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Notre Dame Preview

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I would almost say that Saturday’s game in South Bend is a must win for Purdue if we’re going to have a good 2008 season. We have already whiffed on one good chance for a "name" win. The Irish are better this year, but they are still beatable. With upcoming games against Penn State and Ohio State, plus a road trip to Michigan State later on we need as many wins as we can get for to stymie the inevitable game that we completely gack against someone we should beat. Unfortunately, our recent history has shown that Notre Dame Stadium is the most unkind venue of all for us short of Michigan and Ohio Stadiums.

What does a win do for us? It lets us keep the Shillelagh trophy for consecutive seasons, something that’s only been done once under coach Tiller. It also gives Tiller an even .500 record against the Irish, something many Irish fans would refuse to admit to. More importantly, it gives us a much-needed 3-1 finish in non conference play. Since we’re already down a strike to Northwestern and Minnesota record-wise in terms of bowl position we can’t afford to give them another strike, or give a strike to teams like Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois. 4-4 is a reasonable expectation for a Big Ten season, but needing 5-3 just to insure a bowl leaves little margin for error.

What scares me the most about this game is the sheer inability to finish when we have played in South Bend. Yes we finally broke through in 2004, but that should have been our fourth win in a row up there, not the first in over 30 years. We completely choked in 1998, 2000, and 2002. I fear another painful loss can happen this year. That is why I refuse to believe in any win at Notre Dame Stadium by the Boilers until the clock reads triple zeroes and we have more points than them.

Notre Dame offense:

I have derisively called him Jimmy Montana, but he has brought it on himself with the braggadocio he displayed in saying he wanted to win four Heisman trophies and four national championships at Notre Dame. While he will fall short of that goal, you have to give him credit for thinking big. After all, isn’t that the point of playing this game? Jimmy struggled last year, but has improved in year two. In what little that I saw of the Michigan State game I saw that he is already somewhat ahead of Curtis Painter in that he doesn’t zero in on one receiver every throw. He actually moves his head and scans the field. The numbers are respectable through three games as he has completed 55 of 96 passes for 626 yards and six scores. He also has 6 interceptions, so he is still learning.

Jimmy’s offense has improved because he has received better protection. He is no longer running for his life on every single play as the coverage breaks down. Purdue was able to knock him around last year, but he still made some good throws to go with the bad (18 of 26 for 169 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). It will be important to get that same pressure, especially since the Notre Dame running game often offers him little help. Robert Hughes leads the Irish on the ground with just 142 yards and two touchdowns through three games. This has come on 41 carries, so it’s not like he is breaking big runs, either. Notre Dame’s longest run from scrimmage was a 24 yard end around by Golden Tate. As a team the Irish have only rushed for 234 yards and those two scores by Hughes.

Still, Central Michigan was only slightly better and they ran all over us. Most of that came from Dan LeFevour. Jimmy Clausen is no Dan LeFevour in terms of mobility. Hughes and Armando Allen have talent on paper, but have not shown it consistently on the field. We cannot let them go off as we let LaGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson of Oregon. We have to make Clausen throw, and we have to learn to defend the screen pass to the running back.

Allen and Hughes have combined for 12 receptions so far, but have not gathered many yards. If Notre Dame is smart they will pass to them time and again out of the backfield on screens because we have been unable to stop this play for five years. We couldn’t learn it last week when Ontario Sneed caught six passes for 57 yards and two scores, so I doubt we’re suddenly going to learn it. This was a problem as far back as 2004 when Sam Keller kept dumping the ball off to his running back in the Sun Bowl. We continue to act like we have never ever seen this play, let alone think it is legal. Why do I expect us to start no?. If I were an opposing offense I would keep exploiting it until we stopped it.

As far as other receivers go we need to watch for Golden Tate. Tate was quiet last year against everyone else, but exploded for 104 yards and a score on just three catches. Two of them were highlight-worthy dives, while his remaining numbers on the season were 3 for 27. Thus far he has proved to be Clausen’s favorite target with 15 catches for 303 yards and two scores. He is a big play threat we must contain because he’ll actually catch the ball as opposed to dropping it like Central Michigan and Northern Colorado did. Michael Floyd is the next threat (10-118-2), while Clausen has spread the ball around to seven other receivers on the season with at least two catches. One is the suspended Will Yeatman, but he only had two catches for six yards.

The eye-popping numbers of as recent as two years ago are not there for the Irish. Still, we have a history of turning quiet players into stars for a day. A great example is Tate just a year ago. If we’re going to have a chance in this game we cannot allow this to happen. If we can hold the bulk of Notre Dame’s regulars to their season averages we should have a good chance at winning. If Allen and Hughes starts busting 15 yards runs every play (or 20 yard catches on screens) we’ll be in deep trouble. Notre Dame’s offense has improved so much because the line has allowed just 3 sacks on the season. Our secondary must keep playing well in coverage and bring down our 429 yards per game average.

