After last week’s disappointing loss to Michigan, the product of a poor defensive performance, everyone welcomed the idea of playing a Purdue team that ranked dead last in every offensive in category in the Big Ten. Analysts, including this website, anticipated that Notre Dame’s defense would right the ship and start to resemble the unit that led them to the national championship last season. We could not have been more wrong.
Purdue’s offense, which managed only two touchdowns in their first two games (one against an FCS opponent), scored three against the Irish defense, and all of them on long, well-executed drives. Much maligned senior QB Robert Henry routinely torched the Irish secondary and linebackers with short passes to his running backs and wide receivers (a strategy predicted by this writer in my article on Purdue’s offense).
In the end the Irish squeezed out a close victory behind the inspired play of QB Tommy Rees and a late interception return for a touchdown by Bennett Jackson. The game left Irish fans with more questions than answers and plenty of negatives for us to evaluate, so let’s take a look.
Last week against Michigan the Irish offense and defense looked flat in the first half of the game, and a similar story played out in the first 30 minutes against Purdue. The Boilermakers drove down the length of the field and scored a touchdown on their opening drive. They added a field goal a short time later. Even after being burned by Devon Gardner, Bob Diaco continued to dial up heavy pressure with the blitz which left the secondary (which I will cover next) scrambling against Purdue’s receivers and running backs in the open field. Give credit to Purdue’s coaching staff for designing a game plan that used screens and slants, almost a run-and-shoot type offense, to completely nullify the Irish blitz and attack their secondary. As the front 3/4 struggled to create a pass rush, Diaco felt the only way to force the issue was through his blitzes. But Darell Hazzell had his troops well prepared and they executed nearly flawlessly in the 1st half.
On offense, Tommy Rees played a great game but the team still struggled to stretch the field out of the gate. Rees’ receivers dropped six passes in the team’s first three drives and Kelly/Martin continued to call predictable wide receiver screens and short out patterns that Purdue was well prepared to defend. Grant it, Rees made some bad throws (see the near interception by Ricardo Allen), but the team needs to catch the ball. Safe to say they caught passes and stretched the field in the second half which coincidentally opened up lanes for the running game.
If Notre Dame intends to compete against the team’s on their schedule, they cannot fall behind so early in the game.
Secondary (expect Bennett Jackson)
Last night the secondary, with the exception of Bennett Jackson, looked disjointed and, at times, completely lost. Keivarae Russell was burned on several key plays during the game including two touchdown passes. Bob Diaco again chose a blitz heavy strategy which left Russell alone in coverage and Purdue took advantage. At safety, Matthias Farley struggled to align the secondary in the correct way and missed several tackles during the game including one that led to a Purdue touchdown (very similar to his failed attempt to tackle Jeremy Gallon last week).
The last two games, and part of the Temple game, have shown how much the Irish miss the veteran presence of Zeke Motta who organized the team’s pass coverage and tackled in the open field. After three games the coaching staff needs to consider other options than Russell and Farley. With Oklahoma and Arizona State looming on the schedule, the team still has time to develop younger players like Cole Luke and Max Redfield.
Give Darrell Hazell and Purdue’s coaching staff credit, they watched enough tape to know that they could exploit Notre Dame’s linebackers with their underneath passing game. Purdue called and executed an impressive combination of screens, swing patterns and slants which exposed Jarrett Grace, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox who simply did not have the speed to keep up with Purdue’s running backs and receivers. Over the course of the game I routinely watched a Notre Dame linebacker chasing a Purdue player because he read the play to late or simply failed to get off a block. Grace specifically struggled in pass coverage which left Purdue receivers open to make several key third down receptions.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they do not have another Manti Teo waiting somewhere on the depth chart. Teo’s instincts and anticipation caused havoc for opponents last season, and everyone assumed this year’s rotation of linebackers could produce the same effect. Diaco needs to go back to basics and hope that this unit develops over the long season.
After three games I think everyone can see some of the glaring weaknesses in George Atkinson III’s game. Give credit to Purdue’s front seven who prevented Atkinson and any Notre Dame running back from rushing between the tackles until the last 10 minutes of the game. But more glaringly when Atkinson did reach the outside on edges runs and stretch plays, which should be his bread-and-butter, he looked indecisive and hesitant. If Atkinson did have an opening he seemed incapable of shifting into the next gear, and several times he fell after first contact. Atkinson also missed two blitz pickups one which resulted in a Purdue sack, an unforgiveable sin for Brian Kelly.
Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle played well, even with Carlisle’s fumble. They deserve the load and Atkinson should remain as a specialty back and kick returner, both areas he excelled at in the two prior seasons.