Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Purdue 14

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After two weekends of crisp, mistake-free football, Notre Dame walked into Lucas Oil Stadium expecting to roll over Purdue. And they played like it.

More than four touchdown underdogs, the Boilermakers made the evening difficult for Notre Dame, establishing a running game, harassing Everett Golson and keeping things tight well into the second half. While the Irish eventually pulled away with a 30-14 victory, the Boilermakers spent one more Saturday giving Notre Dame all it could handle as the 69-year streak of consecutive games came to an end.

With injuries piling up and the Irish showing signs of a struggle on both sides of the ball, Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game presented a different football team than we saw the last two Saturdays. (And no, not just because of the alternate uniforms.) But asked to respond after falling behind for the first time this season, the Irish did so, making second half adjustments and running away for a relatively easy victory.

“I was proud of the way our team responded to adversity for the first time,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “We’re playing a lot of young guys. We had some injuries today. Guys stepped up and responded to that first sign of adversity that a team has to handle and respond to. And I think we did a great job.”

With a well earned bye week scheduled for next weekend, let’s find out what we learned in the Irish’s 30-14 victory over the Boilermakers.

 

In the first half, Purdue provided the offensive recipe to attack Brian VanGorder’s defense. 

 After playing near perfect football against Michigan, Purdue’s first half showed the blueprint for attacking Brian VanGorder’s defense. The Boilermakers consistently moved the football, producing 169 first-half yards and scoring two touchdowns against Notre Dame’s defense. It could’ve been even more if it weren’t for an Akeem Hunt fumble that seemed to be self-inflicted.

Purdue challenged Notre Dame’s defense with a power running attack, putting together a nine and eight-play drive after an opening three-and-out. Raheem Mostert found some early success on the ground. As did Hunt, until the fateful fumble.

Pair that with really good field position, starting twice with the ball in Notre Dame territory, and the Irish were lucky to escape the first half with a lead. But after seeing what the Boilermakers executed with Danny Etling and just an average set of skill position players, expect opponents to try and challenge the Irish defense in the trenches, a place they didn’t look all that special.

Of course, any talk of the Irish defense in the first half wouldn’t be complete without at least mentioning the halftime adjustments Notre Dame made. The Irish completely shut down Purdue’s offense, giving up just 121 net yards and zero points while intercepting Etling twice in the second half.

Three turnovers and three sacks isn’t a terrible day at the office. But  for the first time this year, the Irish defense looked ordinary in the first half. And that’s against an offense that’s showed itself to be pretty mediocre through three games.

 

Harry Hiestand’s offensive line needs to take the bye week and figure some things out. 

Sure, we understood why Notre Dame’s running game against Michigan looked inept. But schematic excuses aside, there are big problems with Notre Dame’s offensive line play. Notre Dame’s front five was beaten early and often by Purdue’s defensive line, causing problems for both the run and the pass game.

With Matt Hegarty playing in place of an injured Christian Lombard at right guard, the starting five gained only 139 yards on the ground, plodding along to a very pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry. Purdue also managed to get four sacks on Golson, hitting him a handful of other times as well.

After spending time during fall camp trying to decide on a starting five, the group looked as out of sync as it has all season.

“Maybe it’s just the continuity took us a little bit longer,” Kelly said, when talking about his offensive line. “It’s nothing big, but it’s everything. We’re going to get better. We’re not where we need to be.”

It’s clear that for as good as Steve Elmer might one day be, he’s struggling on the edge at right tackle. And while Kelly expects Ronnie Stanley to be an elite left tackle in the future, he had his hands full as well. Both Elmer and Stanley struggled with the pass rush, forcing Golson to work his way out of a few certain sacks. But even the quarterbacks’ heroics weren’t enough to keep the heat off of him.

We’ll see if Mike McGlinchey has earned himself a look at tackle. Or if Elmer slides inside to work in at left guard if Lombard’s ready to play after the off week. But the bye comes at a perfect time for the Irish offensive line, a group that isn’t playing with a lot of confidence.

 

Injuries, suspensions and ejections. Notre Dame’s depth took a big hit on Saturday night. 

Still no word on the disciplinary hearings for Notre Dame’s five suspended players. But at least four of them would’ve played major minutes on Saturday night, especially as the Irish started dropping like flies.

As mentioned, Lombard was held out with an ankle injury. So was Andrew Trumbetti, likely lingering effects from a nasty helmet-to-helmet crack-back block suffered against the Wolverines. But two of the Irish’s deepest position groups were under siege Saturday night, with the secondary and the receiving corps getting hit hard with injuries.

