A breakdown of how Notre Dame performed in a 31-24 victory over Purdue on Saturday, Sept. 14:
PASS OFFENSE: B
The “B” comes from a C-minus first half and a full A second half. Tommy Rees gave Notre Dame little to be thankful for at first, struggling to connect with receivers and nearly getting picked off three times. TJ Jones and Troy Niklas had uncharacteristic drops early in the game and DaVaris Daniels was hardly a factor. Rees was 8 of 17 for 94 yards in the first half and 12 of 16 for 215 yards and two scores in the second half. After halftime, Rees looked more in control of the Irish offense. He communicated constantly with the offensive line before the snap, which led former tight end Tyler Eifert to Tweet: “Rees looking like Peyton calling the game at the line. Love seeing him take control!” Rees’ 82-yard connection with Daniels — and Daniels subsequent line-hugging run into the end zone — was pure poetry and a career-high touchdown pass/catch for both players.
RUN OFFENSE: C+
Cam McDaniel’s performance alone saves Notre Dame from falling a full grade lower. McDaniel’s numbers won’t wow anyone — he finished with 58 yards on 16 carries — but how he got them should. McDaniel came back into the game after getting four stitches behind his ear at halftime to score Notre Dame’s first and only rushing touchdown of the day. He continued to grind out yards, carrying the ball 10 times on Notre Dame’s clock-chewing final drive. Head coach Brian Kelly said McDaniel’s number was called because “he was the hot hand at the time.” Makes sense, considering George Atkinson put up another unremarkable performance and Amir Carlisle (who averaged 1.5 yards on 11 carries) struggled to run inside. This unit might be stacked with talent, but there still isn’t a clear starter among them.
PASS DEFENSE: C-
Another rough game for the secondary, which seems to be suffering from a trickle-down effect of opponents keeping Stephon Tuitt away from the quarterback and a middle linebacker corps sorely missing Manti Te’o. Granted, Bennett Jackson’s 34-yard pick-six was a needed sign of life from this unit, but the Irish blew two coverages on the following series to allow Purdue a responding score. Purdue quarterback Rob Henry found Akeem Hunt nine times throughout the game and almost always on a quick screen pass. Henry finished 25 of 40 for 256 passing yards, but he is hardly a great arm. Most of Henry’s damage came on short passes or on off-balance throws scrambling out of the pocket. Purdue found a weakness in freshman cornerback Cole Luke, who was on the losing end of several targets. Luke finally made a stop on third down, forcing Purdue to punt late in the game. The pass rush finally forced Henry into mistakes in the second half, thanks in part to Sheldon Day’s relentless pursuit.
RUN DEFENSE: B+
As much as Purdue enjoyed using Hunt’s speed as a receiver, it really wanted to exploit Notre Dame’s average inside linebackers with Hunt’s speed as a running back. The Irish didn’t allow Hunt the opportunity, holding the Boilermakers to 48 total rushing yards on 21 carries (a 1.8 average). It might be a chicken-and-egg scenario, but Purdue simply didn’t run the ball enough to truly gauge the rush defense’s performance. The Boilermakers only went to the ground eight times in the second half. Their biggest rushing gain of the day was a five-yard scramble by Henry.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
A poor start from a unit that showed signs of promise last week. Atkinson bobbled a kickoff in the first quarter, and Jones fielded a punt at the 4-yard line instead of letting the ball bounce into the end zone for a touchback. Not exactly proof that the return teams are improving. Shaky kickoff coverage allowed two 30-yard-plus kickoff returns from BJ Knauf. There were a few bright spots, though. A 20-yard Kyle Brindza field goal provided Notre Dame’s only points of the first half, and Atkinson blasted back a 47-yard kickoff return to give Notre Dame a chance to tie the game in the third quarter.
Everyone with access to a keyboard predicted a Notre Dame blowout, but Kelly and staff knew better. “We knew Purdue was going to play well,” Kelly said after the game, citing recent meetings between the two schools as evidence. That might be the case, but Purdue shouldn’t finish in the same area code as a Notre Dame team that returned that much talent from last year. Notre Dame started sloppy — sleepy might be a better adjective — but found a way to atone for three quarters of mediocrity with 21 straight points in the fourth quarter. Not sure why Notre Dame kept trying to run the ball on first down after Purdue made it clear it wasn’t going to give the Irish an inch. Kelly said the team is still trying to find its identity, but the season is a quarter of the way over. If Notre Dame is going to find itself, it needs to do so before an undefeated Michigan State comes to town next week.