Say this: Brian Kelly certainly gives you something to talk about.
A week after spending most of the afternoon pounding the ball on the ground, the head coach needed to rely on the passing game to beat the scrappy Purdue Boilermakers. He also needed to dig deep into his bench, with seven regulars hurt during the game.
There’s been enough discussion about Kelly’s decision to bring in junior Tommy Rees to close the game out, which he did successfully as he led the Irish to the game-winning field goal without any timeouts.
A win is a win is a win is a win. Don’t believe me? Go ask Arkansas, who had their hopes dashed with a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Or Oklahoma State, who just gave Rich Rodriguez the signature victory he desperately craved in Ann Arbor.
After winning with style in Dublin, the Irish fought their way to an ugly win and crawled up two spots in the AP poll to No. 20, as they await a primetime match-up in East Lansing with No. 10 Michigan State.
Let’s close the book on Purdue and take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of the Irish’s 20-17 win.
Being 2-0. Maybe some of you missed it, but the Irish are 2-0 for the first time since 2008. A season after the Irish had BCS aspirations and proceeded to open with two mind-numbing losses, the Irish handled their business in adversity, not melting down after the Boilermakers tied the game at 17 and finished the deal.
Was it pretty? No. But with a schedule like this, style points are unnecessary. Advance and survive. Especially dealing with the adversity the Irish faced on Saturday.
Everett Golson’s passing game. In his second start, the sophomore answered any questions there might have been about his arm. Tasked with moving the Irish offense as the running game sputtered, Golson completed 21 of 31 throws for 289 yards and a touchdown. Obviously, the young quarterback wasn’t on the field for the game’s final drive, but Kelly had this to say about his performance.
“I thought he threw the ball very well yesterday,” Kelly said. “He missed one pass that we thought that we should have connected on.”
Missing one throw out of 31 isn’t all that bad, and while the reliance on the passing game may leave many Irish fans wondering what happened to the running game, it also gives Mark Dantonio a little bit more to think about when he starts his game plan for the Irish offense.
Tyler Eifert. After being neutralized in the season opener thanks to the game plan, Eifert reminded everybody why he’s the most dangerous tight end in the country. His four catches for 98 yards would’ve been more if he didn’t sit out much of the fourth quarter with a slight concussion, which has already been cleared. After not utilizing the vertical seams in week one, the young quarterback and the All-American tight end showed improved chemistry.
Stephon Tuitt. That’s four sacks through two outings for the 6-foot-6, 305-pound sophomore. Tuitt matched Purdue’s All-American candidate Kawann Short with four tackles and two sacks, and continued his assault on offensive lines. With Kapron Lewis-Moore on the sidelines for most of the game, Tuitt carried the load at defensive end.
Louis Nix. He may have been overshadowed by Tuitt, but Nix played possibly his best game in an Irish uniform, with 1.5 sacks and four tackles of his own. It appears the junior defensive tackle has elevated his game, proving himself a capable run-stuffer and teaming with Tuitt and Lewis-Moore for the most physically imposing defensive front in recent history.
The Secondary. After worrying much of the Irish fan base with its pedestrian work against Navy, the young Irish secondary did its job against Purdue, holding Boilermakers quarterbacks to 19 of 37 throwing for 198 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. More impressive, the Irish managed to defend with more youth in the back-end, getting solid contributions from freshmen (eligibility-wise) KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, and Jalen Brown.
For those worried that the Irish wouldn’t have the personnel to run multiple defensive backs onto the field, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might have put out the first dime defense of his tenure, with six Irish DBs on the field: Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, and Matthias Farley manning the safety slots, with corners Russell, Bennett Jackson, and Shumate in coverage as well.
Tommy Rees. Brian Kelly called his number and the junior quarterback delivered. Welcomed by boos and hecklers in his home stadium (not to mention vitriol and anger across the interwebs), Rees calmly did his job, putting together a key drive with reserve wideouts and a missing All-American tight end.
Brian Kelly gave Rees the game ball after the victory and Rees led the Irish as they sang the fight song. He also calmed down any worries that Rees would assume a Mariano Rivera like role at the end of tight football games.
“No, it’s not a role. I see it as 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. “But no, I don’t see this as, you know, and I 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, but we like our starter to start and finish it.”
Kyle Brindza. After badly missing a kick earlier, the sophomore pounded through the game winning without hesitation. He’ll now be in competition with Nick Tausch for the placekicking duties when Tausch is cleared to return from a groin strain.
The injuries. Usually you’d file this under bad, but it appears there’s nothing but good news after the Irish were missing seven players as the game wore on. Both Eifert and Slaughter are already cleared for practice this week. Golson is cleared as well. Daniels has an ankle sprain, which might nag him for a bit, but he’ll be back, building on another strong performance.
