Sunday, September 28, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 21

All around them, the questions lingered: what would this team do with the opportunity to make a statement? How would they respond when given a chance to seize the initiative in the late stages of a close ballgame? While the Irish somehow rose up to fend off San Diego State in the fourth quarter, that hardly should count as the impressive, "corner-turning" performance people had in mind as they keep searching for reasons to think this Irish squad has come a long way from their 3-9 season.

Well, here's a comparison point for you: in the fourth game of the 2007 season, Notre Dame came home from a humbling performance in Michigan to face a Big 10 opponent of average ability and played basically to a draw in the first half, trailing 17-14. They were shut out in the second half and dropped to 0-4 as the free fall continued.

In 2008, the Irish came home for the fourth game of the season following a humbling performance in Michigan to face a Big 10 opponent of average ability and played to a 14-14 draw in the first half. They then racked up 21 points and 200 yards of offense in the third quarter alone.

The 2007-2008 comparisons may not necessarily be apples-to-apples, but they could say just as much about how far the Irish have come as anything else. Let's make no mistake about it, the Irish should be able to put up those types of performances against a thoroughly average Purdue team. The fact that many are turning cartwheels over it only underscores how rare and freakish a phenomenon it has become for Notre Dame to dispatch a team it should have no problem dispatching. This was something the Irish should be capable of by now.

And now that it's finally here, this is no time for a reversion to the mean before another mediocre opponent comes waltzing into Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish have three crucial "swing" games remaining on the schedule - in two weeks at a rapidly-improving North Carolina, then November 1st against Pitt and then November 8th at Boston College. Toss in four very winnable games against Stanford and Syracuse at home, Washington and Navy on the road, and suddenly the idea of the Irish being a nine or even ten win team as they head to Southern Cal isn't completely insane. In order for that to happen though, they need to take the final 30 minutes of the Purdue game and use it as the rock upon which the rest of the season is built, not some happy accident that occurred by virtue of the opponent's below-par resistance.

On offense, the Irish again moved the ball in the first half only to act like the "bizarre white substance" known as the goalline was territory not to be trifled with. After opening with a three-and-out, Jimmy Clausen directed the Irish to the Purdue 39 only to be stopped on fourth and 1...again. On the next possession the Irish made their first trip inside the red zone...and saw it end with a shanked Brandon Walker field goal after Duval Kamara's valiant effort on the fade route was ruled an incompletion.

Freshman corner Robert Blanton finally pumped a little life into the Irish by joining the parade of underclassmen scorers when he jumped one of the Boiler's timed slants and used a couple blocks for a 47-yard touchdown return. Even though a fatigued Irish defense yielded a touchdown on the next drive, Clausen needed only six plays and 2:11 to knot the score on the next drive, which featured a beautiful deep ball to Mike Floyd (another freshman) on third down.

On the opening possession of the third half, the Irish needed only 5 plays to move 81 yards for a lead they never relinquished. It was this possession where the light really seemed to turn on for a number of players, including one Armando Allen who racked up the five longest runs of his young career on his way to 134 yards rushing, also a career-best.

Probably the most impressive play of the game, given when it occurred and the statement it made, came with the Irish facing a fourth down at the Purdue 30. The Boilermakers had connected on a long touchdwon to make it 28-21 and were set to regain possession down only one score late in the third quarter. For this particular play, everybody, even Charlie Weis, knew better than to expect a Walker field goal try. Having successfully harassed Clausen into a miss on third down, Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack (remember him?) dialed up the blitz once more. Clausen recognized the one-on-one chance this would provide and, given a crucial split second as Sam Young picked up an untouched blitzer, lofted an absolutley perfect pass to David Grimes for his third touchdown of the day. This is what improving teams do - they answer when challenged. For the quarter the Irish held the ball for 11:00 minutes exactly, racked up 204 yards, went 1-of-3 on third downs (but 2-of-2 on fourth downs) and put up 21 points after failing to score in the third quarter all year. Slice it down because they were facing an awful defense if you must, but that's progress.

Which, admittedly, won't signify much if they don't build on it next week. Much like how the fourth quarter of the San Diego State game carried over into the first half of the Michigan game, this second half against Purdue has to serve as a springboard to the next game. In other words - no three-and-out opening drive against Stanford.

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