The World Cup is an excellent distraction during the day, but we're now just 11 weeks away from the football we all love more. On September 4th Purdue opens its season against Notre Dame up in South Bend. Several teams will begin their seasons even earlier, as Thursday, September 2nd will mark the true return of college football. The last time Purdue began a season against the Fighting Irish was 1984, when the two teams opened the brand new Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. Purdue won 23-21 and went on to a 7-5 season. A similar result and regular season record would mark improvement our Boilers.
This should be one of the most interesting games in the series. Brian Kelly comes to Notre Dame as the latest coach that will make things as they should be. The Irish continue to look for the next Lou Holtz, and Dayne Crist will attempt to do what Jimmy Montana never did with regularity: win. Notre Dame has a lot of questions in year one of the Brian Kelly Era. Purdue, meanwhile, comes in as the team with a bit more positive momentum and experience at some key positions. It should be a fun contest.
2009 Record: 6-6
Bowl Result: None
Series with Purdue: Notre Dame leads 51-24-2 (Notre Dame leads Shillelagh portion 34-19)
Last Purdue win: 9/29/2007 at Purdue 33-19
Last Notre Dame win: 9/26/09 at Purdue 24-21
Last Season for the Irish
We all know what happened. It was supposed to be the year Notre Dame had its easy schedule and Jimmy Montana was going to win the Heisman as they cruised to a BCS Bowl. Instead, they finished 6-6, took themselves out of bowl consideration (kind of petulant, if you ask me) and fired the offensive genius that is Charlie Weis. Basically, it was the type of season that makes me despise Notre Dame so much. They had everything going for them. They had exactly what their fans had asked for two years previously with an experienced team and the coach that was going to lead them to glory. The best they could do was 6-6, yet they still apologized for Jimmy because "He could only do so much with that defense."
Defense is part of the game too. You cannot ignore it like Charlie Weis did, and Brian Kelly has not exactly been a defensive stalwart in his coaching career. Even then, Notre Dame had tons of four and five star talent recruited by Weis on that side of the ball. Dan Fox, Zeke Motta, Tyler Stockton, Manti Te'o, Robert Blanton, Shawn Cwynar, Steven Filer, Darius Fleming, Ethan Jonhson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Dan McCarthy, Anthony McDonald, Brandon Newman, Jamoris Slaughter, Gary Gray, Kerry Neal, and Brian Smith were all defensive players rated at four stars or better that were recruited by Weis and on the roster last season. With that amount of talent there are zero excuses for fielding a defense that bad. Therefore, the Irish have only themselves to blame.
Even in the six victories the Irish needed late comebacks to win four of them. Jimmy Clausen directed an excellent drive to beat Purdue. Michigan State missed a wide-open receiver in the end zone to seal that win. Washington was an overtime win (which, ironically, was against Ty Willingham's recruits).
The defense was still a major argument for Notre Dame fans, especially in the Navy loss. Again, the excuse doesn't fly when you compare the talent. Supposedly Ty Willingham never won because the talent wasn't there. The talent was there with Weis, but they still didn't win. This year, if the Irish struggle, the excuse will likely be the new system under coach Kelly. It remains to be seen what will actually happen.
Notre Dame Offense
Kelly has some nice pieces to build his first offense around. Dayne Crist is a former five-star quarterback recruit who has some experience from last season. He completed 10 of 20 passes on the year for 130 yards and one touchdown against one interception. He enters his junior season as the clear starter and will be backed up by Nate Montana. Crist saw most of his action last year against Purdue, where he completed 5 of 10 passes for 45 yards and ran for 16 yards. He is coming off of a torn ACL suffered in the Washington State game. That means both likely starting quarterbacks are coming off of the same injury with Robert Marve still going through his rehab.
One of the reasons that Clausen had a good season statistically was because of his receivers. Golden Tate is gone, but Michael Floyd is back as one of the best receivers in all of college football. Purdue did not see him because of a broken collarbone, but he still had 44 receptions for 795 yards and nine touchdowns in only seven games. The 6'3" 220 pound junior is an excellent target for Crist to throw to, and I fear what he will do against our inexperienced secondary. He is most dangerous on the deep ball, as he had four catches for 189 yards and three scores in last season's opener. Kyle Rudolph at tight end is a nice piece to build around too. His 33 catches for 364 yards and three scores was good for third on the team. He was also the recipient of the winning score in the Purdue game. Duval Kamara (23-218-1) gives Crist a third experienced target in what should be a good passing attack. Finally, according to UHND Tai-ler Jones had a great spring game at receiver.
Notre Dame's traditionally strong running game has taken a back seat in recent years with Clausen and Brady Quinn throwing for a ton of yards. Armando Allen (697 yards, 3 TD's) and Robert Hughes (416-5) both return for their senior seasons as a good 1-2 rushing duo. Jonas gray is an experienced third option, while speedy freshman Cameron Roberson could be another player that factors into the rotation.
The Irish have an experienced offensive line that will likely start two seniors, two juniors, and a sophomore. It is in flux, however, as Kelly looks to find the best cohesive unit. Zack Martin and Taylor Dever are listed as the tackles, with Martin being the lone sophomore. Braxston Cave is listed as the replacement for Eric Olsen, but Dan Wenger or Chris Watt could end up there as well. Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson seem to have locked down the guard spots, but IrishIllustrated has mentioned that there could be five new starters along the line. There is experience in terms of years in the program, but that line gave up 25 sacks last season. If Ryan Kerrigan and Kawann Short can get some penetration they can disrupt the passing game and prevent those great receivers from getting the ball.
