The Fighting Irish actually had some fight in them at Purdue, and for the first time this season found themselves in a football game that they still had a chance of winning in the fourth quarter. To get there, Notre Dame showed tremendous grit in climbing out of 23-0 half-time hole behind back-up quarterback Evan Sharpley to get within one score (26-19) with 7:58 remaining in the game. For one brief, shining moment the Irish faithful across the land, and the Purdue fans in Ross Ade stadium, could feel that Notre Dame might actually win a football game. But that dream died an ugly death when Purdue scored a touchdown on a 5 play, 59 yard drive the next time they got the ball. A defensive stop on that drive would have given the Irish the ball with plenty of time to score the tying (or winning) TD. Very briefly, here is the Hope and Despair from Saturday's game.
Quarterbacks. Jimmy Clausen and Evan Sharpley both showed that if they have some time in the pocket, they can distribute the football. Clausen was 18 of 26 (69.23%) for 169 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Sharpley went 16 of 26 (61.53%) for 208 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT. As a duo, the QBs were 34 of 52 (65.38%) for 377 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INT. Clausen was never sacked, while Sharps got sacked just twice. Each quarterback threw an AWFUL and COSTLY interception, but all in all you have to be encouraged. Quarterback play like this bodes well for the future if we can get some of the other problems fixed. Clausen suffered what appears to be an injury of some sort to his hip which effected his ability to throw the ball, costing the Irish a very likely touchdown when he couldn't hit a wide-open Golden Tate streaking down the sideline. Evan Sharpley played very well in relief of Clausen, and pundits everywhere are declaring a "quarterback controversy" at Notre Dame. If Clausen is healthy and both guys continue to play well, I can live with a quarterback controversy. What I am having trouble dealing with is a tackling controversy, a special teams controversy, and a penalty controversy.
Pass Blocking. The most shocking moment of the day came on Notre Dame's first offensive play. Jimmy Clausen took the snap, dropped back to pass and ....... wait for it ....... actually had plenty of time to fire a ball to George West for 15 yards and a first down. HE HAD TIME TO THROW THE BALL!! The pass protection wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to give the QBs time to complete 52 passes for 377 yards and 3 TDs while only allowing 2 sacks. And the passes weren't all of the lateral/horizontal variety - the Irish averaged 11.1 yards per completion. The pass blocking performance was so far removed from what we saw in the first four games it is hard to believe they are the same guys. (And yes, 4 of the 5 starting O-lineman are the same guys we have seen all year).
Receivers. We have plenty of guys who can catch the ball. I do not envy the coaches trying to figure out who to put on the field. Notre Dame had five different wide receivers with 3 or more receptions. Did you realize that Robby Parris led all receivers with 7 catches for 93 yards? Duval Kamara was a big presence with 6 catches for 68 yards and a TD. George West caught 4 balls for 37 yards, and Golden Tate was spectacular on his 3 leaping catches for 104 yards and 1 TD. David Grimes had 3 receptions for 34 yards and I swear I didn't even realize he played! Junior Jabbie is clearly the best pass receiver among the running backs, as he caught four passes for short gains. And it was great to see TE John Carlson involved in the passing game again, as he made an excellent falling-down grab in traffic for the first Irish TD. As hard as it is to divvy up the playing time, to me it is clear that Kamara and Tate need to be on the field. They are both big targets with great hands, and Tate seems to be our most viable deep threat right now. The best moment of Coach Weis' post-game press conference came when he admitted that the long passes to Tate were essentially "drawn up in the dirt." Apparently Golden hasn't picked up all of the offense yet, so Coach just told him "run a 'Go' pattern and we're going to throw it to you."
Heart. Notre Dame was down 23-zip at half-time after suffering a historic drought of four straight losses to open the season. They could have quit. They could have gone through the motions, thrown in the towel, phoned it in, etc... BUT THEY DIDN'T!! Instead, they fought. They battled and scraped and made a game of it and in the end got their hearts broken. The TV commentators, pundits, and cheap-shot columnists can gloom and doom the state of Notre Dame football all they want, but at the end of the day these young men showed and have shown great character in coming out each week and getting better. These freshman and sophomores are playing against juniors, seniors, and 5th-year seniors and they have been getting beat. There is a physical and experiential gap between 18 and 19 year old kids and 21 and 22 year old men. But that gap is narrowing rapidly, and once these kids finally climb to the top of this steep learning curve, they are going to be very, very good. I believe it will be worth the painful wait. And apparently Coach Weis has convinced this team that it will be worth the wait as well. Coach Weis spoke after last week's game about guys being "all in or all out." We have seen a few guys in the past couple of weeks who have decided they are not all in. Good luck to all of them. But the guys we saw in West Lafayette today are all in, and they will be better for it soon.
Run Blocking. Whether it was Purdue's defensive scheme or just a matter of time devoted to other aspects of the game plan in practice, Notre Dame's running game took a big step backwards today. Our running backs carried the ball only 17 times Saturday for 51 yards, which is 3 yards per carry. Longest run of the day was 9 yards. Certainly, when you're behind by 23 points it is hard to exercise patience with the running game, but you'd like to see more of a commitment to controlling the ball on the ground to set up bigger plays through the air. We need to establish the mentality of being able to get two or three yards on the ground anytime we need it. Twice in this game Notre Dame had 4th and 1 situations and the running back got stuffed for no gain. We were back to the QB sneak being our most effective short-yardage play.
Special Teams. Notre Dame was awful on special teams. Missed field goals, missed extra points, poor kick returns. There were easily enough mistakes in special teams to account for the margin of the loss. Do you realize that Notre Dame and Purdue scored the same number of touchdowns? Each team had three. Purdue's three TDs netted them 21 points, while Notre Dame only squeezed 19 points out of our three scores. In addition to the two points lost on PATs, Purdue was 4 of 4 on field goal attempts, while the Irish were 0 for 1.
Penalties. Notre Dame was penalized 11 times for 110 yards, and 6 of the Irish penalties gave the Boilers a first down. By way of contrast, Purdue was penalized 9 times for 67 yards, but only one penalty gave the Irish a first down.
The more you look at the numbers, the more disappointing it is that Notre Dame lost this game. We had more passing yards (377 to 252) and more total yards (426 to 371). Purdue had six more first downs than Notre Dame (27 to 21), but six of their first downs came via Irish penalty. Although it seemed at the time as though Kory Sheets was gashing us, he only averaged 5.2 yards per carry (that isn't good, it's just not as bad as it seemed), and Purdue as a team averaged only 2.8 yards per rush. Had the Irish cut down on the penalties, performed better on special teams, and not committed three turnovers we likely win that game. That sounds somewhat stupid because of course we did commit too many penalties, we did turn the ball over, and we did play poorly on special teams. The point is not that we should have won the game - we didn't play well enough to win. The point is how close we are getting to playing winning football. Purdue was a Top 25 team (barely), and we matched them in touchdowns and bested them in total yards. When you compare Saturday's performance to the previous four games you cannot help but be very encouraged by the progress this team is making week to week. We've gone from "can't block, can't tackle, can't score, blown out" to "penalties and turnovers cost Irish surprisingly close game." Of course, at Notre Dame we don't record moral victories in the record books - at some point the progress needs to translate into wins. Unlike all the haters, I believe the wins will start coming soon. In fact, I think they start coming next Saturday in Pasadena. And I can't wait to see it happen right on front of me live at the Rose Bowl against the UCLA Bruins!