by John Vannie
Notre Dame will travel to Purdue on Saturday evening with the objective of getting back into the win column as the Irish take on the Boilermakers. This long standing intrastate rivalry marks its 85th edition, with Notre Dame holding a 56-26-2 series lead and winning the last five. The teams battled to the wire last season in South Bend in a nail-biter that Tommy Rees and the Irish pulled out by 20-17 on Kyle Brindza’s last second field goal. The game will be nationally televised on ABC starting at 8:00 PM Eastern.
Darrell Hazell is the new Boilermaker head coach. He was hired away from Kent State, where he spent the previous two years revitalizing the Golden Flashes. Hazell compiled a 16-10 record, including an 11-3 mark in 2012 during which the program won its first-ever Mid-American Conference East Division Championship and played in its first bowl game in 40 years. Hazell also served as an assistant at Ohio State under Jim Tressell from 2004-2010.
Purdue (1-1) lost to Cincinnati 42-7 in a mistake filled opener. They rebounded at home last week with a 20-14 win over Indiana State, who had lost to Indiana by 73-35 in its season debut. While several starters return on a defense that played very well against both the Irish and Buckeyes last year, Hazell is trying to overhaul an offense with new players at every skill position. Results to date have been poor from a statistical standpoint, with only two offensive touchdowns in two games and no touchdown passes by quarterback Rob Henry.
The Irish emerged in good physical health from the Michigan loss, and the mindset of the team appears to be driven by a determination to prove they are much better than their performance in Ann Arbor. Whether that means they will take out their frustrations by hammering the Boilermakers remains to be seen, but the opportunity for a measure of redemption in prime time would seem to provide sufficient motivation.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. PURDUE’S DEFENSE
The front seven for Purdue features several players who collaborated to give the Irish fits in 2012, with one notable exception. Outstanding tackle Kawann Short is now in the NFL, but end Ryan Russell and tackle Bruce Gaston lead an experienced front four. Sean Robinson has been an impressive strong side linebacker, and he is teams up with returning starters Joe Gilliam in the middle and Will Lucas on the weak side. Gaston is actually the team’s leading tackler after two games while also setting the pace in tackles for loss and sacks.
Senior cornerback Ricardo Allen, whose last minute interception iced the team’s victory last week, leads the secondary. The other corner is Frankie Williams, an inexperienced 5’9” sophomore who has been thrown into the fire and is trying not to get burned. Veteran safety Taylor Richards is joined this week by Anthony Brown, who is filling in for injured long time starter Landon Feichter.
Irish fans may hope for a more balanced attack this week after Coach Brian Kelly’s aerial circus crashed and burned at Michigan, but he very well may have Rees throwing the ball as soon as he gets off the team bus in West Lafayette. The Boilermaker secondary appears to be the most vulnerable unit to attack, but Notre Dame’s offensive line is more than capable of handling the challenge to run the ball and the Irish should not be playing from behind on the scoreboard all evening. The key for Notre Dame’s interior linemen will be to contain Gaston and not allow him to dominate inside as Short was able to do last year.
Empty backfield sets by the Irish have also become a lightning rod for discussion and criticism this week. The absence of a running threat and a relatively immobile quarterback may allow Greg Hudson, a 1990 Notre Dame graduate and football letterman who is now Purdue’s Defensive Coordinator, to drop his linebackers into the short passing lanes and safeties to take away the deep pass. This strategy worked well for Michigan, and is sure to be noticed on film by Hudson.
Amir Carlisle has emerged as the most effective ball carrier and overall weapon among the group of running backs, but George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel will continue to see action. The game situation may determine whether freshmen Greg Bryant and Taurean Folston get a few touches, but that possibility will make the fourth quarter worth watching.
