Charlie Weis had his guys working on first and second-down game situations against Purdue's defensive scheme in practice, obviously geared towards setting up at the very worst, third and short this Saturday when the Boilermakers (4-0) come to town. On the season, the 12th-ranked Irish (3-1) are converting just 27 percent of third downs, and were 1-of-11 in a 40-37 victory over the Spartans last Saturday.
Last season, the highest scoring offense in Notre Dame history moved the chains a whopping 49 percent of the time on third down.
"We were going out there and executing the game plan," guard Dan Santucci said of the offense's performance on Tuesday. "Every week is a different game plan, different plays depending on the scheme we're going to see from their defense. We just went out there and tried to execute to the best of our abilities. It's the first day you get to see the defensive fronts. You have to really focus and move the ball and execute."
"I think today was a productive day and every day we have to get better. We have to string together more than one day."
Today in practice it will be first and second down review, then it will be on to solving third down.
"You have to put yourself in the best position to sustain drives," receiver Jeff Samardzija stated.
Something the Irish have had a huge problem doing against four pretty good defenses. Most of the scoring has been set up by forcing a turnover or making a big play.
This Saturday things will get a little easier for the ND offense, as it faces the worst defense its seen all year. The Boilermakers are giving up 410.75 yards per game (ranking 105th nationally) and 28.75 points per game (99th). A unit with four returning starters has struggled against weak competition, not that the Irish players are acknowledging that vocally.
"Purdue is always one of those teams that's going to play Notre Dame hard," running back Darius Walker said. "I've been here the past two years and I know every time we play Purdue it's almost a scrap fight. We definitely understand they're going to bring their A game so we better bring ours."
"They got athletes back there," Samardzija said about an inexperienced secondary that is allowing 284.75 yards through the air (115th). "It's kind of funny when you look at our schedule you're probably going to be saying that about a lot of teams. They got some aggressive safeties and they got some guys that can play."
One guy they have that can play is defensive end Anthony Spencer. The Big Ten defensive-player-of-the-week has 28 tackles including team highs in sacks (five) and tackles-for-loss (nine).
Purdue also has three returning starters at linebacker in leading tackler Dan Bick (38 stops), Stanford Keglar and Cliff Avril. The defensive line of Spencer, end Mike McDonald and tackles Ryan Baker and Alex Magee have helped anchor an attack that averages three sacks per game (18th).
"They're a solid front and they have some good linebackers that can run around," Santucci said. "We just have to worry about getting our job done."
"We want to run the ball better, stay solid in the passing game, keep a balanced offensive attack."
Running the ball, that and eliminating mental mistakes and penalties have also crippled the offense. The Irish haven't been able to generate much of a rushing attack the past two weeks, falling behind big early. Notre Dame is averaging just 74.75 yards per game on the ground (108th). Quarterback Brady Quinn and the passing attack have been able to steady the ship a bit.
So what's the problem? Is it the offensive line not being physical enough? That is something Weis says to his offensive linemen before the game, play physical. Is it missed assignments?
"I think the running game is fine, I don't see anything wrong with the running game," said Walker, who leads the team in rushing with 227 yards and one touchdown. "The past few games have really dictated, we haven't been able to run the ball much because we've gotten out to a slow start. When you get off to a slow start you are always playing catch up and that limits your ability to run the ball as much anyway.
In Weis' first year, the Irish scored a touchdown seven times on game-opening drives. In four games, they've only been able to get one field goal.
"Again it's just coming out there and being focused," Walker said. "We definitely want to refocus ourselves as Notre Dame. We want to go out and start fast, that is one of our main goals for every game. We haven't done that lately and that is something we're working on and very much needs to be improved on."