A Higher Standard

Notre Dame didn't receive its wake-up call until shortly after Saturday night's halftime break. From there they looked competent and competitive, though nowhere near the admirable collection of championship contenders that took the field last fall.

At the 8:16 mark of the fourth quarter, Purdue tight end Justin Sinz scored the first touchdown of his 2013 season. The touchdown drew the hosts within seven, 31-24 and they would get no closer.

Sinz's score though remains relevant for Notre Dame fans as it was the ninth allowed through three games this fall by the Irish defense, the number tying the total yielded by coordinator Bob Diaco's unit over the course of the 12-game 2012 regular season.

And therein lies the rub. If the Irish are to finish the season better than they've started it, tenets of championship defense will have to return to the equation in South Bend.

"We are not a finished product by any means," offered head coach Brian Kelly post-game. "This was a big test... on the road against a Big Ten opponent. This was a really big win for our football team."

Judging from Kelly's upbeat demeanor and the cheers cascading from the adjacent Irish locker room, it was indeed. The players and coaches deserved to celebrate. They worked for the win, earned it on the field in front of 60,000-plus, and should reap the rewards of their efforts.

For the rest of the college football world and for Notre Dame's fan base -- one told to expect a higher standard by the program's head coach -- it was just win. Or better put, not a loss.

The Irish occasionally won ugly en route to 12-0 last fall. They've done so twice with a loss intermixed through three games this season, the group rarely resembling the hungry, focused, determined team that rose from unranked to number one in 2012.

"As a team we came out flat. We weren't ready to play," said junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels. "Give credit to (Purdue), they came out guns blazing."

Purdue was coming off a 20-14 win over FCS program Indiana State. The Irish had just lost their first regular season contest since Thanksgiving Saturday 2011. Yet Purdue was the team that played as if its hair were on fire.

Notre Dame? Not what was expected from an Irish team tasked by its head coach to be smarter and more disciplined since failing ti seize myriad opportunities last Saturday in Ann Arbor.

"We got better," said Kelly. "To win on the road against a team that played very well tonight…you have to do some things well late in the game. In the second half we outscored our opponent 28-14. I think a lesser team wilts under the way they started. We didn't start very well. We hung in there, we kept playing, we kept fighting. I told our team, we're still kind of defining who we are. We're still trying to find ourselves."


With the season one-fourth over, that question remains.

Notre Dame had plenty return from its championship appearance last January to hit the ground running in September. Why does this group play to the level of its competition rather than meet its own lofty standard?

"We've been really trying to get our hands around this thing. We know we have good players and we have good personnel," Kelly said. "We're trying to figure out the parts and the pieces and where they go. I really like the way they fought.

"He's what we did: we played hard for four quarters and we fought our butts off. And then we found a way to make some plays. I feel really good about our kids and the way we played."

With nine games remaining, how he feels and how the players respond to an ugly win is all that matters. Notre Dame is 2-1. They survived and advanced. Their next three games before what will surely be a much-needed October bye includes three teams that haven't lost.

At present, Michigan State is a much better defensive team than is Notre Dame. Following the Spartans, an Oklahoma squad ranked No. 14, out for revenge, and with a better offense than Kelly's early-season Irish, will take the field in South Bend.

Then comes Arizona State, winners vs. Wisconsin last night and a team fully capable of moving the ball up and down the field against Bob Diaco's defense that left its tackling talent and trademark discipline somewhere near the goal line in the Los Angeles Coliseum last November.

"Tommy Rees is settling in," began Kelly of his team's progress. "We were able to run the ball late against a good front four. We were able to keep a team that runs the ball to just 38 yards rushing. Things were a little cloudy, but we're figuring them out."

Survive and advance mode worked fine at Purdue, but Notre Dame needs to approach Kelly's lofty standard to emerge from the next three weeks unscathed, and as a better team than its shown to date.

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