Purdue Game Review: Irish Escape with Victory and Move to 2-0

Tough sledding out there for Theo Riddick. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

I had the pleasure of watching the home opener from inside the stadium and as many of you know, you get a much different perspective of the action there. It's not necessarily better, especially when you have no replays to watch, but it is certainly different.

Here's my review of the game, fresh off a drive back to New York state and without having watched any replays yet.

Defensive Line

This was another strong performance by the defensive line, especially after losing fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore early in the game. Even before this injury the staff was playing a lot of linemen and they needed all the depth they could get once freshman Sheldon Day left later as well.

Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix were the players that stuck out the most to me. It's early in the season but Tuitt is a legitimate All-American candidate, while Nix continues to be one of the best pure War Daddy nose guards in the country. Both athletes are playing at an extremely high level right now and it showed again on Saturday.

Tony Springmann was another player that caught my eye. He played a lot up front and generally held his own. Overall the line minimized the Purdue running game and was able to get a lot of pressure in key moments. It appears everyone should be back and healthy next week and I love what we're seeing out of this unit this year as they are going to keep ND in a lot of games.

Linebackers

The first thing that jumped out at me was that the defense played essentially without a dog linebacker, in other words, Ben Councell barely saw the field except for a couple snaps. Yes, it was a very interesting decision to play three middle linebackers (Te’o, Fox, and Calabrese) nearly the entire game, especially after Carlo was suspended and hadn’t played in a long time.

I was focusing more on the defensive line and secondary so I didn’t get a great look at the linebackers, although it seemed like Purdue was able to get to the edge and make plays more often than Notre Dame was able to stop them. That seems to suggest that the Irish had a bit too much size at linebacker and not enough speed. I would question playing three linebackers in the middle all roughly around 250 pounds when you’re playing a Purdue team that makes a living on short passes and getting to the edge with speedy smaller athletes. It certainly seems like there’s a giant door for Jaylon Smith to walk through and start next season---or at least play an awful lot of minutes.

I like the effort and disruption that we're seeing from Shembo and Ishaq on a consistent basis. They didn't put up big numbers, but they are causing a lot of problems on nearly every snap. Very pleased with the Cat linebacker position right now.

Secondary

Obviously still the teams big weakness on defense but I thought their performance all things considered was pretty solid. Before he left with an injury I was thinking Jamoris Slaughter really hasn’t been doing much so far this season, but he did a great job breaking up the pass on his unfortunate injury play. Hopefully he can come back and start making some more noise.

From this non-coaches perspective I thought Zeke Motta deserved a lot of credit for his play against Purdue, but more importantly his leadership. Once Slaughter went out he was left to work with three secondary teammates who have a scary amount of inexperience and Motta was tasked with moving everyone around before the snap.

However, I did notice the defense made a lot of adjustments before the snap and often times the corners backed away from their man and Purdue quickly took advantage with a short pass play directly to that open receiver. That was to be expected but it made matters worse that the defense wasn’t tackling as well as they should have been.

I was comforted by the fact that Notre Dame was playing a lot of bodies in the secondary, in particular a lot of new and inexperienced players, and they didn’t fall apart and cost the game. Jalen Brown got a lot of time at corner and besides one egregious display of poor tackling, he looked solid. Jackson and Russell are gaining confidence as well and that’s always important with your corners.

I noticed freshman Elijah Shumate come in on nearly every third down play and I liked his physicality a lot. Likewise, Farley held his own at safety after the Slaughter injury. In total, that’s five inexperienced or true freshman that played a lot in the secondary. They might not be a strength but this group is going to continue to get better this year.

Offensive Line

An absolutely poor and putrid effort from the Irish O-line. For sure the Purdue defensive line and front seven deserve a lot of credit, but they should have not dominated to the degree that they did on Saturday.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints that right guard Mike Golic was getting abused all game long, but it was tough to see what exactly was going on from my seats. Still, the pressure seemed to come often enough from the right side of the Irish line which probably doesn’t look good for tackle Christian Lombard either.

From people I trust they've already said that Zach Martin did not play well, and that is concerning.

I think a lot of the poor performance had less to do with the Irish than with Purdue’s defense (more on this later) but I was very disappointed with the Notre Dame lines ability to run block and open up holes for Theo Riddick. Defenders were blowing up the middle and flying off the edge to take away any ability by the Irish to get production on the ground.

The pass blocking was better, but they gave up too many sacks and pressure in key situations. The effort and production has to get better quickly for this team to win a lot of games this year.

Tight End

The Eifert injury was unfortunate and his loss clearly affected the offense. I came away watching the offense live and loving Eifert’s mismatch abilities but also believing the offense relies too much on him, especially in key situations. If it were me, I’d tighten the reigns a little bit and put him more in a traditional tight end role---I’m not a big believer that he’ll be a major weapon being split out wide all the time. He has to work the middle of the field and get back to those seam routes instead of trying to be Calvin Johnson.

Again it’s tough to see in the stadium without the benefit of replay, but I would assume the tight ends didn’t have a very good game in the blocking department. However, Troy Niklas is turning into a nice little weapon in the passing game and he’s going to start making some huge plays for this team in key moments. On the other hand, it still feels like we’re waiting for Ben Koyack to live up to his potential but I have faith he’ll start producing more in coming weeks.