The turnover margin. Don’t look now, but that’s another positive game in the turnovers category for the Irish. After spending last season ranked No. 119 out of 120 at -16, the Irish now sit at No. 7 in the country through two games. Breaking in a new quarterback, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.
The running game. After mauling Navy on the ground, the Irish were stuck dead in their tracks against Purdue’s talented front. (Yes, it does bear repeating — Purdue’s front is talented. Kawann Short looked every bit the part of a first round draft pick. And word out of West Lafayette is that Ryan Russell, who had seven tackles and 2.5 TFLs Saturday, is a player the Boilermakers coaching staff thinks has more talent than Ryan Kerrigan.) Regardless of the personnel across from them, the Irish offensive line played a poor football game. Mike Golic Jr. routinely got beat at the line of scrimmage against Short, and Zack Martin played an uncharacteristic game for the senior, noticed far too often for mistakes than his usually reliable self.
Whether it was because of Purdue’s scheme or the Irish game plan, the run was a secondary option to the pass on Saturday. While you might not agree with it, the strategy worked for the Irish. Notre Dame still controlled the time of possession, while gaining 8.3 yards per passing attempt versus only 1.4 yards per rush.
Third down defense. The Irish did just fine for most of the game on first and second down, but Purdue continued to extend drives with third down conversions. The Irish gave up 11 of 19 on third down, turning what could’ve been a dominant defensive performance into a game that almost got away from Notre Dame.
Quarterback Caleb TerBush was Purdue’s most effective runner, gaining 6.8 yards a carry and scrambling for a few key first downs. With multiple key contributors off the field, we’ll give the Irish a free pass this time around. But the difference between a good defense and a great one is the ability to get off the field, and Bob Diaco’s guys didn’t do it on Saturday.
4th and 10. When push came to shove for the Irish defense, linebacker Carlo Calabrese got beat on a play that could’ve closed out the game. Here’s how Kelly described the play on Sunday.
“They attacked our will linebacker,” Kelly said. “So our will doesn’t come out of the game. And they set him up with a pretty good double move… The will linebacker is a guy that we have confidence can play that No. 2 receiver.”
There’s a lot of things Calabrese can do, but playing one-on-one with a team’s inside receiver isn’t one of them. Whether it was due to injuries or inexperience, Kelly leaned on Calabrese on the inside while Dan Fox, a much better player in pass coverage, shifted outside. Don’t expect to see that again.
Penalties and Clock Management. After playing a clean game, the Irish had eight penalties against the Boilermakers. That’s too many, especially when captains Manti Te’o and Martin are picking up personal fouls. And for as good as Golson looked throwing the ball, he struggled identifying fronts and getting the play called and run, burning multiple timeouts early in each half.
Game Management. This isn’t knocking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin for taking too long to get the offensive plays in, this is a knock on them for not getting the ball into the hands of George Atkinson more. Whether or not the running game is neutralized, the Irish need to make an effort to get the ball to Atkinson. He’s too big of a home run threat not to. Adding Cierre Wood back into the offense this week will only make this even more of a challenge, and credit Kelly for acknowledging the need to figure this out.
“We really have to make sure we get him into the game and find ways to get those touches to him,” Kelly said of Atkinson, who only had one carry. “So I think it’s something we’ll have a heightened awareness in making sure that those guys get the ample touches necessary to help our offense. So I think that falls on my shoulders and Coach Martin’s shoulders to make sure that happens.”
Special Teams. Brindza may have made the game winner, but that’s another missed kick for the Irish early this season. The Irish also let Raheem Mostert get outside of containment on kick coverage, turning a very good kickoff into even better field position when Mostert got around end. Ben Turk was also hot and cold punting, nailing two nice kicks but also throwing a few wobblers out there.
Booing Tommy Rees. That a home crowd would shower boos on Rees as he prepared to take the Irish down the field to win the game is unfathomable to me. The junior quarterback, who was a punching bag all offseason and the primary scape goat for the Irish’s disappointing 8-5 2011 campaign, did nothing to deserve the heckling. At a place like Notre Dame, the classless gesture was more than a little surprising.
Rees can’t undo the sophomore season he had. He took his demotion and suspension with grace, acting as a model teammate as he helped prep Golson for a starting job many inside the program still thought should be his. Rees roomed with Golson during fall camp and has acted like another coach as he only took mental reps up until this week.
There’s no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Notre Dame fans believe Golson should be the starting quarterback this year. So does Brian Kelly. But if the Irish are going to maximize their wins in a season where Ws won’t come easily, they’re going to need to use all of their assets. And Tommy Rees is one of them.
Why a large group of Notre Dame “fans” can’t figure that out is beyond me.