowledges his stretch to get there differs from Rockne’s, who had a .881 winning percentage and three national championships, compared to Kelly’s .729, one title game appearance and two Playoff berths.

“I see it a little bit differently, in a sense that I think it means longevity,” Kelly said this week in anticipation of tying the record. “It means stability. It means winning.

“It doesn’t mean anything else relative to comparisons or who’s better. Those things really don’t mean much to me. I came here to do a job, and that was to bring Notre Dame back to its winning traditions. We’ve gotten there by being consistent and having stability. That’s what [105 wins] means more than anything else to me.”

That consistency and stability have been the staples of the last four-plus years under Kelly, with the Irish going 46-8 since the start of the 2017 season (an .852 winning percentage), including 26 straight wins at home and 35 straight victories over unranked opponents thanks to the dispatching of the Boilermakers (2-1).

No. 12 Notre Dame’s offense showed flashes, certainly more so than it did a week ago, but it still struggled to find consistency. Long touchdown passes to Williams (39 yards) and Davis (62 yards), along with Williams’ weaving score, provided an undue chunk (152 yards) of the offensive total production of 343 yards. But that is also arguably the offense’s design.

“I think we all knew coming out of camp that we’re a really talented offense,” Davis said. “I think the biggest thing that we preach is, be ready when opportunities come. That was the thing going forward.

“Like my day today, my opportunity, my number was called, so I capitalized on it.”

Williams’ score gave the Irish their initial lead and showed the overall riskiness embraced by Coan, threading the needle between two Purdue defenders on a fourth-and-one. From there, though, Coan had trouble with his accuracy, missing on repeated downfield shots to senior receiver Kevin Austin (and later surviving one rueful drop by senior Braden Lenzy of a 39-yard touchdown) before eventually connecting with Davis. Coan finished the day 15-of-31 passing for 223 yards.

“I think my timing was off a little bit on some passes,” Coan said. “I need to be a lot more accurate. That’s a cool part about football. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be a complete game.”

Davis’ dash gave the Irish breathing room they would need, similar to TJ Jones‘ 5-yard touchdown catch back in 2010 that gave Notre Dame a 20-3 lead in Kelly’s debut, eventually a 23-12 victory.

Back then, the Irish had gone through three head coaches within nine years and consistency and stability seemed like far-fetched dreams. Now the biggest problem Notre Dame has is not winning by enough, although Williams’ punctuation mark Saturday may have eased that worry for the first time this season.

KELLY DIDN’T DO IT ALONE
Modern college football coaches are rarely afforded the runway to win 105 games at one program. Even if successful, that usually simply leads to the next job. If not successful or if change occurs elsewhere at the university, out they go.

That has been the case at USC, having gone through three coaches and four athletic directors during Kelly’s time in South Bend, a comparison Kelly made directly on Saturday, never citing the Trojans by name but referring to them as “our rival on the West Coast” that has gone through “a number of different head coaches.” Only one school fits those terms.

Kelly has known stability all around him at Notre Dame, bettering his chances of building it within the football program. Director of athletics Jack Swarbrick took his job two years before Kelly arrived, and University President Fr. John Jenkins‘s tenure predates Swarbrick’s by another three.

“I think it takes a lot of things to be in place for [105 wins] to happen,” Kelly said Saturday evening. “Fr. John has been with me on this journey, Jack’s been on this journey. Consistency, leadership, alignment, all those things have to come together to get to this point. …”

“We have it with our leadership, we have it with our athletic director, and we’ve had it in the coaching because we have alignment. Because of that, that’s helped a lot in being consistent in winning football games.”

NOT AN ASTERISK
Of course, the total of 105 wins includes the 21 wins the NCAA vacated from 2012 and 2013 due to a handful of players receiving impermissible academic assistance. Notre Dame has regularly counted those vacated wins in stats, a decision lauded nearly universally and one the NCAA does not seem too bothered by.

Technically, the Irish need to acknowledge those 21 vacated wins in any stat that includes them. But the fact of the matter is, Notre Dame played those games. Kelly was the coach. They won.

