SOUTH BEND - Notre Dame fans got their first true glimpse at the potential of the Irish offense in the post-Brady Quinn era on Saturday. The kindest things that could be said about the offense since the departure of Quinn were spoken in the future tense, but it looked as though the future arrived during the 38-21 home victory over Purdue.
Notre Dame now stands at 3-1 on the year the possibility of a special season is clearly visible when scanning the remainder of the schedule.
Now, the Fighting Irish have a long way to go before they are the complete football team that they want to be. Notre Dame needs to start sacking quarterbacks instead of hurrying them. The Irish have to learn to put an opponent down the first chance they get and they need to find some consistency in the kicking game. But this team's promise was clear against the Boilermakers.
Sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen had a career day with 270 passing yards, completing 20 of 35 attempts for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Sophomore receiver Golden Tate put up respectable numbers, five catches for 64 yards and a score, despite drawing most of Purdue's attention, which opened up things for freshman receiver Michael Floyd. Floyd also had a career-high with 100 receiving yards on six receptions.
"Those guys made plays today and it makes my job a lot easier," Clausen said.
Clausen has obviously developed a solid connection with his receivers, especially the young targets, and it is helping both pitcher and catcher.
"It's working both ways here now," head coach Charlie Weis said. "He's making them better, but all of a sudden you've got Michael, you've got Golden and Duval (Kamara) and David (Grimes) and you've got Kyle (Rudolph) getting his first touchdown."
The offensive line proved that it can indeed block in the running game, paving the way for sophomore running back Armando Allen to have his best day since his junior year of high school. Allen rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries and had 247 all-purpose yards.
"I think the offensive front took (last week) personal," Weis said. "I think they took it personal and I think they did something about it."
For the first time in two years, Weis saw his offense start to realize its potential.
"I think that we're capable of running the football and I think we're capable of throwing the football," he said. "We're capable of making some plays, but capable doesn't mean anything until you actually show it."
The defense, which has been solid all season, faced a dangerous offense led by quarterback Curtis Painter and running back Kory Sheets, but it got off the field when it needed to in the end and had a freshman make a game-changing play.
"We knew the quarterback's really good and the running back is a pain in the butt too," Weis said. "We knew that we were going to give up some big plays and I think our defense all year long has hung in there and hung there and played hard."
The game was tied 14-14 at the half with Notre Dame receiving the ball to start the third quarter. Weis told his players that the upcoming drive would be the most crucial of the year.
"I told these guys this is the most important drive of the entire season here because that game could obviously have gone either way at that point," Weis said.
The Irish obviously took Weis' words to heart, driving straight down the field 80 yards in just over two minutes with Allen scoring from 16 yards out to give the Irish a 21-14 lead.
Clausen opened the half with a 22-yard pass to Grimes, followed by a 12-yard gainer to Tate and from there it was all Allen. Allen had runs of eight and 21 yards before scoring untouched from the 16 with 12:56 left in the third.
"We realized how important that first drive of the third quarter was going to be for us and our season," offensive guard Eric Olsen said. "We really had to pick it up and get it done. We had to get points on the board, no question about it."
Following a Purdue punt, the Irish again moved the ball down the field. Notre Dame drove 78 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown to take a 28-14 lead with 6:37 to play in the third. Allen had a pair of 21-yard rushes on the possession before Clausen hit freshman tight end Kyle Rudolph with a 5-yard touchdown pass off of playaction.
But the Boilermakers came back as receiver Desmond Tardy caught a 54-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead back to seven with just over five minutes remaining in the third.
Allen returned the ensuing kick 36 yards to the Notre Dame 46-yard line to set up solid field position. Clausen connected with Floyd and Rudolph to move the ball down to the Purdue 30, but after a rush for a loss and two incomplete passes, the Irish faced a 4th-and-7 and Weis decided to go for it. The Boilermakers put the heat on Clausen, blitzing every availabe defender, but he lofted a beautiful toss for Grimes, who was left one-on-one and was able to run underneath it for the score.
"They went Cover Zero on that to try to get pressure on us and me and Grimes looked at each other and he ran the fade and I just threw it up to him and let him go make the play," Clausen said. "I couldn't see what he was doing because they were playing Blitz Zero and I didn't see if he was getting jammed off the line or whatever so I just threw it up and just gave him a chance."
Grimes had plenty of time to run under the ball.
"We saw it was Blitz Zero, which means there was no safety in the middle field. Jimmy looked at me and I looked at him and we made a play," Grimes said. "It was pretty high, I was waiting for it to come down. I actually looked at my watch."
Clausen did not see the catch because he got hit, but it gave Notre Dame a 35-21 lead with 1:24 to go in the third.
The Boilermakers had a chance to cut into that lead when they drove into the Notre Dame red zone on a combination of Painter completions and long gains on the ground by Sheets, but the drive ended when Purdue was stopped on 4th-and-10. After reaching the Notre Dame 13, Painter had four straight incompletions, including a 4th down-pass that was broken up by Harrison Smith. Notre Dame took over with 14:21 left in the game.
The Irish pushed the margin to three scores when Brandon Walker converted his first field goal of the season from 41 yards out to give Notre Dame a 38-21 lead with 10:04 left. The key play on the drive was a 38-yard deep ball from Clausen to Tate on third down that was initially ruled incomplete, but overturned by the replay official.
Purdue went three-and-out on their final two possessions while the Irish were able to eat up clock and run out the game.
Despite preaching the importance of starting fast all season, the Irish came out sluggish, as they have in three of their four games this season. Both teams went three-and-out on their opening possessions, but Purdue went on an eight-play, 59-yard touchdown drive the next time it got the ball. Painter's 17-yard pass on third down to Sheets kept the drive alive and Sheets scored from 22 yards out three plays later on a Statue of Liberty-type play to give Purdue a 7-0 lead six minutes into the game.
The Notre Dame offense started moving the ball after its first possession, gaining 103 yards combined on its next two drives, but neither ended with points. James Aldridge was stopped on 4th-and-1 at Purdue's 39-yard line on Notre Dame's second possession of the game and Walker pushed a 31-yard field goal to left on the Irish's third drive of the day.
Just when the Irish could have started to get discouraged, they received a huge play from another youngster. Freshman cornerback Robert Blanton picked off a Painter pass and brought it back 47 yards for a score to tie the game 7-7 five minutes into the second quarter.
Purdue came back with a 14-play, 78-yard touchdown that was capped with a 3-yard slant from Painter to Aaron Valentine for the score to put the Boilermakers up 14-7 with just under five minutes to play in the half. Painter was 7 of 11 for 71 yards on the drive and Purdue benefited from a no-call on an apparent holding penalty two plays before the score.
The Irish offense responded with a six-play, 65-yard that included completions of 17 and 38 yards from Clausen to Floyd. Clausen found Tate on a 6-yard fade pass as the Notre Dame offense finally got on the board to tie the game with 2:35 left. The teams went into the locker room tied 14-14.
In the first half, Clausen was 9 of 17 for 118 yards and the 6-yard touchdown to Tate. Floyd led the Irish receiving corps with five catches for 93 yards while Allen rushed for 38 yards on seven carries.
Painter finished the half 20 of 34 for 220 yards, a touchdown and the interception to Blanton. Tardy was the leading receiver with seven catches for 108 yards while Orton had seven grabs for 68 yards. In the first half, Sheets rushed for 36 yards and a score on nine carries.