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Outside the Irish Huddle: Notre Dame Grinds Out Victory Against Purdue

Welcome to the season’s first edition of Outside the Irish Huddle.

Before the season started I scoffed at the claims made by many Irish fans who wanted to see a different team than in years past even if that meant not winning a ton of games. Many of the comparisons were to Lou Holtz’ first year and how the Irish struggled somewhat in the win column, but yet there were discernable positives to take away for the future heading into 1987.

I believed that the current talent level at Notre Dame and the schedule (much easier than the 1986 row of opponents) meant that 2010 would not be a year to be taking away any moral victories even during Brian Kelly’s first year as Irish head coach.

Yet even though Notre Dame came away with a somewhat tight victory against Purdue on Saturday and you would expect me to be disappointed with the 23-12 result, I was not.

I got that exact feeling that fans had after Holtz’ first year.

I was expecting a relatively easy victory with an offensive display of power, but instead, Notre Dame grinded out a tough win and showed a ton of improvement in the areas they struggled in last year.

Sometimes you have to take that in week one against a tough rival.

Now let’s go Outside the Irish Huddle.

Mayock & NBC

We were treated to the usual NBC broadcast in the first game of the Brian Kelly era, always a step behind ABC/ESPN, CBS and Fox in every way.

After waiting nine months for Irish football the broadcast started with the exact same 15 second montage that will be shown for every single home game and has been for years: one glance of a picturesque campus shrine (Touchdown Jesus on this day), the obligatory shot of Brian Kelly looking fierce on the field, followed by a shot of the players new ritual of coming through the students for warm-ups and the teams "breakdown."

Then as always we are whisked away to a studio with Jimmy Roberts and the NBC Sports Report with highlights from the earlier day’s action. Because you know, 95 percent of Notre Dame fans haven’t seen those same exact highlights a dozen times already anyway.

Before you know it, we’re off to commercial.

Maybe it’s not a big deal to a lot of people, but this just embodies why NBC sucks at broadcasting Notre Dame games. There’s such an anticipation for this game and yet we’re given the same tired 15 second cliché opening and then made to sit tight while other games and commercials take center stage.

Can you imagine ESPN doing that?

Luckily, new color commentator Mike Mayock was a pleasant surprise in the booth.

He is definitely an upgrade from Pat Haden and brought a lot of information to the game without being too technical or sounding too much like the draft expert he was on the NFL network.

Mayock’s analysis of the Kerrigan-Dever match up and the simple yet effective explanations for the coverages used by both defenses were two things that jumped out at me early that he was going to be better than his predecessor.

And maybe the best part was that he brought a little excitement to the booth and never talked to play-by-play man Tom Hammond the way Haden did so annoyingly all the time.

It was a top-notch performance by Mike Mayock.

Sartorial Splendor

The Irish came out for the 2010 in new uniforms, the biggest change being removing the TV numbers from the sleeves and replacing them with the ND monogram.

The traditionalists out there (of which I considered myself one) may not like this switch, but you have to admit that the team just looks better out there in this style which was first worn by Lou Holtz’ teams. It’s less boring and sharper looking but doesn’t take away from that classic Notre Dame home uniform in any way.

The team also looks much different than year's past because they are not wearing the more traditional football helmets and have what appears to be the Iod 4D and DNA styles.

I also learned before the game that the helmets were painted differently than normal, with the students using a gold base and new finish to help prevent the chipping and flaking that became so prevalent in the last few years.

As a side note, I have been actively promoting the Irish switching from the current metallic or "Vegas" gold pants to the more traditional old gold color worn in the long ago past. I happened to notice that Boston College made the switch for this season and I like it.

Question Corner

Did Crist look healthy? How was his mobility?

Crist looked perfectly healthy and the knee was not an issue at all. He showed decent mobility on the day including a nice 12-yard scamper for a first down and took a couple nice shots from Purdue defenders, especially a hard hit on the touchdown pass to TJ Jones.

How were the carries split up at running back?

In a bit of a surprise, we saw only Armando Allen and Cierre Wood carry the ball from the running back position. Brian Kelly said in his post-game comments that Wood was a little tired late in the game with this being his first real action since 2008 in high school.