Wide Receiver

I do like that a lot of players are getting involved in the offense and against Purdue there were a ton of substitutions on offense at the skill positions. 9 different players caught passes, including 5 receivers, and this is an encouraging sign. More specifically, I am very encouraged by the progress made by DaVaris Daniels who is looking like he's going to be the team's best big-play receiver and future star.

However, it is a little deflating to see so many substitutions but so little use made of the talented freshmen. I know, it's only their second games in their careers, but I would have liked to have seen them on the field more. It appeared Davonte Neal was on the field on a regular basis, but Chris Brown got very minimal snaps and I don't believe Justin Ferguson played at all. None of them touched the ball---at least Neal should be getting two or three touches a game on a reverse or quick drag route.

Despite two big plays by Jones (short TD reception) and Goodman (big reception on the game-winning drive) it's apparent to me that these two are going to have a hard time leading the receivers on the outside. Goodman isn't playing much and Jones is having a heck of a time with physical corners, so there's not a lot of confidence their from a fan's perspective.

So for me, it's all about the youth at this position. I'll talk more about this below.

Running Back

This has to be a very frustrating game for Theo Riddick after looking so promising against Navy. In his defense he didn't have many holes to run through nor much space to operate, but he still had nearly had 100 total yards on the game. We're probably hoping that Riddick is great this year but from what I've seen I think his ceiling is only very good right now.

I was wondering why we didn't see more of George Atkinson but I was shocked to learn he had only 1 carry in the game. I know he's probably struggling with blocking and all that but there have to be ways to get this kid the ball more often. The offense needed to get to the edge and I don't know why GA3 couldn't have taken a quick pitch or two in the game.

The team is going to welcome, and need, Cierre Wood back next week. He'll allow Riddick more flexibility and immediately upgrade the running back depth. We didn't miss Wood against Navy, and you could say it wouldn't have mattered with the line's poor blocking, but we missed Wood and his playmaking ability in this game.

Quarterback

I was highly impressed with Golson in his first career start inside the stadium, so much so that I had to check myself at certain points in the game for wanting him to do more. Nearly 300 yards passing without any interceptions on a day with little protection and a poor ground game against a tough defense is damn good.

I'm quite happy for Tommy Rees and Saturday exhibited the role I believe he'll fit nicely over the next two seasons. I can't say I wasn't shocked when he came in, but as long as Golson's confidence remains high I think it might be a situation we may have to get used to a couple times this season.

Final Thoughts

I know many expected a much more comfortable victory, but it's still a win.

First of all, I was really impressed with Purdue. I think they'll ultimately remain below the best of the Big 10 because of inconsistent quarterback play and an average offensive line, but that was a very well-rounded and veteran team that is going to cause a lot of problems for other opponents.

Defensively they weren't just winning the battle up front, but they were flowing to the ball with speed and getting physical with the Irish receivers all day long. It was partly Notre Dame playing bad on offense, but I was very impressed with Purdue's talent on that side of the ball. Especially when Golson broke contain, their speed and angles were very strong---they looked every bit of a strong BCS defense.

We knew Purdue was a quality team. If you didn't, you weren't paying attention. We may have thought that Notre Dame had taken a big leap after week one, but the Boilers are a tough opponent. In a way, they are kind of like Texas A&M in the sense of talent level, past success, etc. I'm not saying anyone has to be happy about barely beating Purdue, but would we be as surprised if the Irish barely scraped by a team like A&M, similar to the way Florida did?

That's the way I looked at it leaving the stadium. It wasn't like we nearly lost to Eastern Michigan, although the difference matters not to many Irish fans. We're Notre Dame and blah, blah, blah we're supposed to be knocking out any teams not in the top 25, so they say.

I came away from the game thinking we do kind of look down on Purdue (not without some legit rights) and that no matter how well they played the story would have remained the same: We nearly lost to Purdue so now we're clearly not a good team now.

We'll see how that line of thinking holds up as the season progresses. I do know we're 2-0 though.

Offensively, this game puzzled me but not because the line played poorly or we couldn't run the ball. No, from the stands it was readily apparent that the Purdue safeties were not respecting the deep pass. They played their fair share of Cover-1 and even when two safeties played deep, they weren't deep at all---instead they tucked themselves behind the linebackers effectively playing with 8 men in the box on most snaps.

I'm not sure why there weren't any screens, or some counters and draws in the running game but long-term the offense is going to have problems if the line can't play better or the field isn't stretched vertically.

That's why I question the abilities of players like Jones and Goodman at receiver---I don't think they're the kind of talents to start breaking down secondaries, beating press coverage, and making plays deeper down field. And splitting Eifert out wide isn't going to solve this problem either. He's a mismatch because of his height, and he'll win his fair share of battles when the ball is thrown high, but there's a reason teams don't put giant tight ends out wide.

We're going to see the same thing from the Michigan State defense. Kelly has been very reluctant to throw deep and utilize the middle of the field where safeties usually have to roam, but now he has a quarterback in Golson who can make those throws. We saw some passes in this area on playaction and bootlegs, and there needs to be more of it.

The return of Cierre Wood should help matters, but I couldn't help but watch this game and think that it's time to get GA3, Neal, and others involved in combination with a more vertical passing game---otherwise we're going to see a lot of the same problems as the first two years with the added bonus of Golson making some plays with his feet and on the run.

In the end, it was nice to see the team gut out the win, especially with the injuries. Even with the poor line play and sacks the team still ended up +88 in total yard differential and had another positive turnover differential with zero interceptions. We'll see if the offense can address some of its issues when they travel to East Lansing this Saturday night---they'll need to in order to win.

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