Before I start let me clarify improvement. Improvement doesn't mean excellent or good if you look it up in the dictionary. I see progress from the last game to this game. I see progress and improvement in a lot of areas that needed considerable progress and improvement. Progress and improvement does not mean the problems are solved, it does mean, however, they are closer than they were in solving these problems.
The first question is the quarterback situation. Who starts and why? I will guarantee you that we won't know the definite answer to that question until game time. Not because a starter won't exist but because Purdue will have to prepare for two very different quarterbacks.
It doesn't matter who I, you or anyone thinks should start other than offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill Diedrick and Tyrone Willingham. They will make the decision and have more information than the rest of us to base their decision on. Still, I think you will see Brady Quinn start against Purdue. If for no other reason than he scored six points when Holiday could only muster three in more minutes of playing time. Who finishes the game will be more important than who starts.
What makes me think this team played better? Well, the effort certainly improved. I think the execution on both sides of the ball improved. I also think the Irish were able to challenge a defense for the first time this week offensively and that is the most encouraging sign.
People need to understand something about the offensive line. The entire middle of the offensive line is being replaced. Zach Giles didn't win the starting job but started this game due to Morton being injured. Sean Milligan was out with an injury and he was the only returning starter from the 2002 team. Darin Mitchell has never started nor has he played much. Jamie Ryan hasn't started or played much at all. This unit had never played together as a unit yet they still probably played the best game the offensive line has seen this year.
Everyone would love to see this unit dominate like the Michigan offensive line did against the Notre Dame defense but 4 NFL players who are now on NFL rosters could not do that last year on a consistent basis so I'm not sure why we should expect this unit to do so at this point. I'm not making excuses for the players or coaches; I just think this is too much to ask from any unit considering the attrition.
I also saw improvement in the blitz pickup by the running backs--again, improvement and not good or excellent. If you watch the Michigan game and then the Michigan State game, I think you will agree. They made a number of good blocks picking up the blitz. They also missed some opportunities but they did do a much better job.
The Irish have a playmaker emerging at wide receiver in Rhema McKnight. I'm telling you, this kid HATES to lose and he does everything he can to make sure that won't happen. McKnight is going to be a leader and a great player.
Why should I be excited about what I saw? Folks, they finally challenged a defense. They ran the quarterbacks, they threw to the flat. They had some misdirection plays. I about fell out of my seat when they ran a play action pass faking it with Marcus Wilson and then hit Josh Schmidt out in the flat. They challenged a defense and the results showed. Michigan State backed off the line of scrimmage a bit and the Irish were able to make some plays on them. Even Holiday made a number of nice plays—all set up by good play calling by Diedrick.
On the defensive side of the ball, I think we saw a lot of improvement—especially in the secondary. The Irish secondary made plays on the ball in the passing game and we're in position to make plays on the ball all day. Excellent job by Trent Walters getting his inexperienced secondary turned around.
The Irish also stopped the run much better. Yes, they gave up 181 yards rushing and not a good stat for any defense. The 71-yard run hurt them badly and turned the momentum of the game around. Without this play however, I think we can all agree they did a much better job.
The pass rush was a concern of mine however. Not only from the front four but Notre Dame didn't get near Smoker most of the time even when blitzing. I don't know if they have an answer here because I certainly haven't seen it this year. With an inexperienced secondary, the Irish can't blitz often to create a pass rush. The front four will have to do a better job of getting to the QB. They did bat some balls down which is what you have to do in three-step drop situations and Smoker ran a lot of three-step drops.
The reason I am not so down on this team is I finally saw signs of this team turning the corner. Was it the play of Brady Quinn that makes me more confident? He does look good out there but was also 2-6 for 18 yards when given the same plays Holiday had to run.
Quinn undoubtedly looked great in the fourth quarter however but Diedrick also allowed Quinn to play his game—throwing the football.
If you want a real brain-teaser, did Diedrick allow Quinn to throw so many passes because the Irish were behind or because he has that much confidence in Brady to make the correct reads and make the good throws?
The answer to that question might be the answer to the success or failure of the Irish offense in the near future. Will Diedrick allow Quinn to throw the football and often if he is the starter? I'm all for running the football when the Irish have a chance at success. Right now, I don't think they have a chance for success considering how the defenses are trying to play the Irish. There are plenty of ways to stop what they've been doing and it doesn't all need to be passing. Diedrick and Willingham might disagree with me and throw out execution but the results speak for themselves I think.
The most important thing for everyone to understand is that this team did improve. They made adjustments in attitude and corrected some mistakes and executed. The pieces are being put in place and the plan is starting to come together. That doesn't mean that things will change quickly but for the first time, I started to see some results and that is at least encouraging.