If is a simple, two-letter word. It can imply so much, and it is being thrown in my face tonight. All week I felt that a Purdue victory would be a long shot, but that two letter word, if, gave me hope. If we could do this, that, and the other, victory was possible. I did it mostly because I am a Boilermaker. I always believe there is at least a chance something good will happen.
That two letter word is being thrown back in my face tonight by Notre Dame fans on Twitter. I am getting mocked on Twitter for even thinking Purdue had a chance, and those are the types of fans I hate. They think they are all powerful and look on the opposition with disdain for even daring to think they can compete.
Well, I thought we could compete because I believe in our players. I thought we could compete because of the evidence of Notre Dame struggling to 2-2 and turning the ball over with reckless abandon. I thought we could compete because of a few factors in our favor.
Instead, we had a complete and total failure in every phase of the game from the opening moment until the end of the game. With two weeks to prepare for a team coming off of four tough games in a row and a charged home atmosphere we couldn't even maintain the positive momentum for one freaking play. Instead of trying to establish the run (which is our strength) early we immediately gave up, threw into coverage, and pissed away anything positive we had going with a turnover. To have a chance at winning we needed to force turnovers and not turn it over ourselves. That was gone after one play.
It's not like we even fell behind by a lot and had to pass, pass, pass to catch up. For much of the first quarter it was only 7-0, yet Ralph Bolden, an all-Big Ten running back touched the ball six times total tonight, and none in the first quarter. That's just stupid on our part.
What is so frustrating is that this occurred against a good, but not great team. ND fans around all night were complaining about little things, such as the missed field goals, or Rees making a mistake, or something like that. If Notre Dame was a great team they would have been 4-0 coming in. Instead, they were a decent team that could rack up yards, but couldn't finish drives with any consistency until they faced us. Yards don't equal points, and until tonight the Fighting Irish struggled to score points and put teams away. Once they add the scoring to the yardage they will be even more dangerous.
But you know what, we made them look unbeatable. They still struggled tonight, enough to even give us some hope when we blocked a field goal and still trailed only 7-0 late in the first quarter despite giving up approximately 7,845 yards in the first 15 minutes. Once the second score happened and we were still going three and out, it was all but over. Notre Dame did everything to keep us in it early on. They kept up their season-long trend of generating a ton of yards but not a proportionate amount of points and that kept us closer than we should have been. Unfortunately, against a team like that you have to play nearly perfect in order to beat them. You have to be able to take advantage of their mistakes and lack of ability to turn those yards into points. Notre Dame was moving the ball well enough to be up 28-0 after one quarter, but except for the final play of the period they had only scored mostly as a direct result of our own mistake (the interception).
That will be Notre Dame's biggest fallacy until they figure out how to close drives. They are a 20/20 team right now. They're great at moving the ball from the 20 and into the red zone, but terrible at finishing unless they get a big play. Even tonight, they had racked up over 300 yards by the time they were up 21-0, but two of the three scores came on big plays outside the red zone. If they ever figure out the red zone issue they will go from good offense to officially terrifying. When we did very little to truly challenge them I don't fault them for doing their job and just drilling us.
Of course, we helped them look amazing tonight. We had been defending the run well, but Cierre Wood crushed us for almost 200 yards and Jonas Gray for almost another 100. For much of the night our defense against Micheal Floyd, possibly the best receiver in college football, was as effective as me shouting, "COVER MICHAEL FLOYD!" as loud as I could from 40 rows up in section 128. I was terrified of Tyler Eifert, but his night was relatively tame because everything else was working for the Irish.
Mostly, I was terribly disappointed in our own offense, which, in turn, Made Notre Dame look that much better. With two weeks to prepare, watch tape, come up with new things, hone our strengths, and figure out a way to move a defense that is good, but had a few holes, here is how our first quarter went: 12 plays, 19 yards, one turnover. It gets even easier for an opposing offense to look great when our own is generating nothing and won't allow our defense to rest.
Notre Dame this year is a team that is good, but flawed. They'll make some mistakes, as evidenced in the first four games, and you have to take advantage of them without making your own mistakes. When they get help, like us giving up yards in bunches to Wood, Gray, and Floyd, things can quickly get out of hand.
The Fighting Irish have reached a tipping point under Kelly. He's improved a lot of the little things that Weis and Willingham never did, and they now make other teams pay for mistakes as we had to pay tonight. We can't beat anyone right now, much less talented teams like Notre Dame, unless we stay out of our own way. Both teams tonight have the trouble of getting in their own way. The difference is that Notre Dame can survive it. We cannot.
Tonight was absolutely disappointing because we had two weeks to prepare for a team better than us, but not one that was impossible to defeat. Instead of taking a step forward and competing, we took a giant step back and had our worst loss in the series with the Irish since it became a series again in 1997. I certainly don't expect to beat them every year. They're too good and have too much talent for us to ever be dominant for long stretches. I don't think it is asking too much, however, to at least be competitive in them, especially at home. We're in the freaking Big Ten for crying out loud. While we're not the best in that conference, we still have advantages that most of college football would kill to have. Since 1997 we've won five against the Irish and have at least been competitive or very close in several more games. Now we've lost four straight, our longest streak since losing 12 straight to them, and we're getting progressively further from them after proving for more than a decade that we can at least compete with them. That's embarrassing.
I don't even know where to lay the blame tonight. I believe in our players because to me at least, we have talented guys who are trying hard. There is clearly a problem in preparation, but two years ago with less talent (at least on paper) we were still challenging the likes of Oregon, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. Now we aren't even close. They're getting better, and we're getting worse. At one time we could at least compete with teams bigger, faster, and stronger than us. We proved it as recently as two years ago. Tonight showed we've regressed form that. The talent gap tonight was no larger than it was two years ago when we were one play away from beating them. Kelly has clearly improved them from a coaching standpoint, while our own staff has not improved us.
So where do we go from here? Next week is a huge turning point because we host a Minnesota team that is looking like the worst in the Big Ten (yes, even worse than us). It has to be a win, and the rest of the season has to be taken one game at a time. Several teams on our schedule (Penn State, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana) have had moments where they have not looked good, but we have to have dramatic improvement in order to salvage something from this season.
That's where that power of IF comes in, again. So many things are still an IF, meaning they aren't a certainty we can rely on. Unfortunately, seeing how much we regressed with two weeks to prepare, I highly doubt that improvement is coming.