And if that warrants an asterisk, well, the graphics department can make an asterisk look a lot like a shamrock.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:58 — Purdue field goal. Mitchel Fineran 35 yards. Purdue 3, Notre Dame 0. (10 plays, 34 yards, 3:41)

Second Quarter
13:51 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 39-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Purdue 3. (5 plays, 66 yards, 2:14)
8:45 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 28 yards. Notre Dame 10, Purdue 3. (10 plays, 48 yards, 3:13)

Third Quarter
11:06 — Purdue field goal. Fineran 34 yards. Notre Dame 10, Purdue 6. (9 plays, 50 yards, 3:48)
9:59 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 62-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Purdue 6. (3 plays, 75 yards, 1:07)
7:08 — Purdue touchdown. Milton Wright 2-yard pass from Jack Plummer. Fineran PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Purdue 13. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:51)

Fourth Quarter
10:50 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 30 yards. Notre Dame 20, Purdue 13. (11 plays, 53 yards, 5:20)
6:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 51-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 27, Purdue 13. (1 play, 51 yards, 0:11)

No. 12 Notre Dame vs Purdue: Time, TV, Preview & Prediction

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Let’s state the obvious: Either No. 12 Notre Dame or Purdue will suffer its first loss today. Based on the last two weeks, one could be forgiven for thinking it will be the Irish who will fall short, despite being favored by more than a touchdown.

Or perhaps Notre Dame’s struggles to start this season are exactly why it will prevail.

“They’ve had to work for the last two wins, which actually from their standpoint really is a good thing,” Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm said. “It gives them a chance to see the few things they need to work on to get better, but they found a way to win.

“That’s what winning football teams do.”

Brohm may as well have been paraphrasing Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s favorite postgame platitude: “Winning is hard.”

It is, and Notre Dame has proven itself a winning team by, well, winning these last two weeks, but Brohm’s point is still quite valid: The Irish have seen the things they need to work on.

TIME, TV: 2:30 ET on NBC. The game will also be streamed on Peacock. The broadcast will feature NBC Sports’ analyst Drew Brees in his second game with “ND on NBC,” this one rather notable given the eventual Hall of Famer starred for Purdue at the turn of the century. He will have to avoid old habits when discussing the Boilermakers today. Any usage of “we” would come across as unbiased.

“It’s probably going to be tough,” Brees said, probably joking. “But no, I can be a pro.” 

Brees anticipates only improving as an analyst. After all, his first game included the most fundamental of lessons, realizing how much he had at his fingertips in the way of resources.

“I felt like I started off kind of slow for the first maybe quarter-and-a-half of that Notre Dame-Toledo game, just kind of trying to find the rhythm,” he said. “Probably midway through the second quarter, I felt like the lightbulb came on and it started to feel pretty natural. …”

“A lot of it is understanding what resources you have in the booth. TV screens — one has the program on it, one has the replay. A lot is having a conversation with Mike Tirico. And how do you want to communicate with the fans? I want to heighten the overall experience for those watching.”

Those Brees is aiming to help obviously are not the fans in the stands, however few or many they may be. A week ago, only 62,009 fans filled Notre Dame Stadium, a low in the 25 seasons since the stadium expanded before the 1997 season. Given the circumstances of the pandemic, Kelly did not express disappointment over the 16,000 empty seats, preferring them to be empty rather than filled with opposing fans.

“I don’t want to be in there when we play other teams and there’s more fans in the stands than our fans,” Kelly said Monday. “That’s when I’ll really be concerned.”

With today reportedly at or near a sellout, Kelly’s concern may be closer to reality against Purdue.

“I know our fans, I’ve heard it for the last six months, they’re looking forward to this game and getting a chance to go up there and watch Purdue play at Notre Dame,” Brohm said. “I’m happy that we get that opportunity and hopefully we can take advantage of it.”

PREVIEW: The Irish ability to develop an offensive rhythm Will Likely once again hinge on two quarterbacks. While Kelly has switched quarterbacks midseason throughout his Notre Dame tenure — a stretch that is now one win away from tying Knute Rockne for the most wins in program history with 105 — this scenario is different.

Kelly’s most successful quarterback swap came in 2018. Three weeks into the year, Kelly replaced starter Brandon Wimbush with Ian Book, and the Irish stormed to the College Football Playoff, only turning back to Wimbush when an injury knocked Book out of one game late in the season.

When he was calling upon now-offensive coordinator Tommy Rees in clutch moments in 2012, Kelly would return to Everett Golson the next week for the bulk of the work. Rees’ cameos were educational opportunities of a sort, ones where the wily veteran could keep Notre Dame’s unbeaten season afloat.

In this rendition, graduate transfer Jack Coan and freshman Tyler Buchner will split time within an individual series. To a much smaller extent, Brees has some first-hand experience in that scenario, with the New Orleans Saints dabbling with utility knife Taysom Hill in place of Brees in particular moments the last three seasons of Brees’ career.

“It will be interesting to see how it evolves,” Brees said. “Right now it certainly appears that when Tyler Buchner is in the game, that really is the source of Notre Dame’s run game. Whether he’s the one running it or he just is a threat who is, in essence, taking up a tackler, [the opposing defense has] to account for him, so there are more favorable run looks for the backs.  