Given that the Irish ran the ball 10 more times than they threw it, it was a bit shocking not to see Jonas Gray at all, especially after his strong spring and fall camp.

Who stepped up at receiver behind Floyd?

With a pretty tame passing game for Brian Kelly’s standards, there weren’t a lot of balls thrown around to get a bunch of options going at receiver. However, TJ Jones caught three balls for 41 yards and a touchdown, proving that the true freshman will be a reliable target in 2010.

How did the new offensive linemen perform?

Across the board the three new linemen did a decent job. Braxton Cave played very physical in the interior at center and Zack Martin stood his ground in his first career start. On the right side, Taylor Dever struggled early with All-American candidate Ryan Kerrigan on the edge but was able to settle in and neutralize the Boilermaker defensive end for most of the game.

Did any quality depth appear at defensive line?

Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams and Emeka Nwankwo all contributed respectable minutes although none of them made a huge impact on the game. Just their presence and ability to give the front three starters a rest during the game was a big change from the past few seasons.

Did the play in the secondary improve?

Without a doubt, yes. Giving up 31 completions would seem to prove that the secondary played poorly, but Purdue was dinking a ton of passes and only ended up with 220 passing yards and no touchdowns.

Plus, Darrin Walls came away with a beautiful interception and Gary Gray was instrumental on tipping the ball on Ian Williams’ interception near the goal line.

More importantly the tackling from the secondary, especially from G2, was probably the most improved aspect of the entire team.

Team Unit Grades

Offensive Line B

The unit gave up two sacks and allowed seven tackles for loss but they held their own given the three new starters and Purdue’s strength along the defensive front. They generally gave Crist time to throw and opened some nice holes in the running game.

The more time the unit gets together working in this new system the better they should get and Saturday’s performance was certainly acceptable. Given the struggles in the past at this position, you have to be happy with the results.

Wide Receivers C+

As I mentioned there weren’t a lot of balls thrown and nowhere near the plethora of players used that was expected heading into this game. After a slow start where Floyd was praised for his blocking but was not even targeted with throws, the All-American hopeful came on strong with a workman-like five catch and 82 yard performance.

TJ Jones had a good day in his first collegiate game, but Duval Kamara only caught one ball and Theo Riddick seemed to struggle a little bit in his new position, unable to catch a couple balls that Crist threw his way.

It was a very Weis-type of game from this unit, with the top four receivers seeing nearly all the action and no one in the middle to back end of the depth chart catching any balls. Floyd’s critical fumble on a would-be touchdown pass dropped the unit’s grade down a bit.

Tight End B-

This grade could probably be higher, but Kyle Rudolph was a huge mismatch in the passing game and after getting off to a hot start, he disappeared for a long time during the middle of the game. Rudolph’s blocking still is not as good as it should be for someone his size.

It did not appear that Mike Ragone saw the field at all on Saturday, while Tyler Eifert only saw action in a couple blocking situations.

Running Backs A-

The dynamic duo of Armando Allen and Cierre Wood really paced the tempo on offense and broke a lot of runs for five or more yards against Purdue. Allen was his 2009 pre-injury self, showing good toughness and great blocking, although he was rather inconsistent carrying the ball at times. His touchdown run in the first quarter was the longest of his career and a great sign for the future.

Cierre Wood only carried the ball seven times but gained 58 yards for a very nice 8.3 yards-per-carry average. It didn’t take long for Wood to show the world that he is an incredibly dynamic runner, gaining big yards on his first two touches on Saturday. He’ll continue to be a big weapon in this offense.

I’m still a little perplexed that Jonas Gray wasn’t used at least a few times, especially since Wood ran out of steam late in the game.

Quarterback B

It wasn’t the flashy high-octane passing game that we expected to see, but Crist had a very solid day in his first career start for Notre Dame. He stayed conservative and threw underneath too often, but he didn’t turn the ball over and he looked a lot more poised than you would expect for someone in his position and the pressure placed squarely on his shoulders.

Another positive is that Crist stayed healthy, but he did miss on a few throws in the end zone to Floyd twice and Rudolph once.

Unfortunately, he’s not going to be 2009 Jimmy Clausen in his first full game, but Crist looked much better than Florida’s John Brantley and Texas’ Garrett Gilbert who were in similar situations with their first career starts and playing against weaker competition.

