With a betting line that’s hovering just above four touchdowns, this weekend’s Shamrock Series game looks like it could be the most lopsided matchup since the series premiere, when Notre Dame beat hapless Washington State in San Antonio, a victory that would go down as Charlie Weis’ final in South Bend.
But Purdue has exceeded expectations quite a few times over the past handful of matchups with the Irish, something Boilermakers head coach Darrell Hazell knows needs to happen on Saturday night if his team has a chance of getting over the hump against Notre Dame.
But first, the challenge is to look inward, fixing a team who’s uneven performance against Central Michigan was a huge step backwards and leaves Purdue sitting at 1-1 entering the non-conference matchup.
“As you watch the film, there are a lot of things obviously we have to do much better as a football team,” Hazell said this week during his press conference. “That’s every position. We’re certain to make sure we do those things and we can’t self-inflicted wounds where we are at this stage of the program. We’ve got to make sure we do things right from every position across the board and things will get a whole lot better.”
The first position that needs fixing is quarterback. As we mentioned during our opponent profile with Travis Miller of Hammer & Rails, Hazell hasn’t committed to Danny Etling or Austin Appleby, but he’s against a quarterback by committee philosophy.
And while quarterback play is hardly just about one player, whoever takes the field, Etling or Appleby, is going to need to play better than they did against either Western or Central Michigan. That hasn’t been easy against the Irish through the first two weeks, with Brian VanGorder’s defense holding opposing quarterbacks to the following ugly statline:
34 of 56 (60.7 percent) for 415 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT.
While Devin Gardner and Rice’s duo of Driphus Jackson and Tyler Stehling both hovered around the 60 percent mark, the completions, minus a small handful of outliers, have been short gains. And as the Irish begin revealing bits and pieces of their new defensive scheme, the scouting report — and defensive standouts — begin to gain notice.
“I think they are a fast defense, with No. 91 (Sheldon Day) and No. 9 (Jaylon Smith) really impactful players,” Hazell said.
It’s no coincidence that both Day and Smith are local products, recruiting victories in the state of Indiana that have to hurt for Boilermakers fans. Added to that list should be Drue Tranquill, with the freshman safety already contributing for the Irish after being a one-time Purdue commitment.
The early transition to Brian VanGorder’s defense has shown a team on film that’s far more athletic than what the Irish showed last year.
“They run sideline to sideline extremely well and there are certain things you can counter that with that we have to be able to do. You have to stay out of negative plays against this team,” Hazell said. “We’re crazy if we think we can consistently out run them laterally. We have to make sure we do some things to get on them quick, hit them quick, get the ball out of the QB’s hands.”
A quick look at the past five years of this series and a few trends begin to stick out. First, this game has been far closer than anyone remembers — at least on Notre Dame’s side of it. The Irish needed 21 fourth-quarter points last year to win, which included a pick-six from Bennett Jackson.
The year before that, people mostly remember Tommy Rees’ entrance late in the game to march the Irish to a game-winning field goal, but the powerful Notre Dame running game that averaged 200 yards a game? It was held to just 52 yards on 36 carries, a brutal 1.4 yards a touch.
Powered by monster days from Michael Floyd and Cierre Wood, the Irish jumped all over Purdue in West Lafayette, taking a boisterous home crowd out of a nice game with an early long touchdown catch by Floyd and a 55-yard run by Wood. In Kelly’s first game as an Irish coach, Notre Dame out-uglied Purdue 23-12, taking a 20-3 lead into the fourth quarter.
And while it feels like ancient history, in Jimmy Clausen’s sparkling final season in South Bend, he put together a clunker before coming through in the end, completing just 15 of 26 throws for 171 yards, throwing a rare interception before a late touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph won the game with 24 seconds to go. Then again, it was Clausen’s first game back after a “turf toe” injury, later diagnosed as multiple torn ligaments that were repaired in the run-up to the NFL Draft.
Purdue has been close so many times before. To do it again, Hazel needs to follow a familiar formula.
“We need to come out and establish ourselves early in the game and start to go toe to toe,” Hazell said. “One of the keys to the victory is to match their intensity level from the get-go.”