It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.
Brian Kelly’s debut at Notre Dame was a successful one, as the Fighting Irish beat a very able Purdue team 23-12 at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Irish were in control for much of the afternoon and looked to be cruising to an easy win when Michael Floyd fumbled heading into the end zone. Instead of pushing the score to 27-3 with an Irish touchdown, Purdue seized the momentum with a gigantic 15-play drive, a safety, and a Robert Marve touchdown run to pull within one score at the beginning of the final quarter.
With the game dangerously close to turning into another fourth quarter barn-burner, the defense stepped up, the running game ate up clock, and David Ruffer booted a clutch field goal to put the game out of reach. While the Irish would’ve gladly taken a run-away win, grinding out a fourth quarter win is a great way to start a season, and a great way to erase the bad memories of 2009 that might have snuck back into a few heads after Robert Marve somersaulted Purdue back into the football game.
For the first time since last October, the Irish won a football game. Here’s what we learned this afternoon.
1. The Notre Dame running attack paced the offense.
Spread offense? Try smash-mouth football, with the Irish running the ball 58 percent of the time. Armando Allen did most of the heavy lifting, with 93 yards on 18 attempts while Cierre Wood showed flashes of that explosiveness we saw in the spring, with 58 yards on only seven carries. The Irish had nine carries of 10 or more yards, eating up chunks of field quickly and effectively. Kelly told anyone that would listen that the Irish would run the ball, and even with three new starters along the offensive line, the Boilermakers had no answer for the Irish run game. Breaking in a new quarterback is always a challenge, but the most effective recipe for quarterbacking success is a vibrant running game, and almost exclusively out of the shotgun, the offensive line created great running lanes for Allen and Wood. Dogged for most of his career for not breaking long touchdown runs, Armando Allen’s 22-yard touchdown scamper was the longest of his career, a sign of big things to come as the offensive line gels.
2. Notre Dame’s defense won the game.
One of the season’s biggest questions was answered this afternoon when the Irish defense held an explosive Purdue offense to just 322 yards on 74 plays. A unit plagued by explosive plays last year only gave up one this afternoon, the 23 yard touchdown scamper by Robert Marve. Bob Diaco’s unit limited the Boilermaker offense to just 10 points, the most impressive defensive performance since last season’s shutout of Nevada on opening day. While many expected the Irish offense to power the engine, it was the defense that stepped up and won the football game.
“We talked on the sideline that, look, we put you in a bad situation here,” Kelly said after the game. “We are putting it on your shoulders.”
And those shoulders handled the weight well, coming up with big plays at all three levels: great interceptions by Darrin Walls and another aided by Gary Gray, active linebacking play by Kerry Neal, Carlo Calabrese, and Manti Te’o, and vastly improved line play, including sacks by Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, and Ian Williams. The decision to switch to the 3-4 defense paid off immediately, with Irish cornerbacks playing stellar run support defense (Gary Gray led the team in tackles) and disguised pressure that had Robert Marve running for his life. It was far from a perfect game, but the Irish walk away knowing that the personnel they have on the defensive side of the ball is more than good enough.
3. Brian Kelly is very good at winning football games.
Veering dangerously close to Herm Edwards territory, Kelly showed today that he played to win the game. Too often, Notre Dame outsmarted itself the last few years, over-processing situations and getting away from the fundamental things that help you actually win football games. Kelly avoided the temptation of making a “statement,” and instead chose to do it on the scoreboard. When finally given the keys to his shiny new car, give Kelly credit for skipping the joy ride and instead keeping it between the lines and guided her home. New quarterback? Ease him in with easy throws over the middle of the field and a strong running game. Dangerous receivers and a mobile quarter? Concede the short throw to take away the long one. Up eight points playing into the wind in the 4th quarter? Trust your kicker to make a 37-yard field goal. While style points would’ve been nice, having a coach stay within his means brings confidence to a team that might have been having flashbacks to a few fourth quarters from last year.
4. The Irish will win football games with excellent special teams.
There’s no overstating David Ruffer’s clutch performance this afternoon, kicking a career long 47-yard field goal as well as icing the game with a 37-yard boot in the fourth. Ruffer is an interesting story, having never even played in a football game until he went to William & Mary for college. A transfer student that came to Notre Dame as a sophomore after not getting accepted out of high school, he gave walking-on a shot, and the legend was born. Ruffer has made all eight field goals in his Notre Dame career, and none were bigger than the two he made this afternoon. There won’t be many non-scholarship athletes in college football that have a better story than Ruffer’s and today he was a great weapon for the Irish. Another weapon was freshman Bennett Jackson, who has already filled Mike Anello’s shoes as a special teams ace. Jackson was all over the field, finishing with four tackles on coverage teams, utilizing his blazing speed. With returners Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and Armando Allen, the Irish are going to be incredibly dangerous on special teams, and will win a football game this year because of it.
5. The Irish are still looking for that killer instinct.
While it didn’t bite them this afternoon, Notre Dame still is in search of a killer instinct. And Brian Kelly knows it.
“I still think it’s about developing a mentality,” Kelly said after the game. “Call it what you want. Just the instinct of a champion senses that he’s got his opponent on the ropes. We have not acquired that yet but we will. Today, obviously, was a pretty clear case that when we had our opponent in a position to put him away, we didn’t execute when we needed to.”
A champion’s mentality is something that Kelly’s been drilling since day one at Notre Dame, and part of me thinks that the coaching staff is almost happy that they have a built-in teaching point as they prepare to take on a dangerous Michigan team. At various points last season, the Irish looked as if they could run away from an opponent, only to find themselves letting the other team back into the game. Kelly’s frenetic tempo and coaching philosophy takes away any of the hesitation in players, and now it’s a matter of the Irish going out and playing with the mentality of a champion.
Regardless, champions aren’t made in week one of the college football season. That’ll take time. But after one Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, step one of the season’s goal was accomplished. Win every Saturday. Next weekend against Michigan, they’ll tackle step two.