Purdue. Harumph. I have to admit, as a die-hard Notre Dame fanatic I have trouble mustering a lot of emotion for the Purdue Boilermakers. Traditionally being Notre Dame's third Big Televen opponent each season, they tend to get short shrift, passion wise. Michigan is first, and the passion, the intensity, the gravitas of those games is palpable. Michigan State is second, and the disdain and disrespect and active dislike is manifest. Purdue is third. Yawn. Despite the historic nature of the series between these two teams, nobody (at least nobody on the Notre Dame side) cares that much about it. As an "in state rivalry" it's pretty tame. The series has been lopsided (Notre Dame is 51-26-2 in the previous 79 games against PU), and the game rarely matches two highly ranked opponents. It's almost always the scrappy underdog Purdue Pete trying to derail the lofty ambitions of the favored Fighting Irish. Coupled with Big Televen fatigue, this game often feels like playing basketball in the driveway against your younger brother. You play to win, and if you're paying attention and focus a little bit you almost always do win. But every once in a while you get lazy and he beats you, which means a lot more to him than it does to you. Good for you little fella - nice game.
One of my favorite posts from last season was the Purdue preview post. It was a fun and lightly informative look at the match ups between the Purdue Band (and its auxiliaries) and the band, cheerleaders and mascots of the Fighting Irish. I won't repeat it here, but I encourage you to check it out if you're looking for a little diversion. (Interesting side note on last year's Purdue preview post. It is one of the most frequent OC Domer posts to get direct hits from the google search engine. The search term that brings 'em in is "twirlers" or some variants thereon, and the hits come from Muslim countries all around the world. I often chuckle because I doubt that they get what they're looking for when they get a look at the Golden Girl, the Girl in Black, and the Silver Twins.)
The Purdue game was a significant turning point in the 2007 season. As I wrote after the game:
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.And:
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."And of course the progress continued the following week as the Irish flew out to the Rose Bowl and got their first win of the season against the UCLA Bruins.
This year's game in Notre Dame Stadium features two very closely matched teams. Each team is 2-1. The betting line has the Irish favored by a mere one point (usually the home field advantage is worth about three points on the betting line, which means that if this game were being played in West Lafayette or on a neutral field Purdue would likely be favored). The Jeff Sagarin rankings (which are beginning to produce some mildly interesting data three or four games into the season) has Purdue ranked #57 and Notre Dame ranked #58, although Sagarin has Notre Dame's schedule ranked #42 in toughness compared to Purdue's #122.
The Purdue offense has been modestly more successful than the Irish "O", particularly in the running game where the Boilers have been "mediocre" compared to ND's "pathetic". While Purdue is averaging a few more passing yards per game, the yards-per-attempt and yards-per-completion for these two teams are almost identical.
The defenses have had similar statistics year-to-date, with the edge to Purdue, but I believe that edge is more than offset by the fact that Notre Dame has played two games against BCS-conference opponents, while PU has played two games against non-BCS teams (Northern Colorado and Central Michigan).
Given the apparent parity between these two teams coming into the game, it will be decided by the factors that normally decide close games: Field position, turnovers, and special teams. Notre Dame has generally been performing much better in all those categories this season, and if that trend continues the Irish should win this game. While I would love to see Notre Dame pound Purdue with the running game, I am not holding my breath for it. The Irish couldn't run the ball against the Boilers last year, and they couldn't run it last week against MSU. What the Irish do seem to be able to do is throw the ball, and that's what I expect to see on Saturday.
In addition to the normal OC Domer obsession with winning the field position battle I want to add a couple points of emphasis for this week: First, no turnovers in the Red Zone. Second, convert at least 66% of our field goal attempts, including all attempts inside 40 yards.
I'm trying to find a way to articulate how important this game is for the Irish. But really, they're all critically important. A win tomorrow equals the win total for all of 2007, puts the Irish at 3-1 and constitutes another big stride back towards respectability. A loss, even a close loss, puts the Irish at 2-2 and leaves them mired in mediocrity for at least another week. The importance of this game is to show significant improvement since last year and to begin to re-establish the habit of winning at Notre Dame. Before we can return to the national stage and play in truly big games, we have to develop the habit of winning. We have to routinely win the games we're supposed to win. The Irish failed that test last week. They get another crack at it against Purdue.
Go Irish! Pummel Purdue!