by John Vannie
Notre Dame travels to Purdue on Saturday to take on the 4-0 Boilermakers. The Irish will face a different type of attack this week after engaging in four consecutive ground wars to open the season. Purdue’s Curtis Painter is the best quarterback Notre Dame will have faced to date, and he is sure to fill the air with passes in Joe Tiller’s spread offense.
The Irish will take a physical approach to the game in an attempt to slow down the Boilers. Coach Charlie Weis will continue to build on the progress made in running game last week and pound away at the suspect Purdue defense. Defensively, Notre Dame’s secondary will have to tighten up considerably after two consecutive disappointing performances.
Despite the fact that the Boilers have played three soft teams and Big Ten doormat Minnesota to open their season, Painter has put up an impressive array of statistics. The strong-armed passer is well protected and exceptionally accurate, as evidenced by a 68.7 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns and only one interception. Purdue has already scored 26 touchdowns, and Notre Dame will be hard pressed to record as many all season.
In order to have a chance at victory, the Irish must be able to sustain drives and control the clock on offense. Conversely, they must win the field position battle and prevent the Boilers from connecting on big plays for quick scores. This means Notre Dame cannot commit turnovers, shank punts or give up long returns on special teams. Coach Charlie Weis may need to resurrect the plan conceived by Bill Parcells in Super Bowl XXV and executed to perfection by the New York Giants against the high scoring Buffalo Bills. If only Lawrence Taylor were available to help the Irish defense.
It will also be important for Notre Dame to bring the fight to Purdue in a manner not seen by the Boilermakers in their first four games. A physical contest favors the Irish, but Jimmy Clausen must be able to execute a few plays in the passing game. The visitors must be able to score at least 30 points to win, and that will be a tall order for a group of players that is still struggling to find a rhythm and an identity.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Purdue’s Defense
Irish fans are excited about serving a healthy diet of James Aldridge and Robert Hughes to Purdue as well as future opponents. By mixing in a few plays featuring speedster Armando Allen, Notre Dame is developing a formula for ground based success. The Purdue defense is not a dominant group and will have to commit additional resources to stop the run. Their plan will undoubtedly be to force Clausen to pass and blitz him when those situations arise.
Senior defensive end Cliff Avril is the best Purdue lineman, but the few sacks generated by the Boilers this season have mostly been credited to the linebackers or secondary. This would be an ideal week for Notre Dame to actually execute a screen pass to Allen or Hughes, as opportunities for long gains will be available.
The strength of Purdue’s 4-3 defense is at linebacker, where a rotation of four seniors led by Stanford Keglar and Josh Ferguson has combined for 91 tackles. The success of Notre Dame’s running game will be tied to the ability of its fullbacks and tight ends to execute blocks against this group. As Irish fans have already seen many times this year, one whiffed block can cause a potentially big play to unravel.
Safety Justin Scott and cornerback Terrell Vinson are the leaders in the Boiler secondary, but the Irish should be able to exploit this group if the pass protection is adequate and Clausen is not continually faced with third and long situations. Tight end John Carlson should finally become a frequent target this week, and Notre Dame fans hope to see the ball thrown downfield to the likes of David Grimes, Duval Kamara, D.J. Hord or Golden Tate.
Besides the expectation for continued improvement in the running game, the chances of success for the Irish will largely depend on the maturation of Clausen. The freshman must be able to read coverages and release the ball more quickly, and he must do a better job of anticipating the blitz. Although he will be playing in another hostile environment, the Boiler defense is far less intimidating than the opposition he has faced to date.
Purdue’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
The most dangerous receiver for Purdue is Dorian Bryant, and the Irish must keep him in front of them at all times. Last year, the same plan to keep Bryant in check was largely successful, but unheralded Selwyn Lymon burned the Notre Dame secondary for 238 receiving yards and two touchdowns. This pair is joined by Greg Orton and tight end Dustin Keller, who has a team best 18.9 yards per catch.
The passing game matchups will test the Irish and necessitate the use of five or even six defensive backs. Up front, Notre Dame will have to rotate several players in order to generate and maintain some pressure on Painter. Freshman linebackers Brian Smith and Kerry Neal, both of whom performed well last week, will see additional time on Saturday. This pair must also be prepared to contain Bryant when he runs a reverse, as this play has been very successful for Purdue and is a staple of its offense.
Notre Dame can ill afford confusion in the secondary and blown assignments when Purdue lines up in multiple formations and sends people in motion. If Painter and his receivers are able to get the Irish on their heels, they could run them off the field. Discipline and sure tackling are going to be critical if the game is to be close. The Irish must hit Painter on pass attempts even if they do not sack him, and the defensive backs must prevent excess yards after the catch. Only by frustrating Purdue and disrupting the flow of its offense will Notre Dame be able to win.
An element that should not be overlooked is the Boilermaker running game. Kory Sheets is a versatile and productive back, although he is neither exceptionally fast nor a bruiser at 206 pounds. The offensive line is more adept at pass blocking, but fifth year senior center Robbie Powell and his mates have enabled Purdue backs to run for over 200 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. The Irish obviously cannot afford to allow that sort of production in light of Painter’s lethality in the passing game.
Once again, Bryant is the main threat as a return man for the Boilermakers. He averages over 35 yards per kickoff return and has already recorded a touchdown. Purdue has also generated 14.5 yards per punt return, and its coverage teams have limited opponents to very modest gains. The Irish have underachieved in both the return game and in coverage, and they must improve both by a substantial margin to avoid a significant disadvantage.
Punter Geoff Price must also regain the consistency that he displayed last season. The Irish kickoff specialists have been largely unable to reach the end zone this season, and Weis may call for well placed, shorter kicks to help contain Bryant. The specialists for Purdue are veteran punter Jared Armstrong and sophomore place kicker Chris Summers, both of whom have proven to be more than adequate.
Purdue’s vast array of weapons may be too much for the Irish defense to handle. Bryant will stretch the field and Keller is an underrated threat at tight end. Painter can also rely on short tosses or screen passes to Sheets in order to move the chains. It does not seem likely that Notre Dame can generate enough pressure to cause disruption or turnovers.
Notre Dame should be able to run the ball against the Purdue defense, but they must execute with greater consistency if they are to remain in the game. A two score deficit will be problematic for Clausen, as his best opportunity to settle into the pocket will be in situations that ar
e not obvious passing downs.
The key questions that will help determine the outcome this week are as follows:
Can Notre Dame prevent Purdue from getting off to a fast start?
Will Notre Dame force Purdue to earn every yard on offense?
Will the Irish be able to sustain the ground game throughout the contest?
Will Painter have the luxury of time in the pocket to pick apart the Irish secondary?
Will Clausen throw the ball downfield with even modest success?
Will poor special teams play by the Irish or turnovers provide Purdue’s offense with a short field?
Which team will be able to convert its third down plays?
Once again, the Irish will show improvement on offense and complete a few passes to augment a developing ground game. Unfortunately, they will not be able to keep pace with the Boilermakers. Painter is too polished and Notre Dame’s inability to pressure him while covering his receivers will ultimately spell defeat.
Purdue 35 Notre Dame 24