Preview: What, and Who, to Watch

This week's game preview focuses more on the Irish, and less on what should be an overmatched group of Boilermakers.

It's okay to exhale.

Yes it was an epic beating but Notre Dame's 31-0 win over Michigan marked what should be the most challenging contest among a trio of season-opening outings prior to the team's rare September bye next week.

Tomorrow's foe Purdue bears little resemblance to the 2012 Boilermakers squad that stood toe-to-toe with Notre Dame for four quarters. They were capable offensively, engaged defensively, and benefitted from the presence of an NFL-quality defensive interior.

Present-day Purdue, however, reminds many of last year's Boilermakers squad -- that is, they aren't good. By any reasonable measure.

Head coach Darrell Hazell's debut 2013 season included a win over FCS foe Indiana State and a near upset of head coach Brian Kelly's Irish.

Why then won't Hazell's crew rise to the occasion as did their equally poor predecessors?

Because this Notre Dame team bears no resemblance to the plodding group that took the field last fall.

They're faster, they're more excited -- and as a result, more exciting -- and they're fully engaged in a youth movement that's taken hold in South Bend. From senior to rookie alike.

"It just comes with maturing and realizing that this is a lot bigger than one person," said senior Matthias Farley. "To go out there with 105 guys you bleed and sweat with year round, I don't know how you cannot have fun and let other things get in the way. When the individual succeeds, the team succeeds.

"Everyone really trusts each other. It's new and exciting for everyone. Relying on the coaches, holding each other accountable, and just having fun. That's the biggest thing. I think it's evident across the board that everyone is playing for each other."

The 2012 Irish did as well. As for the 2013 squad? Kelly put it best this week when he talked about his younger-than-usual group.

"We've played with great energy. It's the mix of personalities that you have on the team.  We don't have a lot of seniors. We got a lot of juniors. A lot of juniors want to play, they want to win.  They're not thinking about graduation. They're not thinking about anything else but winning games. We got a lot of sophomores who just want to play.  We got a lot of freshmen that just don't know any better. That's usually a good mix.

"It's a new year, but it's a new mix. I think that mix is pretty good for us right now."

Good enough for a 3-0 start.

What, and Who, to Watch

Five Questions in need of answers inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

1. Is the offensive line weaker than advertised? I'm more concerned with the unit's ability to win at the point than to protect the savvy, elusive Golson. Statistically, the Irish have been strong. 4.6 yards per carry, five rushing scores -- that's more than halfway to last year's regular season total! But take away backup quarterback Malik Zaire's 56-yard sprint with the game long-decided against Rice and that 4.6-yard average drops to 3.8.

Twenty-five rushes attempted by the "starting trio" of Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant have ended with gains of four or fewer. That doesn't include a single short-yardage, goal-to-go situation, or end-game situation in which they were running out the clock. All instances in which shorter gains can be beneficial to the offense. Most reviewed occurred in 1st and 10 or 2nd and 7 situations.

To be blunt, I thought Michigan's defensive line beat (I'll stop short of saying, "whipped") Notre Dame's offensive front. It wasn't an ideal evaluation situation -- it was clear the Irish were going to run with leads of 21-0 and 28-0 in the second half -- but it could be a portent for future tussles vs. Stanford, Florida State, Louisville, and USC.

2. Will the real Jarron Jones please stand up? Jones played as if his hair was on fire against Michigan. He played with passion vs. Rice as well. In other words, against the team's most hated rival and in the first game played in nine months, he was ready to roll.

Will he be against a lesser foe such as the Boilers? The answer will help determine whether the Irish defense is vulnerable against the capable middle-tier teams that remain on the 2014 slate.

3. The defense: playmakers or true contenders? No, we can't know the answer after 60 minutes against Purdue, but Saturday's matchup does offer another look at what has to date been a unit that has shown consistent tenacity and hunger with an adherence to fundamentals and togetherness. (I've counted just seven missed tackles this season; only three last week.)

They're young, they're going to make mistakes, and at some point, an experienced offense and quarterback is going to adroitly handle what Brian VanGorder's unit throws at them. But the early returns are promising if you're an Irish fan…not to mention fun to watch.

I'll be interested to see if clean, crisp tackling remains a staple and if communication continues to improve (from a non-coach's perspective, at least).

4. Another Debut? Against Rice it was Drue Tranquill. Versus Michigan, Kolin Hill. Will one more quick-twitch athlete emerge from what appears to be an outstanding rookie crop of defenders? We aren't likely close to the play or redshirt cut-off point for a potential contributor such as edge rusher Jhonny Williams, but at some point it's less than prudent for a rookie to see the field as a short-timer.

A prime example: how would the graduated Kona Schwenke look as a fifth-year senior aiding this defense? Schwenke was thrust into action in Game Nine of his freshman season, 2010, and also in Game Four of his sophomore year, 2011, not appearing with a contest in doubt thereafter. Both were potential redshirt campaigns, the latter planned by Kelly in a best-case scenario because Schwenke had gained nearly 70 pounds in his conversion from edge rusher to nose guard.

I believe one more pass-rusher could greatly aid this defense over the arduous slate that follows -- but decisions to that end should be imminent.

5. Can Chris Brown get untracked? "Track" is, at least at present, the operative word. Brown has track star speed -- it hasn't translated to production on the gridiron. Said head coach Brian Kelly of the junior starter:

"He’s been a little inconsistent in the first couple weeks and he’d be the first one to tell you. He practices his butt off. He works so hard. He’s gotta relax a little bit is really what I told him. He gets a little bit tight during the games and he’s just gotta let it come to him. He cares so much but he’s gotta make some plays for us. I think he will. I’m very confident he will. He’s just gotta let it come to him.

"There will be plays out there for him to make during the season. But he has gotten off to a little bit of an inconsistent start. I see him definitely becoming more of a factor in what we do and becoming more comfortable."

Sans the suspended DaVaris Daniels, another target is likely needed, at least to put pressure on the top defenses the Irish will face in the season's final two months.

The speedster with big-game experience, if not the numbers to show for it, appears a prime candidate.

Notre Dame 40 Purdue 14


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