So how excited can you really be about a last minute win over the Purdue Boilermakers? Normally, I'd be writing a post full of disappointment about how the team under-performed and played down to the level of the competition.
But today I am actually very impressed with the guts and determination of the Fighting Irish. Lacking #1 wideout Michael Floyd, #1 running back Armando Allen, and working around a very limited and gimpy Jimmy Clausen, this team took a collective step up and, as a group, made the plays they needed to make to win an important road game in the face of serious adversity.
The final winning drive led by Clausen and finished in the end zone by TE Kyle Rudolph was very dramatic and should be remembered for a long time. But Notre Dame wouldn't have been in a position to win the game without key contributions from a bunch of guys who, until Saturday night, were not household names:
- Jonas Gray had 60 total yards rushing and receiving.
- Robert Hughes ran like a raging bull, flattening would-be tacklers on his way to 68 rushing yards and a touchdown.
- Golden Tate was Superman, rushing, receiving, wild-catting, punt-returning his way to 128 total yards, including a 14-yard touchdown run. (Okay, Golden's is a household name, but I couldn't leave him off this list!)
- Freshman Theo Riddick had just one offensive carry, but it went for 24 yards. He also had 96 kick-return yards (averaging 24 yards per return) for 120 total yards on the night.
- Freshman Nick Tausch was 1-for-1 on field goals, perfect on PATs, and had his best game yet on kick-offs booming the ball down near the goal line (and beyond).
- Quarterback Dayne Crist, while not allowed to open up the whole playbook, was very effective leading the offense when Clausen needed a break. Crist was 5-for-10 passing for 45 yards, and had four rushes for a net 16 yards, including a very nice 16-yard gain on his first play of the game that seemed to knock Purdue back on their heels a bit.
- Robby Parris had a huge 16-yard catch for a key first down on the final scoring drive.
- Robert Blanton had eight total tackles on the night.
- Darius Fleming went OFF for four solo tackles, including three tackles-for-loss and one QB sack.
- Kapron Lewis-Moore had for solo tackles, including one TFL.
- Manti Te'o had a big QB sack to put the game on ice on Purdue's last possession.
In 2008 this same team found a way to lose three games that it had well in hand and should have won. In 2009 this team let the Michigan game get away from them on the road, but held on to beat MSU last week. On Saturday the Fighting Irish finally had the feel of a team that collectively refused to lose. Despite losing most of its marquee offensive talent, the team scraped and clawed its way to a 10-point halftime lead. Despite losing that lead when the offense stalled and the defense stumbled, they regrouped and rallied around their injured quarterback and gave it everything they had until they got the ball across the goal line to take the lead for good. How freaking inspiring was Robert Hughes' 2-yard run on 2nd-and-goal at the Purdue four yard line with less than a minute to go? On the stat sheet it doesn't look like much, but seeing the determination as he dragged Purdue tacklers toward the goal line and refused to go down made me feel like he was carrying the hopes of his whole team on his shoulders and there was no way he was going to let his teammates down.
In 2005 and 2006 one often felt like the team was waiting for Brady Quinn to win the game for them. In 2008 it seemed like the team went as Clausen went. If he was hot the team did well, if Jimmy was off, the team had no chance. In this game against Purdue I felt that the whole team from Jimmy to Bobby Burger to Kerry Neal to Mike Anello took personal ownership of the fate of the team and as a group they said "You can take Floyd, you can take Armando, you can take Clausen, and we're still not going to let you beat us."
It was Purdue, but a night game on the road in the Big Ten with a lot of adversity to overcome was as good a time as any to begin to learn how to win games. That personal yet collective ownership of the fate of the team and the will to win no matter what will pay dividends down the road.
My Dad sent me an e-mail after the game criticizing Charlie Weis' play calling on their last possession of the 3rd quarter. With Notre Dame driving and with a first down at the Purdue 34, Notre Dame had a Hughes run for no gain, an incomplete pass attempt, another Hughes run for no gain, and a 4th-down sack of Crist for a 7-yard loss. Dad thought a pooch punt to bury Purdue in their own end was the smart play, feeling that there was no reason to give Purdue the emotional lift of a big 4th-down stop along with good field position. I replied that I thought the 3rd-down play was the worst of the series, in that it showed no confidence in Crist to run the offense. Plus, if you're going to let him throw it on 4th down anyway, let Dayne have a shot at making a play on 3rd down rather than just plowing into the line on 3rd-and-10.
But I also told my Dad that I thought he was being too negative on Charlie. I feel like he coached his ass off on Saturday night. He was without his #1 receiver, #1 running back, and his starting QB for much of the night, playing on the road against a jacked-up opponent. He went deep into the playbook and found a package of plays that managed to generate enough offense to win the game with the players he had on the field, including a game-winning TD drive at the end of the game led by a one-footed QB.
Coach Weis gets a lot of deserved criticism when he mismanages a game situation and/or gets too cute with his play calls. We should all be willing, however, to give him credit when it is due, and I think he deserves a lot of credit for writing a game plan (actually two or three game plans) that gave his team chance to win a tough game, and for managing the dynamics of the game as it unfolded in such a way as to bring home a "W".
Little Things: Notre Dame won the turnover battle (2-1), had fewer penalties and penalty yards (6 for 41) than Purdue (13 for 103), and won the field position battle (ASFP for Notre Dame its own 34; ASFP for Purdue its own 28).