Before we move on to Stanford, I wanted to lay out very quickly my impressions following Saturday's very encouraging win against Purdue. I haven't gone back to dig out the stats to prove this point (I really need an intern here at OC Domer), but the game seemed to me to be the most balanced, complete overall game played by the Irish since playing Army on November 18, 2006. You may need to go back farther than that if you factor in the overall quality of the opponent, since Purdue in 2008 is better than Army of 2006.
The Irish had a terrific run/pass mix (40 rush, 39 pass) and was impressively effective in both modes (5 yards per rush, 7.9 yards per pass attempt, 13.8 yards per pass completion). Notre Dame did not turn the ball over via fumble or interception, only allowed one QB sack, and went 3 of 4 in the Red Zone. The Irish outplayed Purdue in both the punting game (net yards per punt: ND 42, PU 39.2) and the kicking game (net yards per kickoff: ND 51, PU 38.8) and won the field position battle with an Average Starting Field Position (ASFP) of the 29 yard line compared to Purdue's ASFP of the 21 yard line. The defense did give up some yards and a few points, but they held Purdue's pass-happy attack to fewer total yards than the Irish (462 vs. 476) and scored a defensive touchdown on a Robert Blanton 47 yard interception return for a TD.
All in all it was a very good day to be Irish.
There were four themes that popped into my head as I thought about the Purdue game: Playmakers, Youth, Respect, and Maturity. I'll hit briefly on each one.
Playmakers. Notre Dame has playmakers again. We had none last year, and frankly even the Brady Quinn led Irish lacked many real playmakers. By playmakers I'm talking about guys who scare the other team. Players who are essentially walking touchdowns. Guys who on THIS PLAY RIGHT NOW will take it to the house if you make a mistake and your foot slips in coverage or you miss a tackle. I'm talking about guys like Tim Brown and the Rocket. If Notre Dame is going to return to the highest levels of college football, we have to have playmakers. You need playmakers to keep up with the USCs and LSUs of the world. It is very exciting to see that type of talent wearing the gold helmets. Kudos to Charlie Weis for convincing those young men to come play at Notre Dame.
Youth. The guys making plays are YOUNG. From quarterback Jimmy Clausen to running back Armando Allen, to receivers Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph, they are young. Guys in the O-line, on the D-line, at linebacker and in the secondary are YOUNG. And the point is not that they are on the field, but that they are playing at a high level and they are making plays. The fact that these guys are #1 on the depth chart as freshman and sophomores tells us that they are very talented, and that the coaching staff is doing an excellent job getting guys ready to play. Those who were calling for Charlie Weis' head should take note. These kids represent a level of ability that we have not seen at Notre Dame since the Lou Holtz era. And more help is on the way. Sure, there is still a lot of growing to do, but the future is bright.
Respect. Purdue showed us something that we haven't seen from a Notre Dame opponent in a long time: RESPECT. Because the offensive line has vastly improved in pass protection, because we have true speed on the outside and are getting good play from the quarterback, Purdue was forced to respect the vertical threat from our passing game. They had to keep their secondary players back in coverage to help out their overmatched corners. And when they didn't respect our vertical threat, David Grimes took them deep straight down the middle of the field for a TD. That respect is what opened up the running game. No more loading the box and daring the Irish to throw. Purdue's corners were giving Irish wide receivers a 12-yard cushion. When was the last time you saw a Notre Dame receiver get a 12-yard cushion? RESPECT.
Maturity. These players are young, but they are growing up fast. As I recounted above, no turnovers, one sack allowed, excellent special teams play, win the field position game. All signs of maturity. But there were signs on an individual level as well. Clearly the light bulb has gone on for Armando Allen. He was finding big running lanes and he no longer hits the ground on first contact. Kyle Rudolph has gone from a young tight end with great potential as a receiver who was a real project as a blocker to a complete player in just about a month's time. Many of the key runs on Saturday featured excellent seal blocks from Rudolph. He still isn't going to punish a bull-rushing defensive end in pass protection, but his improvement is impressive. And Jimmy Clausen is starting to figure it out. He is running the team, recognizing defenses, changing the play at the line into better plays. And he is seeing the field better. One of the biggest knocks on JC to date has been that he locks onto a receiver early and leads the defensive back right to his target, resulting in an INT. I haven't gone back to look for more examples, but I saw two plays from Clausen in particular that were very encouraging. One example that was highlighted on the broadcast included JC looking to his right for a receiver, then at the last moment looking left and completing the pass to another target. He is actually looking off the safety! On another play Jimmy was in the pocket looking, looking, looking for a receiver, then he finally checked down and dumped the ball off to Armando Allen for a decent gain. He is going through his progression and hitting the check-down when nothing is open! He's on his way to being very, very good. Maturity.