Defensive Line B+

I gave this unit a relatively high grade if only because of what we’ve seen in the past and how much different they looked on Saturday. Had Purdue not rolled Marve out on so many occasions, I suspect we would be talking about how the defensive line dominated on the day (more on this in a bit).

All three starters had very strong performances, particularly Ian Williams and Ethan Johnson and it looks like the Longo off-season program has definitely made them much stronger up front. When was the last time three defensive linemen tallied 3.5 sacks against a legitimate BCS opponent?

There wasn’t a ton of play from the backups but at least they came in and played serviceable. That’s probably all we can ask for right now.

Linebackers C-

You could argue they deserve a better grade, but overall the linebackers did not have a very inspiring afternoon. There were some good signs in stopping the run up the middle, but the outside linebackers were abused all day long in the short passing game.

Most surprisingly, Manti Te’o showed off his amazing athleticism but continually missed tackles from being overly aggressive. Carlo Calabrese had a solid game but lacked speed and Neal, Fleming and Smith all struggled on the edges.

The linebackers brought decent pressure when they blitzed but there were a lot of the same mistakes that we saw last year in over-pursuit, lack of containment and not getting to Marve in time before the ball was thrown.

Secondary A

You wouldn’t expect this grade from a unit that gave up 31 completions, but Purdue was throwing a ton of quick passes and picked on the Irish linebackers in coverage quite often. Plus, the tackling from this group was phenomenal and a huge reason why the defense looked a bit faster and more fundamentally sound than in the past.

Jamoris Slaughter was dinged up and replaced by Zeke Motta and overall the safeties played a fairly strong game. They didn’t allow a deep ball to be completed and they weren’t missing tackles and being turned around like last year.

Weekly Awards

The I Should Have Played More Last Year and You Damn Well Know It Award: Gary Gray

Just an unbelievable game from Gary Gray, particularly in the first quarter where he set the tone with a handful of really physical and punishing tackles. He was no slouch in the passing game either, tipping the ball on the second interception and putting together the best game from an Irish corner in years.

Last year Gray was the most fundamentally sound corner and probably deserved a lot more playing time than he received. I was adamant in the preseason that I thought he was the team’s best corner and he did not disappoint.

The Just Wait Until I Get Fully Adjusted to the College Game Award: Cierre Wood

Wood didn’t play a whole ton but when he was on the field he displayed a little bit of the magic that has people like me saying he is such a special player.

Not only did he rip off a few long runs and show a lot of explosiveness, but he also had a big kick return for 38 yards as well. 122 total yards (second only to Allen’s 131 in the entire game) on 11 touches is pretty good for a kid playing his first game at Notre Dame.

Imagine what he’ll do when those touches are doubled in the future.

The Jimmy Clausen Award for Moving Up the Depth Chart as a Freshman and Directly Causing an Older Player to Transfer: TJ Jones.

Jones may not have ideal size, but he plays a lot bigger than he is and his hands are superb. He caught the only touchdown pass from Crist and also hauled in a nice 21 yard completion over the middle of the field.

Once the offense starts clicking and the ball gets thrown more than it did on Saturday, you can look for Jones to remain one of the top receivers on the team.

The I’m the Last Guy You Thought Would Have an Impact on the Season but May End Up Having a Huge Impact Award: David Ruffer

Most assumed Nick Tausch would win the field goal competition this year, but Ruffer ended up wrestling away those duties and becoming the sole kicker for the Purdue game.

He nailed all three of his field goal attempts and looked good doing it, while keeping the kickoffs nice and deep. He has still not missed a field goal as an Irish kicker, going back to last year when he converted all five attempts after Tausch’s injury.

It will be interesting to see what happens this year and next with the kickers since Tausch is still very young and with the big-legged Kyle Brindza coming in next fall.

Offense Recap

I was a little let down with the offensive performance, but after having time to think on it, the Irish were a few plays (three misses to receivers in the end zone, Floyd fumble) from having just about as good of a day as you could expect.

I found it amazing at how few plays the Irish ran (only 62!) given the up-tempo offense and Kelly’s background in pushing the limit in this regard.

