by John Vannie
Notre Dame took its first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter on the strength of two touchdown receptions by DaVaris Daniels, and held off the gritty Purdue Boilermakers by 31-24 on Saturday night. After a poor first half in which the Irish did not get on the scoreboard until the final minute, Tommy Rees got untracked and both Daniels and T.J. Jones made clutch catches to ignite the offense. Bennett Jackson added a fourth quarter interception return for a score that came in handy as Purdue did not go quietly.
The Boilermakers served notice right away that they were primed for an upset bid. Rob Henry’s short but precise passes moved his team to a quick score in the opening series. Akeem Hunt galloped 15 yards with a well-conceived screen pass for a 7-0 lead following a six minute, 12 play march. Purdue added a field goal early in the second quarter to extend their advantage, while lethargic Notre Dame was forced to punt on its first three possessions and turned the ball over on downs on its fourth try. It seemed as though the Purdue coaches were in the Irish huddle on both sides of the ball, and frustration grew across NDNation.
A long pass by Rees to Chris Brown and a pass interference call near the end of the half moved the Irish into scoring territory, but a poorly executed fade pass on third and two forced a Kyle Brindza field goal. Trailing 10-3, the Irish took the second half kickoff and drove for a score with Cam McDaniel walking in from one yard out. The sense of relief did not last long as Purdue returned the kickoff to the 46 yard line and took advantage of missed tackles by Notre Dame to go back in front by 17-10 at the 6:28 mark.
Rees brought his team back as the third quarter drew to a close. On a key third down and goal, he hit Daniels on a corner route to tie the game at 17. The Irish defense finally began to assert itself by pressuring Henry, and Notre Dame got the ball back at its own 18 yard line. Rees immediately dropped back and heaved a deep pass to Daniels who outfought cornerback Ricardo Allen for the ball and tight-roped down the sideline for an 82-yard touchdown.
The Irish defense again rose to the occasion of having its first lead of the night, and Jackson stepped in front of a Henry pass to score easily from 34 yards. Suddenly, the visitors had a 31-17 lead and it appeared the contest was decided. The Boilermakers were not willing to concede anything, however, and with 11:18 to go there was still time for a last ditch rally. Henry hit Shane Mikesky on a deep pass when two Irish defenders failed to look for the ball, and then found reserve tight end Justin Sinz for a nine yard touchdown to close the gap to 31-24 with 8:16 left.
The roof nearly fell in on Notre Dame moments later when Amir Carlisle fumbled near midfield. The Irish defense suffocated Henry once again, and Purdue was forced to punt. Coach Brian Kelly called upon McDaniel to carry the rock and seal the win during the last six minutes, and that is exactly what the hard-nosed Texan did. Following a third down pass to Daniels to pick up the initial first down in the drive, McDaniel did the rest by moving the chains and draining the clock.
Although the win was not as easy as expected, much of the credit must go to Purdue’s coaching staff and players. They were well prepared for the Irish, as Henry attacked their weaknesses in coverage and Defensive Coordinator Greg Hudson displayed an exceptional grasp of Notre Dame’s tendencies and formations. Talent ultimately prevailed, as Daniels showcased his athletic ability, Rees displayed coolness in the pocket and the Irish defensive linemen asserted themselves when they were needed most.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions:
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? It was a tale of two halves, as the Irish slept through the first half and played with a sense of purpose in the second.
Can Notre Dame’s defense get off the field on third down against a team that struggles to convert? Purdue converted at about a 50% rate in the first half, but cooled down considerably after intermission.
Will Kelly bring more balance to his play selection in the red zone and while the outcome is still in doubt? There were too many ugly fade patterns for my tastes, but McDaniel’s game clinching thrusts were a pleasure to watch.
Can Tuitt have the breakout performance that we all know is coming? Not yet. I knew it would not be his night when I stopped at the grocery store before the game and saw his face on a milk carton.
Will Henry and the new Boilermaker offense begin to click after two ineffective starts? Yes, Henry was better than he had showed in two previous starts. The Irish linebackers and safeties made him look even better with weak coverage and ineffective arm tackling.
Will my liver (and sanity) remain intact after being subjected to another four hours of Brent Musburger? Surprisingly, old Brent looked fresh in the booth this week, while both Notre Dame and Michigan appeared to have a hangover from last week.
The Irish return home next Saturday to face the Michigan State Spartans, and there are questions that need to be resolved in practice this week. McDaniel has made a case to be the starting tailback after ineffective performances by George Atkinson and Carlisle. The Irish linebackers are chasing in pass coverage and getting themselves dinked and dunked to death, while the first defender to make a play on a ball carrier in space is consistently missing the tackle. Other than that, there isn’t much to worry about.