by John Vannie
Notre Dame dug itself another first half hole against Purdue on Saturday, but the Irish battled back behind freshmen receivers Golden Tate and Duval Kamara to put a scare into the Boilermakers before losing 33-19. Evan Sharpley took over for an injured Jimmy Clausen and threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdown passes, but continued malfunctions by Notre Dame’s special teams and more needless penalties spoiled the gritty comeback attempt.
The afternoon began poorly for Notre Dame as Purdue’s offense ripped off huge chunks of yardage. Tailback Kory Sheets ran through the Irish defensive front while quarterback Curtis Painter spread the ball to Dorian Bryant, Selwyn Lymon and the rest of his receivers. Meanwhile, Notre Dame came out throwing the ball but was unable to sustain its drives in the first half. The ground attack that had shown so much progress against Michigan State was nowhere to be found.
The first twenty minutes of this contest appeared to be a replay of earlier disastrous performances by Notre Dame. After being held to a field goal in its first drive, Purdue drove 80 yards in eight plays to take a 10-0 lead before ten minutes had expired.
The Boilermakers regained possession moments later when their defense stuffed the Irish on a fourth and one play. The visitors’ frustration grew when Painter hit Greg Orton for a forty yard gain on a third down and 29. Although the drive stalled on the next series, Purdue seized the field position advantage by punting to the Notre Dame two yard line.
When Jimmy Clausen threw a bad pass and was intercepted moments later, the game threatened to turn into a rout. Somehow, the Irish defense held Purdue to another field goal, but the Boilers immediately got the ball back and drove smartly into the end zone for a 20-0 lead. Painter completed two third down passes on the drive and hit Bryant for an 11-yard score.
When things seemingly could not get worse for Notre Dame, they did. An offensive holding penalty was followed by a fumble, and Purdue was in business once again in the red zone. The Irish defense did not fold, however, and the Boilers were held to another Chris Summers field goal with just under three minutes left in the half.
Trailing 23-0, Notre Dame finally began to show signs of life. Clausen hit fellow freshman Golden Tate for 36 yards, but the Irish could not capitalize because Purdue blocked a field goal attempt by Brandon Walker. The Boilermakers threatened again in the waning seconds, but Kyle McCarthy’s interception stopped Painter and Purdue before more damage was done.
Coach Charlie Weis had a harsh message for his troops at halftime, and it started to pay dividends in the third quarter. Tom Zbikowski intercepted an errant pass by Painter, and suddenly the Irish had the ball in Purdue territory. Clausen hit Kamara twice to move the ball to the ten yard line, and then found John Carlson on a fourth down heave for his first career touchdown pass.
A missed extra point kept Notre Dame in a 23-6 hole, but the Irish continued to fight. Still, things looked bleak when Clausen limped off the field with a hip pointer and the offense was once again denied on a fourth and one rush. Purdue took over and added another field goal as the third quarter came to a close.
Evan Sharpley suddenly found a rhythm at quarterback for Notre Dame. Tate made another acrobatic catch on a deep ball for 43 yards, and Kamara caught a nine yard scoring pass with 12:43 remaining in the game. Once again, Whitaker missed the conversion and the Irish trailed 26-12.
Painter had inexplicably gone cold for Purdue, and the Boilermakers quickly went three and out. Sharpley returned and hit Robbie Parris over the middle for 24 yards on a fourth down pass, and Tate hauled in a 25-yarder moments later for the third Irish touchdown. With nearly eight minutes remaining, Notre Dame trailed by only seven points at 26-19.
Unfortunately for the Irish, a short kickoff and poor coverage allowed Purdue to take over near midfield. Darrin Walls was called for defensive holding on the first play from scrimmage, and the Boilermakers were back in business. Sheets and Painter ran for first downs and set up a 14-yard touchdown pass from Painter to Dustin Keller.
Trailing by 33-19, the last hope for Notre Dame was dashed when Sharpley could not force the ball into Carlson’s hands at the Purdue goal line. The Boilers were able to run out the clock and preserve the win to go 5-0 on the season.
A review of the key questions that determined the outcome is as follows:
Can Notre Dame prevent Purdue from getting off to a fast start? Unfortunately not.
Will Notre Dame force Purdue to earn every yard on offense? Not really. Purdue had considerable yards after the catch in the first half and penalties continued to hurt.
Will the Irish be able to sustain the ground game throughout the contest? Not at all.
Will Painter have the luxury of time in the pocket to pick apart the Irish secondary? For the most part, yes.
Will Clausen throw the ball downfield with even modest success? Definitely. He and Sharpley had better protection and the receivers made plays downfield.
Will poor special teams play by the Irish or turnovers provide Purdue’s offense with a short field? Yes, especially in the first half but also when Notre Dame closed to 26-19.
Which team will be able to convert its third down plays? Purdue in the first half, but the Irish held their own in the second.
Despite the second half surge and the individual heroics by Tate, Sharpley and Kamara, Notre Dame is still not a fundamentally solid team. The 23-0 first half was as ugly as any football the Irish have played to date, and the running game was absent all day long. Eleven penalties for 110 yards, two missed extra points and a blocked field goal are not the mark of a successful team. The 49 yards rushing was also a step backward.
On the positive side, Notre Dame outgained Purdue by 426-371, and the defense did well to hold the Boilermakers to field goals on four occasions when touchdowns seemed almost inevitable. Young, talented players give Irish fans a reason to remain positive in terms of the program’s long term prospects, but the goal each week is to win the football game. This will take sixty minutes of good football rather than thirty, drastic improvement in all aspects of special teams, an offensive performance in which the team can move the ball both on the ground and though the air, and a bit of luck.
As the season heads toward the halfway point, it’s about time for something different.