Double TroubleA constant theme of August camp from Kelly through the coaching staff was "We're going to need them all."
Notre Dame's apparent depth will allow more players to make deeper contributions than any squad in recent program history (at least since the turn of the century). But yesterday only two of the team's four competitive running backs saw action: Armando Allen got the start; Cierre Wood injected life into the offense.
"Cierre came in; we had a role for him – he got tired," Kelly noted of Wood's debut effort. "It's the first time he's played football since high school in his senior year, so his eyes were really big in the 4th Quarter. We're going to mature him; he's going to be somebody who's very important."
Wood was inserted in the game's third drive and gained better than 15 yards on three of his first four collegiate carries over a five-snap span. His efforts helped move the Irish from their own 16 to midfield.
"I just do what I do. I do what they recruited me to do," Wood said post-game.
His efforts set up Notre Dame's first and longest touchdown drive, culminated in one of the best run's of Allen's career: a 22-yard cutback through traffic that finished with the flourish of a (necessary) dive into the end zone pylon.
It was the longest touchdown run of Allen's 34-game career.
"We believe both of those are outstanding backs," Kelly said. "We had some good looks (from the defense) to run the football and I thought they manufactured some runs. They utilized their athletic ability; they're both very gifted, you just have to give them a lane and I thought both of those guys displayed the skills necessary for us to be successful.
Allen led the Irish with 93 rushing yards on 18 carries. Wood chipped in 58 yards on 7 carries while adding a 38-yard kick return…and a fumble.
"I did (see daylight); I saw the dude from the corner of my eye and as I was putting my hand down (to cover the ball) he hit me, and my hand was going down so that's why it came out," said Wood of the miscue.
"I was mad, but I should have taken that to the house."
Wood was bailed out of the potential game-changing turnover by the diving recovery effort of classmate Zeke Motta.
Freshmen ForcesT.J. Jones made good on IrishEyes' April boast, becoming the first true freshman to start a season opener for the program since Milt Jackson earned the honor in 1982. Jones didn't disappoint, catching three passes for 41 yards including the first score of his career: a 5-yard square-in strike from Dayne Crist that gave the home team a 20-3 advantage.
Jones' father Andre, a regular starting linebacker from 1988 through 1990 for Lou Holtz Irish, was in attendance on the Notre Dame sideline. The elder Jones' recruiting class of 1987 won 41 games and a national championship for Holtz.
"I think I heard him calling my name," the freshman said his proud papa after the score. "I was jumping up and down so I couldn't (see him)."
Also making an instant impact was freshman Bennett Jackson, who finished with 4 tackles on six of Notre Dame's total kick-offs; three of which were impressive open-field solo shots after shooting through the Boilers' blocking wall.
"I just used my speed to get downfield and get off a few blocks to make the tackle," Jackson understated of his effort. "We worked on it all week so we pretty much know what to do. I was the sword in the shield trying to split the blocking.
After his first two stops, Jackson received a bit of extra attention in the form of a second assigned blocker, but to no avail. "I saw the guy chasing me but I just kept moving and got past him pretty easy. My teammates swarm to the ball and get to the tackle."
"It felt good to contribute to the team (in his first game," Jackson continued. "I feel like this is a really good place to be for me. I helped out all my brothers on the team."
Jackson, who moved up the Irish pecking order of Irish receivers after the early week transfer announcement of Shaquelle Evans, was a late arrival on the team's kick coverage unit.
"I got on special teams through Scout team. They noticed my potential and used me (with the first unit)."
Perfect StillJackson's late ascent wasn't the only key special teams personnel move that paid dividends for Brian Kelly in the season opener.
Senior walk-on David Ruffer won the kicking duties over incumbent Nick Tausch. Tausch drilled 14 consecutive through the uprights as a true freshman to set a program record last season.
Ruffer has now hit each of his eight career field goal attempts dating back to last November with his first boot, a 42-yarder into the wind at Heinz Field vs. Pittsburgh.
Ruffer connected on all three attempts Saturday, including a key 37-yard effort to extend Notre Dame's lead to 23-12 with 4:30 remaining in the contest.
"I was obviously very pleased with our kicking game today," Kelly said. "Ruffer came through. We were concerned about his operation time; we were never concerned about his leg strength and his ability to get it through the goal posts.
"Nick's a very good kicker too. We think we're blessed that we've got two guys we can count on. But (Ruffer) was big today."