Notre Dame Defense
This is a major point of contention. Notre Dame might simply need to outscore teams because the defense struggled last year and Kelly's Cincinnati teams were not known for stopping anyone. It was a coaching issue and not a talent issue. Since Kelly has never coached a great defense I don't see things getting much better. In the last five games last season he gave up 45, 36, 44, and 51 points to Connecticut, Illinois, Pittsburgh, and Florida. Granted, he has a new set of talent to work with, but that talent was torched for more than 2,000 yards rushing and 2,700 yards passing. Part of that came in facing run-oriented attacks in Navy (348 yards) and Stanford (280 yards), but Notre Dame was bad against the run against other teams. Toby Gebhart ran for over 200 yards and three scores in the Stanford game. The Purdue game might have been different had we rushed Ralph Bolden more, but Notre Dame held him to 67 yards on 17 attempts.We were about the only opponent they held under 100 yards. Had we cracked it, I am confident we would have won.
Two seasons ago Kory Sheets was having a good game when we went away from the running game again. He had 87 yards and a score, but a back-breaking interception on a poor throw from Curtis Painter allowed Blanton to get a game-changing pick six. For Purdue to have success in South Bend they must have a solid day running the football from Al-Terek McBurse, Dan Dierking, Jared Crank, Keith Carlos, and possibly Bolden against a defense that struggled against the run.
Te'o is an excellent player to build around at inside linebacker, and he should be better in 2010. The Irish employ a 3-4 scheme with Brian Smith, Fleming, and McDonald expected to be the starters at linebacker. Those guys were all four-star are better recruits, so excuses for poor play should be nil talent-wise. Smith had 71 tackles, a fumble recovery, and two picks a year ago, while Te'o had 63 stops. Fleming added three sacks, while McDonald played sparingly.
Along the line Notre Dame has plenty of talent with Ethan Johnson, Lewis-Moore, and senior nose tackle Ian Williams giving them a talented, experienced core. Williams will be the focal point of the defense. He had 39 stops with six tackles for loss a year ago, but no sacks. Lewis-Moore and Johnson combined for 6.5 sacks, but Notre Dame only got to the quarterback 20 times all year. There is little question that there is talent in the front seven, but will there be production, especially against the run?
The defensive backfield produced only 12 interceptions last year, and Kyle McCarthy, who had five picks, is gone. Slaughter and senior Harrison Smith (69 tackles) look to anchor the safety spots. Slaughter moves in to McCarthy's vacated safety position. At the corners Darren Walls and Gray give Notre Dame four-star or better players at 10 of 11 defensive positions according to their current depth chart. Only Ian Williams, a 3-star, was not highly rated, while Te'o is the only underclassman listed as a starter. Yes, the Irish are playing in their third scheme in four years, but with this much talent and experience their defense has no excuses for struggling again.
Notre Dame Special Teams
The Irish were pretty good on special teams last year. Nick Tausch was a solid kicker, hitting 14 of 17 field goals with a long of 46. David Ruffer was also a perfect 5 for 5 on field goals, allowing the Irish to have a high red zone percentage. Ruffer had the bigger leg and was more effective on kickoffs with a pair of touchbacks. Two of Tausch's misses came in the Navy game, however, costing Notre Dame that contest. The punting game struggled with current sophomore Ben Turk averaging less than 39 yards per kick.
Notre Dame did not defend kickoffs or punts well. Opponents averaged 12.8 yards per punt return and 22 yards (with two touchdowns) on kick returns. The Irish lost a dangerous weapon on punt returns when Tate went to the draft. Tate returned one punt for a touchdown while sophomore Theo Riddick averaged 23 yards on kickoff returns.
Purdue has exactly one win in South Bend since 1974. More importantly, they have a history of agonizingly close calls. I have talked often about our frustrations in 1998, 2000, and 2002 when we outplayed the Irish only to lose in the closing minutes. Our last two visits have seen a pair of great individual performances in Selwyn Limon and Desmond Tardy, but the team as a whole has been unable to produce.
That said, I don't think this team has the same fear of bigger venues that Tiller's teams did. Danny hope's squad already went to Michigan and won. Yes, it was against a bad Michigan team, but it was the type of game that Tiller's teams would lose by four touchdowns. I now feel better about seeing Purdue on the road even if they fall behind.
Finally, if you look strictly on paper this shouldn't even be close. I mentioned all the four and five star talent the Irish have. That is what makes their excuses even more pathetic. They have no valid reason for struggling the last three years with the amount of talent on the field. Our mostly two and three star guys have no business competing with them, but we do. The difference last season was a boneheaded timeout and a fourth down play in the last few seconds. I think Purdue comes in this season more confident than Notre Dame. It is not much, but it is a small edge to Purdue.
I think this game rides on the play of Notre Dame's defense. They have not seen a Purdue quarterback with Robert Marve's raw ability in some time, if ever. Al-Terek McBurse did not play in last year's game and now he is the featured back. Keith Smith couldn't be stopped last year with 11 catches for 136 yards and a score. Now he is even better. Many Notre Dame fans expect Brian Kelly to be the new savior and roll over Purdue in the opener. If Purdue can get into the backfield and disrupt the passing game it could be a very long day for the Irish.
I have already gone on record as saying I expect a 6-0 start if Purdue can win in South Bend. I am not changing from that. Notre Dame may have more talent, but Purdue has played together much better as a team, especially late last year. If we can come in close to healthy (and I really only expect Bolden to miss the game) I like our chances. There is a lot of heart in this pick, but a lot of head too. Notre Dame has a tricky opening schedule (Purdue, Michigan, at Michigan State, Stanford, at Boston College, Pittsburgh) where they could start 0-6 if they don't get it together in a hurry. I don't think it will happen, but I would love to start that streak. Purdue 31, Notre Dame 30