This week we have not one, not two, but three very special guests for the opposing blogger Q&A. All three contacted me this week in advance of Saturday night's game with the Fighting Irish.
First, we have Keith Arnold of NBC Sports' Inside the Irish.
Second, we have Patrick from SB Nation's own One Foot Down.
Third, we have Frank Vitovitch from UHND.com.
Let's have at it!
T-Mill: How has the team responded to getting Tommy Rees back as the quarterback as opposed to Everett Golson?
Keith: Tommy Rees has no problem with his teammates. They've respected him since the day he took over the quarterback job as a freshman, and only gained more respect for him when he slid into the supporting role last season, helping Everett Golson both on and off the field.
Rees isn't as dynamic as Golson, but he's a smart quarterback who is good enough to beat you. The work he's put in off the field has gone a long way with his teammates.
Frank: Rees is well respected on the team and so far the offense has actually moved the ball pretty well and put up more points on Michigan this year than they did last year. In 2012 Notre Dame scored 13 points against Michigan. Last week they scored 23 (7 came via interception). The problem has been that Rees made the type of turnover that has plagued him over the years last week.
Interestingly enough, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have decided to put the ball in the air much more with Rees under center. Last year Notre Dame set up the pass with the run. This year they are doing the opposite - much to the consternation of just about every single Notre Dame fan.
Patrick: Very well. The Temple game (I know, it was against Temple) actually showed that Rees could make those downfield throws which we thought were never an option with him behind center. The Michigan game was a solid performance as well, and the second part of his first back-to-back 300 yard passing games. Our deep receiving corps has really made having Rees as our starting QB a manageable proposition.
That being said, the game against Michigan is precisely the type of game where we really miss EG. We needed our offense to be able to punch it in the end zone, and Rees lacks the mobility to have any read-option, speed option, or run-pass rollouts in the playbook. That little extra wrinkle that EG brought to the offense (along with the deep ball) is enough to open up everything else just a little bit more, and make getting into the end zone a touch easier. EG could go out and win us a football game almost singlehandedly. I'm not so sure Tommy Rees has that skill in his arsenal.
T-Mill: Michigan was able to throw the ball on Notre Dame's secondary, but Purdue has struggled moving the ball at all. Is this the best way to attack the Irish?
Patrick: I would say yes, but a lot of the ability to throw the ball on our secondary was due to Gardner throwing perfect darts to very well covered receivers in man coverage after surviving a blitz. I think against Purdue, we're going to blitz MUCH less, and focus on getting pressure with 4 rushers. We'll see more zone coverage from ND which will (hopefully, if we can tackle) limit the effectiveness of the receivers. A pain point for the Irish so far this year has been the speed of our ILBs in coverage, which could be exploitable with a quick back out of the backfield, slot receiver, or athletic tight end. There's a reason why we like to blitz them.
Frank: The best way so far this year is to attack them with the short passing game and forced Notre Dame to tackle. Temple did just that and they moved the ball well throughout the game. Notre Dame has been playing more man coverage this year and allowing the underneath stuff. Problem is, Notre Dame has reverted back to Tenuta-Era tackling which has resulted in more yards after the catch than the Irish would like.
If I were Purdue, I would run a lot of three step drops and get the ball in the air quick before Notre Dame can apply much pressure.
Keith: I think so, though my rationale has changed quite a bit in the past two weeks. Heading into this season, I'd have said attacking the Irish through the air would've been the default answer, because running the ball against this front seven didn't look like a winning proposition. But Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon showed that there are big plays to be made against the defense, when in the past getting behind the secondary and grabbing large chunks of yardage was only done by Nick Saban and company.
T-Mill: Notre Dame's offense against Temple seemed to be a little feast or famine. Are there concerns natural concerns or is it starting to come together.
Frank: Most of the concerns right now are over Notre Dame's pass happy play calling despite having a very good offensive line that has paved the way for success on the ground when Notre Dame has run the ball. Notre Dame attempted over 50 passes to just 19 runs despite never being down more than two scores against Michigan. Kelly has claimed it was because Notre Dame was facing 8 man fronts, but unless he was seeing double, Michigan rarely committed to that many defenders in the box.
Tommy Rees showed what we've seen from him previously against Michigan. He can be solid, he can make plays, but he isn't the kind of quarterback that you can rely on to sling it 50 times and still win against a quality opponent. Until Notre Dame commits to running the ball more, the offense will struggle with consistency.
Keith: A loss to Michigan puts the whole system on trial for most Irish fans, though the ones that have been able to keep a level head after a disappointing loss have acknowledged that the offense seems to be coming together, though it did feel a little pass happy in Ann Arbor.
When the going is good, this team eats up yardage by the heap, as you saw at times against both Temple and Michigan. When it struggles, it seems to get trapped in horizontal constraints of its own doing, and abandons the run.
The running back rotation is still a bit of a mystery, though they have plenty of talent in the ranks. And there look to be at least four talented receiving options, with Troy Niklas stepping into a playmaking role at tight end, along with some young players that have lots of talent.
Patrick: I think the biggest concern among the fanbase is the red zone offense, specifically the abandonment of the running game when we're in the shadow of the uprights. The offense is extremely efficient when it comes to yards gained vs. available yards, but we can't turn it into 7 points regularly enough. We're definitely at the tipping point for our offense to be deadly, we just need to convert in the red zone.