PURDUE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Although Henry is a fifth year senior, he has struggled to date to get the offense moving. The Boilermakers’ conversion rate is just 28% on third down and they struggle to capitalize on their limited number of red zone opportunities. The team was dealt a further setback this week when highly regarded tight end Gabe Holmes, who leads the team in receptions, suffered a wrist injury that Hazell described as “serious”. Holmes will miss Saturday’s game and Justin Sinz will start.
Purdue’s new wide receivers are 6’4” sophomore Shane Mikesky and 5’10” freshman B.J. Knauf. They are backed by freshman Deangelo Yancey and veteran Gary Bush. The Boilermakers have yet to stretch their passing game to establish a deep threat, and a repeat of Temple’s dink and dunk style may be on the horizon in an effort to take advantage of Notre Dame’s soft man coverage. Henry can run with reasonable effectiveness when forced to do so, but it’s rarely by design. He did scramble for one of Purdue’s two offensive scores this season.
Hazell deploys a single tailback, and the workload is split between starter Akeem Hunt and freshman Dayln Dawkins. Both are small, quick, and utilized quite a bit in the passing game to get them into open space. Knauf also is used as a runner out of certain formations and has enjoyed modest success. He is the only ball carrier other than Henry to rush for a touchdown.
The Boilermaker offensive futility can be summarized by noting that they ran six plays from the Indiana State 1-yard line in the first half last week and scored only three points. Hazell noted that the line must sustain its blocks longer, but the Irish defensive front is not the easiest place for them to start. Purdue starts four seniors including left tackle Kevin Pamphile, while sophomore center Robert Kugler will literally have his hands full with Notre Dame’s Louis Nix.
Notre Dame’s overall play was markedly improved in this area last week. Kyle Brindza was rock-solid in both kicking and punting the football, while the coverage and return teams were disciplined and productive. The Irish have the talent to transform this area into an advantage over most opponents, but it remains to be seen whether consistency and continuous improvement will follow last week’s performance.
Hunt provided a spark for the Boilermakers last week by returning opening kickoff for a 99 yard score. Knauf handles the punt return duties. Sophomore kicker Paul Griggs has hit on only two of four field goal attempts, none longer than 37 yards. One of the best players on the Purdue roster is punter Cody Webster, who is justifiably on the Ray Guy watch list. Webster has punted for a 50-yard average and opponents have had no success trying to return them.
Both teams have struggled in the red zone, and better execution is a must for Notre Dame as Purdue will go to great lengths to take away any long scoring plays. The Irish ran the ball only once in 14 red zone plays last week, and that simply must change. Hazell will keep his safeties deep and count on his front seven to win the battles in front of them. This will present an opportunity for the Irish offensive line to assert itself and dominate the game. Kelly’s proclivity to transform Rees from game manager to gunslinger must be restrained, as Rees is simply not a wise choice to carry the team given the wealth of talent around him.
Offensively, the depleted Boilermakers simply do not have the playmakers to stay with Notre Dame. They will attempt to isolate Hunt, Dawkins and Knauf on the Irish linebackers to create opportunities and make sure Henry delivers the ball quickly. Coach Bob Diaco may counter with a fifth defensive back if Purdue must double team Nix and also keep the tight end in to help with Stephon Tuitt. Although he has not played exceedingly well to date this season, Tuitt may very well be the key performer for the Irish defense in this contest.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will the Irish perform with a high degree of energy coming off a loss or will they display the same lethargy we saw against Temple?
Can Notre Dame’s defense get off the field on third down against a team that struggles to convert?
Will Kelly bring more balance to his play selection in the red zone and while the outcome is still in doubt?
Can Tuitt have the breakout performance that we all know is coming?
Will Henry and the new Boilermaker offense begin to click after two ineffective starts?
Will my liver (and sanity) remain intact after being subjected to another four hours of Brent Musburger?
The Irish should not be seriously threatened in this contest, but the final margin may not be as large as fans hope or expect unless the team plays with passion and intensity. Rees should not be asked to throw another 53 passes, or even 30 for that matter, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.
NOTRE DAME 31 PURDUE 14