Strength in NumbersDefensive coordinator Mike Elston promised a heavy defensive line rotation throughout the season. Elston expected six players to rotate regularly, with a seventh or eight man possible if time was earned. Starters Ethan Johnson (two sacks), Kapron Lewis-Moore (1 sack) and Ian Williams (half-sack) were instrumental in holding the Boilers to just 102 rushing yards on 32 carries.
Senior Emeka Nwankwo and the junior tandem of Hafis Williams and Sean Cywnar played regularly – Nwankwo and Williams both easily notched career bests in terms of field time. Also in the mix was sophomore nose tackle Tyler Stockton, who was withheld from action last fall. Stockton made his field debut for Notre Dame durin the second quarter Saturday.
The unit accounted for 10.5 tackles – 3.5 for lost yardage on 3.5 sacks while also having a fumble recovery touchdown called back by the replay official.
Down and Dirty DayAsked to describe senior cornerback Gary Gray on Media Day in August, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco used the term "Rugged."
"He's a pretty aggressive, physically aggressive player on the field," Diaco noted of Gray who won his first starting assignment as a junior last season vs. USC.
Diaco's apt description of Gray served as portent to the senior's effort vs. Purdue. Gray finished with 9 tackles, 8 of the solo variety, and added a 4th Down pass deflection that landed in the hands of classmate Ian Williams to kill a Purdue drive inside the Irish 5-yard line.
"I guess I was in the right place at the right time," Gray said of his noteworthy seven 1st Quarter tackles, most of which were made in open space near the line of scrimmage. "I was just reading my keys and when a guy comes out there I have to make the tackle. Coach Cooks and Coach Martin stress that. They (Purdue) were trying to crack on the CAT (linebacker) so it was me in open space with the running back."
Asked about Diaco's pre-season description of his style, Gray simply offered, "I like to get dirty; make tackles and plays on the ball, so I guess (rugged) works."
Spread the WealthSeven Irish receivers caught Crist passes in the first half, though no additional players notched receptions in the second stanza. Junior Michael Floyd led the way with five receptions for 82 yards, though is costly fumble after a solid hit inside the 5-yard line ended a late 3rd Quarter drive.
Classmate Kyle Rudolph caught five passes; four in the first half. His only second half catch was key: an 11-yard effort on 3rd and 7 that helped set up Notre Dame's game-clinching field goal with less than five minutes remaining. Three of Rudolph's five catches gave the Irish a first down.
Jones, Wood, Allen and Duval Kamara also secured receptions in the season opener.
Red Zone CarryoverFour trips inside the Boilermakers 20-yard line offered a mixed bag of results in Kelly's first Irish contest.
Notre Dame scored on three of its four forays, but two field goals and a turnover were intermixed. Aside from Jones' aforementioned touchdown, those six points on three trips kept Purdue close in a contest the Irish could have put away early in the final period.
"I still think it's about developing a mentality," Kelly offered of the Floyd fumble that gave Purdue new life. "Call it what you want: just the instinct of a champion senses he has his opponents on the ropes. And we haven't acquired that yet. We will, and today, it was a pretty clear case that when we had our opponent in a position to put them away (20-3 late in the 3rd), we didn't execute when we needed to."
Observations before the EyeA few game day observations before settling in for Monday's regular Eye in the Sky film review.
- It was tough day for sophomore inside linebacker Manti Te'o. I counted four missed tackles in open space.
- Senior Brian Smith appeared to lose containment on Robert Marve's long touchdown run. Smith was forced into extra playing time due to an early game injury to CAT linebacker Darius Fleming. As a result, DROP linebacker Kerry Neal moved to Fleming's role and Smith found extra playing time on the outside.
- Kyle Rudolph was held without a catch from the three-minute mark of the 1st Quarter until his clutch 3rd and 7 reception with 6:33 remaining in the contest. His final catch was Notre Dame's last positive gain before Ruffer's key field goal guaranteed a two-score margin for the Irish.
- Joining Fleming among the walking wounded: junior free safety Jamoris Slaughter missed the bulk of the final three quarters; senior cornerback Darrin Walls favored his shoulder after a key stop behind the line (but returned to the contest); freshman Prince Shembo was seen running off what appeared to be a leg injury on the Irish sidelines. The status of each will be updated on IrishEyes' Football Forum Message Board after today's 2 PM teleconference with Coach Kelly.