In the season-opener, head coach Charlie Weis (correctly) called off the dogs, and the game's final period became a showcase for new names on the Irish roster.
In Ann Arbor, an otherwise sterling offensive effort bogged down in a penalty-laden 3rd Quarter and last Saturday vs. Sparty, the Irish slogged through a 2nd quarter full of personal fouls, sleepy special teams play, and season-altering injuries.
The latter item is a cause for concern (detailed below) and what I thought would be a celebration of Irish offense (and upwards of 600 yards) seems to be shaping up as an exercise in mental toughness, as a sound fundamental approach by the 2-1 Irish should suffice to secure a nationally televised victory Saturday night.
Below is a look at a few storylines for Saturday's matchup with Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Irish M*A*S*H Unit
The Irish skill position stars have incurred more injuries than games played entering tomorrow's matchup – a game which marks the unofficial end of ND's Big 10 mini-season.
The offense will be without its senior fullback, James Aldridge, who is expected to miss his third consecutive game due to a shoulder injury suffered in the season-opener. Late word Thursday from campus indicates that the suddenly irreplaceable Armando Allen has been downgraded to a "game-time" decision after re-injuring his ankle last Saturday vs. Michigan State (Allen first injured his ankle on Notre Dame's final series in Ann Arbor). Junior signal-caller and the nation's No. 2 ranked quarterback Jimmy Clausen is battling a turf toe injury, one certain to limit his movement in the pocket thought it remains to be seen how much the certain pain will hamper his throwing mechanics (the miracle of modern science has a way of masking that pain for a few hours when called upon).
And of course, sublime sophomore Michael Floyd is out for the season after having surgery on his clavicle on Monday.
Clausen will play and Allen should (again, the combination of natural adrenaline and pain-killers can work wonders when the lights go on), but how effective either (especially the latter) will be is unknown. The thus-far dominant Irish offense will either be tweaked or completely reset depending on the health of its junior quarterback and halfback as the game progresses.
It's been at least (and erroneously, looking back) 28 game weeks – the 2007 season-opener – since I've typed this sentence:
The Irish offense should establish its running game to set up the pass Saturday.
Purdue allowed Northern Illinois to rush for 280 yards and yielded 193 to Oregon one week prior. They've surrendered 31 (Toledo), 38, and 28 points in a 1-2 start and a blueprint to beat and bury the Boilers was established last Saturday by the NIU Huskies who possessed the football for an astounding 41:40 in their 28-21 upset victory.
In other words: the Irish front seven won't be the only group on the field Saturday that's sprung a September leak.
Notre Dame, of course, boasts a far superior passing attack to that of Purdue's previous opponents. If ND can establish the run, the Boilermakers average secondary should be helpless against Clausen's play-action passes downfield.
Tate v. Pender III
The pair were first introduced in 2007 when Golden Tate, then a freshman, announced his presence to Irish nation with a 3-catch; 104-yard; (leaping/diving) touchdown effort for the formerly punchless Irish offense in a 33-19 loss at Purdue. Two of Tate's three jump-ball receptions occurred vs. sophomore cornerback David Pender, who vowed a better personal showing prior to last year's contest in South Bend. But Tate caught a touchdown (a short fade route) on Pender in the '08 contest as well as the Irish rolled 38-21.
This season, Pender is unquestionably the Boilermakers best cover cornerback and the spotlight matchup in the secondary Saturday will be the talkative Pender vs. Tate.
Pender has 25 career pass break-ups (or twice as many as any active Irish defender). He breaks on the ball exceptionally well and you'll see him jawing after every pass thrown in his direction Saturday night on national television. Tate has 11 receptions for 167 yards and two touchdowns in his two-game career vs. the Boilers and has topped the 100-yard receiving mark in four of the team's last six contests dating back to the Syracuse contest last November.
He has also, mysteriously, developed a case of "the dropsies" with two dropped deep balls and a third he had generally snared in the past over the last two weeks. Tate however, remains about six seconds away from a touchdown every time the ball is snapped, and the Boilermakers will have to account for him on every play.
Purdue could go the unconventional route: put its best cover cornerback on Notre Dame's other receive (in most situations Duval Kamara) while rolling consistent double-coverage to Tate's side of the field. In either scenario, Pender will at some point receive a third shot at keeping Tate out of the Purdue end zone – a key if the Boilermakers are to pull off the prime time upset.
Overexposed: The Purdue Defense
Purdue does have a few pieces in place defensively, but the group appeared sloppy and soft vs. Oregon and NIU, and its deficiencies should be exploited by the Irish offense.
Boiler defensive end Ryan Kerrigan is an athletic, high-effort player who could cause problems as a pass rusher. It will be up to senior Sam Young to hold him in check as Kerrigan was one of the few Boilers to show up in last week's loss to the Huskies. Likewise, Purdue's front four features a potential NFL Draft pick in 5th-Year senior DT Mike Neal (10 tackles-for-loss last season and 2.5 already in '09) but unlike Kerrigan, Neal offers spotty effort from snap-to-snap and he's played below his billing through three games this year. Right defensive end Gerald Gooden is undersized and often fails to secure the edge.
