Interior StrengthsNotre Dame's expected strength, its offensive line, manifested in its season opener across the pond, but there was little doubt the Irish front would handle Navy's undersized front seven. This week's matchup with Purdue brings a potentially stout interior defense, though one not without question marks on the flanks, where the Boilermakers are replacing long-time contributor Joe Holland (Holland had accrued more than 40 tackles vs. the Irish since 2008) and suspended returning tackles leader and All-Big 10 honorable mention selection, Dwayne Beckford.
Purdue's best player is senior defensive tackle Kawaan Short, a 315-pound penetrating, kick-blocking, havoc-wreaking machine who's headed for first round selection in next April's NFL Draft. Short's 17 tackles for loss last fall is more than any Notre Dame player has totaled since Justin Tuck left campus in 2004, and his six career blocks kicks match the unheralded total posted by former standout Trevor Laws.
Flanking Short is former Irish prospect and would-be Charlie Weis pledge Bruce Gaston. The Chicago, St. Rita product ensures fewer double teams are directed Short's way, meaning at least one member of the Irish interior will have his hands full with a quality defensive tackle, a non-entity in last week's 50-10 win over Navy.
Senior left guard Chris Watt is Notre Dame's best inside with 5th-year Braxston Cave not far behind. Cave's 2008 fellow enrollee Mike Golic played exceptionally well in his starting right guard debut last week, but Short and Gaston will provide a true litmus test for the improved veteran protector.
Its a relatively even matchup inside, but Notre Dame's offensive tackles, especially senior Zack Martin on the left side, have the edge over Purdue's shaky ends and outside 'backers. Martin is among the nation's most underrated players entering 2012.
Whole New BallgameJunior cornerback Ricardo Allen will make his third career start vs. the Irish. Notable among the trio is this is Allen's first without Michael Floyd tormenting each jam at the line and turn of the hips on every snap. The monstrous Floyd absolutely destroyed the 5'10" 185-pound Allen last fall, wracking up 12 receptions for 137 yards and a 35-yard post-pattern score just 24 seconds into the contest.
Allen was overmatched, but not as badly as the Purdue defensive staff, which pitted Allen one-on-one vs. Floyd from the outset, a ludicrous idea vs. a polished record-setting senior such as Floyd who had five inches and 40-plus pounds on Allen.
New defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar (formerly of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and prior, Kansas State) has Allen and fellow veteran cover man Josh Johnson ready to matchup with Notre Dame's unproven perimeter targets. Neither can match up in the red zone with tight end Tyler Eifert (Johnson is 5'11"), but both have the experience and savvy to limit him in the passing game more so than the fleet-footed Floyd.
"Look, we don't have much film on this defensive coordinator," said Kelly of Tibesar. "We've got one game against a I-AA opponent where they didn't show much. We're looking at film of Kansas State in 2008. We've had to prepare for everything and we have this week.
"It's a new team. There's new guys. There's guys that we're playing on offense that didn't even travel to that game (the 38-10 Irish win last season). All this week is less about Purdue and we respect the heck out of them and they're going to play their very best, we know that. But we've got so much to work on relative to our own selves, that that's been the focus."
Allen's the type of playmaker that could bait redshirt-freshman Everett Golson into a throw, close the seemingly open passing window and make the Irish pay. Another buttoned-down passing attack that focuses on tight ends in middle zones and running backs underneath is likely on tap for Notre Dame's offensive in Week Two.
Trio of TriggermanIn 2010, Notre Dame's defense held the mobile QB combo of Robert Marve and Rob Henry to 12 points, though with 31 completions on 42 attempts (totaling just 220 yards, or 7 yards per catch). Last year the Irish jumped on Caleb Terbush from the outset, intercepting his first pass and holding the Boilers out of the end zone for the game's first 55 minutes.
Each is expected to play Saturday, with TerBush getting the start after Marve led the way last week vs. Eastern Kentucky. Both can move the pocket, both can run through arm tackles, and neither is as strong of a runner as third-string Henry.
TerBush's presence at the outset is likely an indication Purdue head coach Danny Hope looks to play the game a bit closer to the vest, as Marve is more of a risk-taker, or was before suffering two torn ACL's over the last four seasons.
"They will run the quarterback more with TerBush than Marve," said Kelly, an observation that hints Marve's second ACL surgery greatly limited his previously touted mobility. "They will move the pocket more. Marve is a very good football player, Henry, as well was a starter there before he hurt his knee. So you've got three very capable quarterbacks, and they do some things different. We'll attack the game plan knowing that we'll have to defend all, but TerBush will definitely be more involved in the running game than Marve was."
With a trio of quick-footed but undersized targets in Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross, and Gary Bush on the perimeter, and a pair of tight ends that can keep the chains moving in underrated Gabe Holmes (6'6" 247) and veteran Crosby Wright, look for Purdue to resort to a dink-and-dunk attack on the perimeter. It's a tactic that plays into Notre Dame's strength as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is happy to allow short passes to the flat with tackles limiting yards after the catch thereafter.
The latter will determine if Purdue continually extends drives, or punts on seven of their first 10 possessions (INT, FG, Missed FG) as they did last fall.
The Tallest MidgetIn their season openers last Saturday, Purdue and Notre Dame combined to endure the following: a blocked PAT, a blocked punt, a fumbled punt, two kick-offs that landed out of bounds (Purdue) a shanked kickoff that landed at the opponents 20-yard line, a missed PAT, a dropped PAT snap, and a punt that lost the receiving team 25 yards of field position when it was allowed to bounce and roll (Notre Dame).
Redshirt-freshman kicker Sam McCartney replaced program legend Carson Wiggs as Purdue's place-kicker. McCartney could be replaced by the second quarter Saturday.
Look for the Irish to finally win the special teams matchup Saturday in South Bend.
Reality CheckWhen is the last time a legitimate Notre Dame football team lost to Purdue? Remarkably, it was Dan Devine's penultimate Irish squad of 1979, as each of the eight editions that have lost since failed to win more than seven games thereafter; each toiled under coaches named Faust, Davie, Willingham, and Weis.
Good Notre Dame teams don't lose to Purdue. Viable Notre Dame teams shouldn't (and haven't) either, at least not since trying to replace Joe Montana under center.
Notre Dame currently ranks 13th nationally in scoring offense, 15th in rushing offense, and 4th in turnover margin. Considering the quality of opposition they'll face, none of the above is likely to remain intact at season's end. But Brian Kelly's third-edition Irish can continue to hammer lesser foes (Purdue, Pittsburgh, Boston College, and Wake Forest) and battle with peers (Michigan State, Michigan, possibly Miami, Stanford, and BYU) with such an approach.
More important, they can upset the two heavyweights remaining if the offense remains hard-charging and efficient and the defense continues to create turnovers rather than rush to the field to endure or offset them as was the case last fall.
Purdue has a handful of pieces in place to compete with the Irish, but there's no way the 14.5-point underdogs should walk out of South Bend with the program's third win in Notre Dame Stadium since the Lyndon Johnson left office.
Kelly said it best this week: "But really the focus for me as the head coach at Notre Dame is on our guys this week and what we have to improve upon…"