WEST LAFAYETTE — Somewhere between Cam McDaniel’s surge into the end zone and a crucial defensive stop when Purdue had a chance to strike back, Notre Dame learned something about itself.
The post-Manti Te’o, post-Tyler Eifert Irish football team has new faces, new strengths and new weaknesses, but it still relied on old standards to win games.
Win gritty, not pretty.
It worked in 2012, and it worked in a too-close-for-comfort 31-24 win over host Purdue on Saturday, Sept. 14. Consider it another piece in a puzzle surrounding this year’s team identity.
“We’re still kind of defining who we are,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re still trying to find ourselves. Here’s what we did: We played hard for four quarters and fought our butts off. We found ways to make plays.”
Still sore from last week’s loss at Michigan, Notre Dame (2-1) stumbled sleepily onto the field at Ross-Ade Stadium to face a Purdue team (1-2) that struggled to beat Indiana State a week before.
After an unremarkable first half, the Irish lagged into the locker room trailing 10-3. The once-solid defense looked limp. The highly praised running game had accumulated a total of 29 yards. Tommy Rees couldn’t connect with TJ Jones — or any other receiver, for that matter.
It took the gutsy 1-yard score from McDaniel and two fourth-quarter touchdown connections between Rees and DaVaris Daniels to electrify Notre Dame and to give the Irish its first iota of breathing room.
A pick-six by cornerback Bennett Jackson helped Notre Dame to 21 unanswered points, but Purdue scored shortly after to cut the Irish lead back down to seven. Amir Carlisle fumbled on the following series, but the Irish defense forced a three-and-out to prevent a Boilermaker comeback.
In the end, Notre Dame bent to the point of snapping, but it never broke.
New team, old standards.
“I always thought of us as blue-collar worksmen,” linebacker Jarrett Grace said of Notre Dame. “We’re not going to be that flashy, but we’re going to keep grinding.”
Rees finished 20 of 33 for 309 yards and two touchdowns. He was especially effective in the second half, throwing 12 of 16 for 215 yards and both scores. McDaniel led running backs with 16 carries for 56 yards. The majority of those carries came on the final, clock-chewing drive of the game, when McDaniel carried the ball 10 times to burn the remaining 7:22 away.
Defensively, Purdue quarterback Rob Henry and tailback Akeem Hunt had Notre Dame on its heels with screen passes and scrambles. The Irish were staunch when it counted, though, and only gave up 38 rushing yards to a Purdue team hoping to exploit Hunt’s speed.
Certainly, it wasn’t pretty. Certainly, Notre Dame has the talent to be better than a one-score win over Purdue.
But like so many times last year, the Irish found a way to win a game that wasn’t going in their favor.
“We’re going to fight till the end,” McDaniel said. “It’s something awesome to see, when you can pound a game out like that, fourth quarter, tough atmosphere. To come out and start making plays and to finish it off like that, it’s amazing. That really speaks to our identity as a football team.”
That identity is still taking shape. It’s still mucked up in a running game with no clear front man, a linebacker corps sorely missing Te’o’s leadership and talents, and a secondary that has shown flashes of last year’s brilliance but has otherwise been inexplicably vanilla.
“We’ve been really trying to get our hands around this thing,” Kelly said of the team’s identity. “We know we got good players and good personnel. We’re trying to figure out the parts and the pieces and where they go.”