The Boilers' trio of linebackers ranks with Nevada's as the least impressive unit the Irish have faced to date and the team's overall secondary play (though minus starting CB Brandon King) has featured more confusion and spotty run-stoppage than it has sticky coverage.
Sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph and the Irish screen game have a clear advantage over Purdue's linebackers and safeties, both in zone coverage and support.
Last Saturday vs. the Spartans, Irish head coach Charlie Weis dialed up seven "bubble screens" over the team's first six offensive series. The repetitive nature of the call was a likely result of the soft Cover 3 defense employed by the Spartans secondary (a defense in which one safety resides in the middle of the field and the defense's cornerbacks are responsible for covering their assigned wide receiver all the way down the sideline).
Since the Spartans cornerbacks were often sans deep help they played off the Irish receivers, and the "bubble screen" in which Clausen immediately throws to a teammate running parallel to the line of scrimmage with blockers in front of him, proved both safe and effective.
Fans should probably get used to this preventative measure by Weis, Clausen, and the rest of the offense because as long as team's allow Irish receivers ample cushion, ND is going to take those "free" yards, with the knowledge that one missed tackle or two well-executed blocks will turn a short, safe pass into a long catch and run by Tate, Rudolph, freshman Shaquelle Evans, etc.
The bubble screen will be a staple of the Irish offense until defensive backs begin to crowd the line vs. the Irish receiving corps.
Slop-Fest '09…and I Don't Mean the Weather
Two fumbled punts…allowing a fake punt first down conversion to (basically) seal their fate…head-scratching 3rd and (especially) 4th-down play calls…the Boilermakers ran the gamut of sloppiness last Saturday.
They looked poorly coached in all three phases of the game; lacked the desire to wrap-up ball carriers after the initial hit; and quite simply were beaten into submission by their MAC opponent, who took a 28-7 lead (with Purdue's "7" coming courtesy of a first-quarter punt return touchdown by 5th-year senior Aaron Valentin).
In short, nothing about Purdue was impressive last week and the cupboard appears bare offensively with the notable exception of speedy sophomore running back Ralph Bolden (and he's a player – one the Irish won't catch in the open field).
Purdue has a pedestrian group of receivers; only a horizontal threat at tight end; and a quarterback with better legs than a right arm.
They feature a sub par defensive line, a talkative, confident, but hardly imposing secondary (though one that ultimately could improve this season) and a trio of linebackers striving for mediocrity that have no chance vs. Kyle Rudolph over the middle.
These aren't your Uncle Tiller's Boilers…
In a Nutshell
Despite the prime time start (Purdue is 1-4 all-time in home night contests, incidentally); despite the chance of a sloppy, rain-soaked evening; despite an injured Irish backfield; and despite the fact that the Boilers will play with a much higher level of intensity than they showed last week vs. NIU, a loss to this Purdue team would be an unconscionable defeat for the '09 Irish.
If there's going to be a Saturday this season in which the Irish defense responds to a BCS Conference team that wants to run the football, it has to be tomorrow night in West Lafayette.
Purdue averages an impressive 6.0 yards-per-carry. That number is more impressive on paper than on the field, as the three rushing defenses they've faced rank 113 (Toledo), 76 (Oregon), and 60 (NIU) out of 120 FBS teams (the Irish rank 74). A whopping 315 of the Boilers 672 rushing yards this season occurred against the Toledo Rockets. If Notre Dame's front seven (plus SS Kyle McCarthy) can't control the line of scrimmage this Saturday it's a sure sign that the Irish run defense is doomed in 2009 as the threat of a downfield passing game barely exists for the once-potent Boilers.
Likewise, if the heralded Irish cornerback quintet of Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, Raeshon McNeil, Gary Gray, and Jamoris Slaughter can't be trusted to contain this receiving corps…well, prepare for a few more 300-yard passing efforts from quarterbacks named Locker, Barkley, and Luck down the line
Assuming Clausen remains upright and assuming the game's playing conditions don't render the field a useless mess, the Irish will handle the Boilers and the Ross-Ade planned "Black-Out" ("F" for originality) behind a workmanlike effort from the offense, and a defense that finally remembers how to get off the field.
Notre Dame 30 Purdue 19
Bonus Points: Ten items to look for Saturday night:
- Weather permitting, the first run in excess of 30 yards by a Notre Dame running back since November 24, 2007 (and it will arrive courtesy of one of Allen's backups).
- Offsetting personal foul penalties by Irish wide receiver Golden Tate and Boilermakers cornerback David Pender.
- 2009 TD #2 from sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph.
- The first huge effort of the season from either NT Ian Williams or DT Ethan Johnson vs. Purdue backup left guard Justin Pierce.
- Two head-shaking (and ankle-crossing) missed tackles by the Irish in space vs. Purdue sophomore running back Ralph Bolden.
- More action inside the hash marks from the Irish passing game.
- The first interception of the season for an Irish player not named Kyle McCarthy.
- Three solid drives that end in field goals for the Boilermakers offense.
- The first interception of the season by a limited Jimmy Clausen.
- The emergence Manti Te'o.