The best thing was that the running game kept moving the ball and allowed the Irish to run a very basic and simple offense that eased Crist into his first start at Notre Dame.

I would expect Crist to stretch the field a lot more in the next game and not settle for the underneath routes as much, especially with Floyd and Rudolph’s combination of size and speed.

The more I think about it the more I think Kelly held back a little bit with the offense, which isn’t surprising given some of the new players on offense, even though this probably won’t last very long.

I was convinced we’d see Theo Riddick get the ball into his hands in the running game, but it didn’t happen once. I would guess that won’t continue and I think the offense will start becoming more unpredictable in the next game or two.

We’ve been spoiled with the play of Jimmy Clausen and it seems some are a little upset with Dayne Crist’s performance, which is absurd in every way.

Sure he missed a couple throws, but go back and find me a better game from any Notre Dame quarterback in his first career start.

And just in case you wondering, if a bowl game is included the Irish are on pace for 1,989 yards on the ground in 2010.

Defense Recap

I thought this was a very gutsy performance by the defense and it was somewhat of a relief to see that the new coaching staff has already improved most of the team’s weaknesses.

Even though it wasn’t sustained for long periods of time, Notre Dame still physically imposed its will against Purdue, something that could never have been said at any point last year. Best of all, the team was able to get pressure with only three or four defenders whereas last year they couldn’t even do it with six or seven.

Had Marve stayed in the pocket and not rolled out by design all the time, the Irish probably would have eaten up the Purdue offense. Even though the Boilermaker offensive line is not that strong, it is clear that the Notre Dame front three is very powerful and can get a push when it needs to.

The defense was fairly strong in the running game especially considering Purdue was going with a very unconventional attack giving five different players three carries or more. For the most part whenever Purdue lined and ran the ball up the middle, they were not very successful.

The biggest concern was watching the outside linebackers struggle for most of the game. Darius Fleming got into the backfield on a few occasions but was unable to make a play and got beat each time.

Keeping an outside linebacker on slot receivers probably won’t pay off this year and the team may be better off with a nickel coverage guy like Zeke Motta in there.

And it was the same old story with Brian Smith who continually showed poor instincts in the passing game and over-pursued Marve on the fourth and one play that resulted in the quarterback scoring Purdue’s only touchdown.

Yet, there has to be some positives taken away in the fact that Purdue only put the ball in the end zone one time on the entire afternoon.

Overall the tackling was better and would have been vastly superior had Te’o not let three or four opponents slip out of his grasp. There was the feeling that Purdue had to beat Notre Dame and that the Irish weren’t simply going to beat themselves like last year.

Although the defense wasn’t lights out by any means, you could tell that the new coaching staff had made some big strides in the offseason working on the weaknesses from the past couple of years.

That is a big, big, big positive to take away right now.

Special Teams

As already mentioned, Ruffer had a terrific game kicking the ball and had it not have been for a penalty, Ben Turk would have had two of his three punts placed inside the opponents 20.

Also, the return game looked very strong with a big punt return from Allen and kick return from Cierre Wood. This should continue to be a strong point for the Irish heading forward.

In kick and punt coverage the Irish were the best they’ve been since Mike Anello played like a wild man a couple of years ago. Particularly, freshman Bennett Jackson made three huge tackles after flying down the field with his speed and punishing the ball carrier.

There was a lot to like about the entire special teams unit.

Final Thoughts

In summary, this was a bit of an ugly win for Notre Dame but it was the type of game that the Irish so often lost in the past and it was good to see the team persevere after the Floyd fumble and safety.

In the past if the offense wasn’t clicking for nearly every series the Irish had a hard time coming away with a victory. Yet even though the offense left many wanting, it was nice to see that Crist completed 73 percent of his balls, didn’t throw an interception and that the ground game came through with over 150 yards.

All in all, you have to be happy with limiting Purdue to only 322 yards and 3.2 yards per carry, while also picking off two passes and getting four sacks on such a mobile quarterback.

In a week when Oklahoma squeaked by Utah State and Florida’s offense looked abysmal for long stretches against Miami of Ohio, covering the spread against a bitter rival in week one with a new coaching staff and quarterback doesn’t sound that bad.

Time to get prepared for Denard Robinson and Michigan in week two.