Notre Dame defense:

Statistically Notre Dame’s defense isn’t good, but it is better than ours. Again, that is statistically speaking. Part of the reason it looks better is because of the competition it has faced. San Diego State bombed away with the passing game while Michigan’s offense is one in that calling it inept at this point would pay it a complement. Talking about the Irish pass rush would imply that it actually had one. The one sack that Notre Dame has in three games came from linebacker Maurice Crum. Our offensive line continues to improve in protecting Painter, so he should have plenty of time to throw again. The Irish have generated a more respectable 15 tackles for loss, so they have proven they can get into the backfield some.

Notre Dame has proven to be pretty good at forcing turnovers with nine takeaways in three games. David Bruton has two of those takeaways with an interception and fumble recovery. He is also tied for the lead in solo tackles with Kyle McCarthy at 18. Crum may be the most dangerous all-around player. He is a 3-year starter at inside linebacker and he has 10 solo tackles, 2.5 for loss. He is the player the defense revolves around.

The critical element of our offense will be Kory Sheets. Javon Ringer of Michigan State and Sam McGuffie ran all day on the Irish, as did Sheets a year ago (141 yards, 2 TD’s) in West Lafayette. Notre Dame is giving up more than 140 yards per game on the ground, but the past two games have been especially bad. SDSU had only 71 yards on the ground, but Um and MSU has 159 and 242 respectively. If Sheets continues to play well and has another day like he did against Oregon, Purdue has a great chance of winning.

The Irish are fairly average against the pass, giving up 215 yards per game through the air. Two years ago Curtis Painter had a great day in South Bend, but struggled in the red zone and got no help from the defense. Last year Sheets had a banner day, but the red zone struggles continued as Chris Summers bailed us out with his first four field goal day. We need every point we can get in South Bend. This year those field goals have to be touchdowns. We have to go for the kill offensively and not let up until this team is dead. Even then, as history has proven, we’d better score another touchdown just to be safe.

Simply put, Curtis Painter has to play better. He will have time to throw, so he has to go through his progressions and not make big mistakes as he is prone to do. He has not played well yet, but this can change with a good game on national TV. We also need to make sure we use Mr. Sheets plenty. If we get another 100 yard game we should be in good shape. An Oregon-esque performance means we will lose only if we beat ourselves.

Notre Dame Special Teams:

This should be a huge advantage. For all the four and five star players that Charlie Weis has recruited since arriving in South Bend he has yet to get an even serviceable kicker. Last year the Irish missed not one, but two extra points in West Lafayette. Brandon Walker is a perfect 9 of 9 on PAT’s, but it 0 for 3 on field goals with all three misses coming from 40+ yards. There have also been issues with snapping the ball on attempts. Weis is a sneaky coach, so I would be ready for a fake every time. It worked two years ago, if you’ll remember.

In the punting game we have to get better at coverage. We had success against Central Michigan, but the Oregon game is still fresh in my mind. Our own return game has been great so far, but I don’t want it to be a factor Saturday. We’re currently second in the country on average yards per kickoff return and we haven’t even taken one to the house yet. I would just as soon improve on that by having only one chance Saturday and taking it to the house. That means we pitched a shut out, but I don’t expect it at all.

Armando Allen is a dangerous returned, averaging over 11 yards on punts returns and 24 on kickoffs. Remember how Vontez Duff was such a difference maker in the 2001 and 2002 games? Allen could be the same.

Final thoughts:

On paper we should win. Notre Dame’s offense is one-dimensional and has a tendency to get bogged down on the ground. Michigan gifted them with a boatload of turnovers and San Diego State had an unfortunate fumble at the goal line. Otherwise, the Irish would likely be 0-3 right now. On the other side of the ball, we’re running the ball well and Curtis Painter is due for a breakout game. Why then, do I have such a bad feeling?

It has to do with history. We very rarely play well in South Bend. We almost always shoot ourselves in the foot with a costly turnover or special teams play. Our defense also has shown in recent seasons that we can even make the most average of players into superstars for one game. On paper the Irish have a huge talent differential if you go strictly on recruiting rankings. Those players have yet to produce, but that doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there. It only takes one game to break out, and we’re capable of being more than accommodating.

I like that our offense, even in its struggles, is still playing much better than Notre Dame’s. It has moved the ball when it had to and gotten points when needed. The defense has shown some good moments so far too. Clausen can’t run nearly as well as LeFevour, so we won’t have that element to worry about this week unless there is a disastrous breakdown multiple times. If we can actually figure out the damn screen pass we can slow down the Irish offensively. If we play like we did early against Oregon we should win.

But this is South Bend, and that almost never happens. I expect another close game with an agonizing finish like a 65 yard bomb of a field goal to beat us in the end. Pick forthcoming tomorrow in the Big Ten preview.