A week after a career day, slot receiver Amir Carlisle suffered an MCL injury and sat out the second half. How long he’ll be out remains to be seen, but it was a fairly significant blow to the passing game’s productivity and could remain one if C.J. Prosise isn’t capable of playing to Carlisle’s level. With Torii Hunter Jr. still being held out and DaVaris Daniels still in limbo, the Irish need more from Chris Brown, who was called for a hold and only made one catch Saturday night.

On the defensive side of the ball, Max Redfield’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Etling resulted in an ejection, forcing the Irish to play down two starters with Austin Collinsworth already out of the game. Backup Nicky Baratti only lasted one play, his surgically repaired shoulder “slipping out,” per Kelly. That forced the Irish into a situation where Elijah Shumate was playing next to Drue Tranquill, with the freshman playing major minutes at a position with a ton of responsibility.

The cornerback depth chart also took a hit with Cole Luke coming out after a big collision. But credit Devin Butler with a nice performance, stepping in and making one of the game’s big plays, his first career interception. Yet it isn’t hard to see how badly the Irish need KeiVarae Russell back.

Notre Dame doesn’t play again until the 27th, giving them some time to get healthy. But some of the young, unproven depth Brian Kelly talked about this preseason are going to have to play, especially if any of these injuries are serious.

 

Against a Purdue team that’s always been a tough out for the Irish, the Boilermakers lived up to that reputation… helped on by some sloppy play by veterans. 

You expect a young team to maybe not match the intensity of a heavy underdog. But after watching the Irish’s slow start, you don’t expect two of your senior leaders to be part of the problem, not the solution. While the Irish rallied and finished the Shamrock Series game strong, Notre Dame almost found themselves in a big hole Saturday night for the unlikeliest of reasons.

Senior kicker Kyle Brindza missed his first field goal attempt (granted, it was a 50-yarder) and also put a kickoff out of bounds. He nearly did it a second time as well, with a third kickoff returned to the 33 by Mostert after Brindza hit a low line drive to the Big Ten’s fastest man.

Fellow senior Ben Koyack, who Kelly tabbed as one of his most reliable receivers, made an egregious mistake fumbling a check down throw when the head coach was complacent just running some clock and punting the ball away. A veteran tight end just can’t make that mistake at a critical time in the game.

With cameras focused on the head coach, a very clear message was sent to Brindza. And it involved removing the kicker’s head from an area where sun doesn’t often shine. For Koyack, the turnover was Notre Dame’s first of the year, and another mishap in a growing collection for a veteran player who is far too good to have dropped passes, missed blocks and now turnovers.

Every player makes mistakes, and film review will likely tag a dozen more guilty parties. But in a game where the Irish let Purdue hang around, first half mistakes by two of the Irish’s best veteran leaders played a big part.

 

The evolution of Everett Golson shows itself in both good games and bad. 

Contributing over 300 yards of total offense and three touchdowns shouldn’t be considered an off night. But Golson struggled at times on Saturday, battling some accuracies issues, some missed reads and a Purdue pass rush that had the senior quarterback bailing out of the pocket early.

But the fact that Golson played another turnover free ball game, and still managed to complete 25 of 40 throws for 259 yards and two touchdowns, all while leading the Irish in rushing, says quite a bit about Notre Dame’s star quarterback.

“I love the fact that he’s a pretty good player right now. And he’s only going to get better,” Kelly said about his quarterback.

Getting better means getting a better command of the offense and the game plan. The Irish left some big plays on the field and while they still managed to score 30 points, the offensive attack felt stuck in neutral for big chunks of the night.

“Missed opportunities. We need to play better,” Kelly said. “Everett is going to get a lot of the blame. He’s the quarterback and he’ll tell you he needs to play better, but we’ve got to block better, we have to catch the ball better,we have to run better. It’s an entire offensive unit was just not where it needs to be.”

That’s the type of thing you do over an off week, a self-evaluation that’ll likely target improvements in the running game as well as some of the short passing attack that comes along with Golson playing better inside the structure of the offense.

Some of those timing throws looked perfect, like the early slant to Will Fuller for Notre Dame’s first touchdown. Others are still a work in progress, with Golson relying on his legs to get him out of trouble that wouldn’t exist with a quick read and decision.

But on a crazy Saturday where two Top 10 teams were knocked off, it all feels like champagne problems. And with a scrappy Purdue team in the rearview mirror, the Irish exit the quarter-turn of 2014 undefeated.