Causes for cautious optimism
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish missed some opportunities to make a bigger statement, but still came away with far and away their easiest win of this young season, handling the Purdue Boilermakers 27-13. The Irish entered this week as perhaps the most pessimistic undefeated fan base in the nation after a pair of close calls against less-than-stellar competition. Concern abounded about the ability of the Irish to compete on both sides of the football. While there were still struggles in this game and still questions to be answered, the Irish showed marked improvement and gave fans reason to expect better moving forward. With next week’s matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers the first in a series of tougher games, let’s take a look at the three most important of those areas.
Continued Struggles, but Progress Up Front
Notre Dame’s offensive line continued to have issues on Saturday. A tough Purdue pass rush led by George Karlaftis garnered four sacks of Jack Coan and again held Notre Dame’s explosive running backs in check for large portions of the game, with the Boilers outgaining the Irish overall. As a result, the Irish were slow to get going in this game, allowing the Boilers to stay close in the first half.
At the same time, the Irish also saw progress up front, with notable improvements in individual play by Tosh Baker and Cain Madden, and were able to keep Karlaftis from completely wrecking the Irish game plan. Tommy Rees and co. also made adjustments in scheme to help the young line, making frequent use of max protection and even sending Joe Alt out wearing #45 as a sixth lineman, while running more quick patterns and getting the quarterbacks out of the pocket. These improvements and adjustments gave Jack Coan the time he needed to make some key throws and Kyren Williams more room to run, particularly in the second half as the Irish offense started to find more of a groove. The Irish have the athletes in the backfield and on the perimeter to make plays against every defense they will play this season if the line gives them the opportunity, and Saturday we saw them make progress in that direction.
Say It With Me: Execution
Brian Kelly’s week-one postgame mantra remains an apt one for this team, particularly in the downfield passing attack. Jack Coan and the Irish receivers had numerous opportunities to blow this game open on deep balls, but failed to execute and kept the game close. Braden Lenzy lost a sure touchdown ball in the sun on a drive where the Irish later punted, while Coan overthrew a wide-open Kevin Austin to miss another. Austin had a particularly frustrating day, being missed while open downfield several times and also having a couple drops of his own – including a bubble screen from Tyler Buchner that could have also gone for six – and ultimately ending the day with no catches. Only Avery Davis was able to connect with Coan on a deep ball. If Austin and Lenzy had been able to join him, this could have been a blowout win instead of merely a sound one.
Purdue made it clear from the outset that they were going to blanket Michael Mayer in this game, which put the onus on the Irish receivers to make them pay. Other opponents will likely continue to do that moving forward, and when the Irish are facing the likes of the Wisconsin Badgers and Cincinnati Bearcats, they will not be able to afford missing out on those opportunities. Let’s hope Coan and his receivers worked out the yips on Saturday and are ready to execute moving forward.
The Defense Is Coming Together
While the Irish offense played an uneven, but encouraging game, the defense put together a far more complete performance. An early fourth-down stop by Kyle Hamilton energized the team, and a solid early effort gave the Irish offense time to find its footing. Once the Irish had taken the lead, the defense held strong, shut down the run (Purdue gained 57 yards on 25 carries), limited the big-play potential of David Bell, and spent a lot of time in the Boilers’ backfield (3 sacks, 5 TFLs, 8 QB hurries).
Hamilton had another star-making game, trailing only the rock-solid J.D. Bertrand in tackles while proving a constant disruptor on the back end and eventually sealing the game with an end-zone interception. If those two can continue to grow as leaders and the Irish play in sync as they did on Saturday, we can expect Marcus Freeman’s defense to keep blooming as the season goes on.
We are now a quarter of the way through the 2021 season and while it hasn’t been nearly as easy as we thought, the Irish remain unbeaten and seem to be finding an upward trajectory at exactly the right time. How good can this team be? We’ll find out in the next few weeks.