by John Vannie
Notre Dame plays its first home game of the season on Saturday against traditional intrastate rival Purdue. Each team won its opener by steamrolling weak opposition with impressive offensive firepower and would like to carry forward that momentum this week. Boilermaker head coach Danny Hope is in his fourth season, and recorded his first winning campaign and bowl victory in 2011. Brian Kelly is in his third season with the Irish, and appears to have found a suitable quarterback in Everett Golson.
Purdue has a pair of capable veteran quarterbacks and both are expected to see action this week. Caleb TerBush was named a team captain and the starter at the end of preseason workouts, but the fifth year senior sat out the opener against Eastern Kentucky due to a suspension for a team rules violation. Robert Marve, who was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, got the start and threw for 295 yards.
There was also a bit of turmoil for Purdue on the defensive side of the ball. Middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford, the leading returning tackler from the 2011 team, was dismissed from this year’s Boilermakers on August 29. Coupled with the graduation of Joe Holland in May, the defense has very large holes to fill at two of the three linebacker positions.
A quick review of Purdue’s depth chart reveals Hope’s recruiting strategy. Athletes from the State of Florida start at the three wide receiver positions, tight end, kick returner, and four of the five defensive back spots including the nickel back. Purdue recruits many of its linemen from the Midwest, but Hope has also been able to pull a few players out of Texas.
The Irish will have two suspended players back for this game. Reserve quarterback Tommy Rees and linebacker Carlo Calabrese served one game suspensions against Navy and are expected to suit up, while running back Cierre Wood and linebacker Justin Utopo will sit out this game before being eligible to return next week. The game will be nationally televised by NBC starting at 3:30 PM Eastern time.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Purdue’s Defense
The Boilermakers are particularly strong at defensive tackle in its 4-3 alignment, where Kawaan Short and Bruce Gaston are backed up by Brandon Taylor and Michael Rouse. Each is at least 295 pounds and a productive player. The tackle position accounted for half of Purdue’s sacks last season, which is highly unusual and underscores the talent at this position. Ends Ryan Russell and Ryan Isaac are each 6’5”, and the Boiler front wall will be much more difficult for Notre Dame to move than Navy’s undersized group.
Linebacker is a concern as noted above. Will Lucas, who plays the weak side, is the best of the trio. The secondary boasts two fine cornerbacks in Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson, along with a pair of sophomore safeties. The Irish can look to take advantage of the weaknesses in this group by featuring tight ends and backs in the passing game to create matchup problems.
Notre Dame must be successful on the ground as well in order to control the game. While a repeat of the 300 rushing yards gained last week is unlikely, they must generate at least half that many to keep pressure off Golson and prevent the game from becoming an aerial shootout. Theo Riddick and George Atkinson have demonstrated excellent running ability, but neither is big enough to move the pile based on sheer size if the blocking does not materialize. In short, the outcome may well be decided in the trenches between two quality front lines.
Purdue’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
Purdue had an easy time against Eastern Kentucky last week while racking up some gaudy statistics. The team ran a whopping 87 plays for 547 net yards and converted on 12 of 15 third down plays. Marve completed 30 of 38 passes and the Boilermakers scored a touchdown in each of their six trips inside the red zone. Starting receivers O.J.Ross, Antavian Edison and Gary Bush caught a combined 21 passes and will provide a severe test for the Notre Dame secondary. Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright are capable tight ends with large wingspans.
Akeem Shavers is the primary tailback and has above-average speed. He will run behind an offensive line with quality players on the left side and new faces on the right. The Boilermakers prefer to pass regardless of whether Marve or TerBush is at quarterback, however TerBush was more effective last season against the Irish and will likely be named the starter.
Notre Dame may be forced to play five or even six defensive backs at various times, and this will put a strain on a very thin group. Pressure on the passer will be vital if the Irish hope to keep Purdue from matching them on the scoreboard. Although Bob Diaco’s crew did not need to blitz against Navy, look for Manti Te’o and others to make their presence felt in the pocket on Saturday.
The Irish remain very strong up front and should be able to disrupt the timing and efficiency of Purdue’s passing game. Expect the Irish secondary to concede short passes and protect against the deep ball, while the front seven looks to create turnovers and negative plays. A consistent and productive running game by the Boilermakers will be a bad sign for Notre Dame, but that is unlikely. Purdue’s ultimate success will lie in the accuracy of its quarterbacks and their ability to make plays under duress.
Notre Dame struggled mightily in the kicking game last week. Two extra points were missed – once on a poor kick and another due to a botched hold. Kickoff returns were below average and punt returns were shaky as well. DaVonte Neal returned one punt only after muffing the catch and having the ball bounce right back into his hands, but another missed catch allowed the ball to roll another 25 yards. This facet of the game will need to be cleaned up by the Irish staff before it costs the team a touchdown.
Purdue return man Raheem Mostert is a proven performer in this role and a threat to score at any time. Kicker Sam McCartney won a three-way competition for the starting job this fall, but had one extra point blocked in the opener. Paul Griggs came on to lick two fourth quarter extra points, so the position may still be up for grabs. Punter Cody Webster barely broke a sweat last week but was solid in 2011.
The keys for the Irish are to control the game with a balanced attack and to pressure the quarterback, while Purdue will try to stop the run and make Golson beat them through the air. The Boilermakers have the horses on the defensive line and at cornerback to challenge Notre Dame, but the Irish still hold the upper hand in the trenches. Turnovers will factor into the outcome and special teams have to be a concern for the home team.
Purdue should not be able to run the ball consistently, and Notre Dame’s secondary should be well prepared for the pass this week after practicing against Navy’s triple option. The fact that the Boilermakers will play two viable options at quarterback may be more disruptive than an advantage. Meanwhile, Golson will have to play a larger role than last week where he could afford to manage the game in relative comfort. He will be called upon to make plays to lift his team at critical moments, and he will have to deliver often enough to secure a victory.
Let’s review the key questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Can the Irish bring enough pressure to disrupt the rhythm of Purdue’s short passing game?
Will Riddick and Atkinson continue to keep Notre Dame out of long yardage situations on third down?
Can the Irish offensive line give Golson time in the pocket to find an open receiver?
Will Purdue’s special teams exploit an apparent advantage over their Irish counterparts?
Can the home crowd generate enough enthusiasm to inspire Notre Dame?
Will Notre Dame’s secondary be able to contain Purdue’s speedy receivers?
Can Purdue’s linebackers and safeties match up with the talented Irish tight ends?
Purdue’s passing game will cause several anxious moments during this contest, but its defense will have a greater problem defending the multi-faceted attack of Notre Dame. The only way that the Irish can fail to capitalize on its superior offensive and defensive lines is through turnovers and penalties. The game should be relatively high scoring and remain close through the first half, but Notre Dame’s depth and physicality should be decisive.
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