T-Mill: Do you think this is a bit of a trap game with a tough Michigan State defense following the Purdue game?
Patrick: I could have definitely seen that being the case before the Michigan game was in the books. Now, I feel that Purdue is going to be on the wrong end of a team looking to put the hurt on someone. This is like Rocky 3: Michigan is like first fight Clubber Lang, this week of practice has been our training montage, and Purdue coming up is like the second fight Clubber Lang. We've got something to prove and we're going to come out swinging.
Frank: Had Notre Dame won, I would be much more concerned with a let down, but coming off a loss, I don't see this as a trap game. Michigan State hasn't looked overly impressive earlier so far so I don't think Notre Dame will get caught looking ahead. An emotional win last week in Ann Arbor would have thrown all of that out the window. A humbling loss, on the other hand, should have this team focused and ready to play come Saturday night.
The last time Notre Dame lost a tough game in Ann Arbor (2011) they came out charged up and upset #15 Michigan State at home the following week. I expect a similar effort and focus this weekend.
Keith: I'd have agreed with that theory if ND didn't lose to Michigan. But this is going to be one surly group, and I don't think they'll look past anything this week... and certainly not ahead to Michigan State.
T-Mill: For now, the Purdue-Notre Dame series is on the books until 2022. Do you see Purdue and ND playing every year through that contract even though the Big Ten's nine game schedule in 2016 would mean only 6 home games?
Frank: I think this series will continue uninterrupted as long as both schools want it. The last three contests at Purdue have all been prime time games (2009, 2011, 2013) which I'm sure is a nice economic boost for them and for the Irish it's an easy trip to make early in the season.
Patrick: I think it will be extremely difficult, depending on how the B1G structures their schedule. Notre Dame is pretty well married to the 7-4-1 model, which means that home-and-homes with Navy, USC, Stanford, Purdue, and MSU along with 5 ACC games are going to get extremely hairy to schedule. Let's just say I'm happy I'm not Jack Swarbrick. There are more scenarios than not in my head where ND is left scrambling to fill open home game slots in at least a few of those years after the B1G goes to 9 games.
Keith: That's the big question, though Notre Dame and Purdue have been playing home and homes for a long time, and nobody expected that to change. While Michigan certainly won the war of public opinion, the truth was that Jack Swarbrick called Michigan AD Dave Brandon and told him they needed to get out of the 2015 game before sliding him an envelope during pregame warm-ups, a move Brandon said was a shocking surprise. With Notre Dame's ACC scheduling pact (a move likely necessitated only after Jim Delany and Mike Slive started snatching up schools like Monopoly properties), there were just too many dance partners for the Irish card.
If you look at the five mandated ACC games, yearly dates with rivals USC, Navy and Stanford (now a rival because of both its academic reputation and West Coast locale), that's eight games each year, right off the bat. Add to that long running series with schools like Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, and one of those had to give, especially with contractually obligated games like Texas, Arizona State, Northwestern and more.
Will Purdue stay on Notre Dame's schedule every year? I'm not sure. But I think Brian Kelly mentioning the Boilermakers as an important in-state rivalry gives you an idea of how the university feels about the game.
T-Mill: Purdue is rightfully a big underdog here. What has to happen for the Boilers to have a chance.
Patrick: I think the obvious first answer is you get Bad Tommy. Forcing the ball into too-tight windows, checking out of running plays at the first whiff of a safety within 25 yards of the LOS, turnovers and incompletions all over the place. The second part of the perfect storm would be our DL playing way too aggressively, letting you catch them with big, gashing screen plays. The final part of the perfect storm would be if our safeties don't keep a lid on the defense. There were a couple of blown coverages in the Michigan game, that, while underneath the last line of the defense, were not great omens for our safeties' pattern reading ability or knowledge of their coverage schemes. One or two deep bombs could go a long way to getting you to the promised land.
And yes, I think it would take all 3 of those things for Purdue to pull it out this weekend. If only 2 of those happen, I think we see what happened last year.
Frank: Notre Dame is still in search of leadership on the defensive side of the ball this year and after giving up 41 points to Michigan a week ago their confidence has to be shaken to say the least. Without much leadership on that side of the ball, so far anyway, a quick Purdue start could make this a competitive game early on.
Defensively, they can make things interesting by baiting Rees into some turnovers early. If they sit back and play it safe and give Rees time to throw the ball, he will move the offense down the field. If I am Purdue, I show some stacked defensive fronts and then drop defenders into coverage and hope to pick off Rees like Michigan did at the end of the first half last weekend.
Keith: They need to play stingy on defense, figure out their offense pretty quickly, and force a few more turnovers out of Tommy Rees. After looking really suspect on special teams, Notre Dame played really well last Saturday. But Purdue might need to make something happen there as well, just like they did last week.
Ross-Ade has been a place that's gotten rowdy in the past for this game. But Purdue will need to withstand an early barrage keep the crowd in it, and get into a slug match, getting big games out of Ryan Russell and Bruce Gaston up front. They've only had so-so luck doing that over the past few years, bizarrely playing better at Notre Dame Stadium than at home against Brian Kelly's squad.