“How does that evolve as it goes along? I definitely think that obviously the more reps he gets, the more confidence he’s going to gain, the more confidence the coaching staff will have in him, the more that they’ll begin to open up the playbook for him. That’s a winning formula for Notre Dame having both those guys involved in the plan.”

PREDICTION: Depending on the time of day and location, the Irish are favored by 7 or 7.5 points. As of Saturday’s earliest hours, that number is 7.5 with a combined point total over/under of 58.

That basic math predicts a 33-25 conclusion.

The Boilermakers reaching the mid-20s like that — four scores, for all intents and purposes — is hard to believe given they scored only 30 against Oregon State, and even though Notre Dame’s defense has allowed 30 points per game through two weeks, it is far better than the Beavers’. (SP+ ranks Oregon State’s defense No. 107 in the country, compared to the Irish at No. 33.)

Purdue did that with leading rusher Zander Horvath. Losing him for the next 4-8 weeks to a broken fibula furthers doubts the Boilermakers will score four times or find the end zone three or more times.

Undoubtedly, at some point, star Purdue receiver David Bell will break a big play the likes of which have plagued the Irish defense to date, but if Notre Dame improves to the extent of allowing only one chunk score in a game, rather than two, then suddenly that 30 points per game average would fall to 23 or so.

To help that cause even more, the Irish could find a run game, any run game. The usage of Buchner, as Brees detailed, makes that more likely. That success will cut into the Boilermakers’ time of possession while also helping Notre Dame score points without needing to panic in the game’s final moments.

The Irish have won 25 straight at home and 34 straight against unranked opponents. Make that 26 and 35. Kelly ties Rockne, and Purdue gets its first loss.

Notre Dame 34, Purdue 20.
(Straight up — 2-0; Against the spread — 1-1; Over/under — 2-0.)

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INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame’s ‘survival’ of turnovers an annual occurrence
Jack Kiser’s Purdue ties run deep, but the LB trusts his family not to do anything ‘stupid’
USC’s, Navy’s coaching changes show how rare Irish stability is
And In That Corner … Purdue’s return to ND comes at key point in Jeff Brohm’s tenure
Things To Learn: Defensive, OL and QB questions linger as ND reunites with Purdue

OUTSIDE READING
Renovation, COVID protocols keep Purdue drum out of Notre Dame Stadium
An ode to Notre Dame Stadium’s new visitors tunnel
Football weekend events: Notre Dame vs. Purdue
Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser’s small-town Indiana story comes full circle with Purdue in focus again
Notre Dame’s Jack Kiser took a different path than his Purdue-loving family
‘We are still in a pandemic’: Students report new difficulties with University’s COVID-19 response
Not tHERE yet
Navy football assistant Ivin Jasper looking forward, not back, as he returns to work
The top 5 jobs in college football: 100-plus coaches and staff vote, with Bama on top and 8 more earning No. 1 nods
Mountain West commissioner pushes back against possible poaching from AAC

No. 12 Notre Dame vs. Purdue: How and when to watch on NBC today

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The No. 12 Irish take (2-0) on Purdue (2-0) today at Notre Dame Stadium. Live coverage begins at 2:30 P.M. ET on NBC as well as on Peacock.

Peacock will stream Notre Dame home games for Premium subscribers. Once signed up, you can find live coverage to all of the streaming service’s premium sports in the “browse” section of the Peacock app and on PeacockTV.com

The Irish won their first two games despite uneven performances, needing a touchdown with 1:09 remaining to slip past Toledo last week, 32-29. Purdue had no such troubles against Connecticut, cruising to a 49-0 victory thanks to four touchdown passes from junior quarterback Jack Plummer. No, he is not related to former Arizona State great and 10-year NFL quarterback Jake Plummer, though Jack is from Arizona, adding to that natural wondering.

As a 7.5-point underdog, via PointsBet on Saturday morning, Purdue will be without leading rusher in Zander Horvath. Notre Dame continues to be without a bevy of linebackers — senior Shayne Simon (labrum), senior Paul Moala (Achilles) and junior Marist Liufau (dislocated ankle) — as well as freshman left tackle Blake Fisher (knee). Sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody is questionable with a sprained ankle.

The Irish have won 25 straight games at home and 34 straight against unranked opponents, not to mention seven straight against Purdue. The Boilermakers last beat Notre Dame in 2007 and last won in South Bend in 2004.

“ND on NBC” analyst Drew Brees lost twice at Notre Dame during his record-setting career leading Purdue’s offense. He will now need to avoid any first-person pronouns when describing the Boilermakers.

“That’s probably going to be tough,” Brees said Thursday during a conference call. “I can be a pro.”

How to watch Notre Dame vs Purdue: