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Notre Dame vs. Purdue: Keys to an Irish Win

By · September 25th, 2009 · 0 Comments
Notre Dame vs. Purdue: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame takes on annual foe Purdue in West Lafayette this weekend. After consecutive nail biters, many Irish fans just hope the game won’t be decided in the final seconds.

From a talent perspective Purdue doesn’t figure to present the same challenge as Michigan or Michigan State. But talent may not mean much when a porous Irish defense faces a potent, balanced offense.

Two weeks ago the Irish defense struggled in the Big House. Last week they gave up 30 points and 459 yards (including 354 yards passing) despite being on the field less than 26 minutes. In many ways it is inexplicable how much the Irish defense has underperformed.

Entering the season the defensive line was a known weakness. To date they have proved to be a critical liability.

Additionally, an athletic linebacker corps has been ineffective in co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s blitzing schemes, and the deep and talented Irish secondary—the supposed strength of this unit—has been repeatedly victimized.

An Irish victory Saturday may very well depend on whether the defense has made strides in the right direction.

Purdue Version 2009

Purdue enters Saturday’s contest at 1-2 with a win against Toledo and close losses to Oregon and Northern Illinois.

Head coach Danny Hope is in his first year of the post-Joe Tiller era, but schematically the Boilermakers look very similar to Tiller’s teams of the past.

In the early going against rather pedestrian competition the Boilermakers have struggled, giving up nearly three minutes in ball possession and surrendering nine turnovers. They have, however, managed to play fairly penalty-free football (two penalties for 23 yards per game).


The Irish will face the spread offense for the second time this season, as Purdue employs shotgun, multiple wide receiver sets to spread the field, empty the box, and get the ball to players in open space.

This hasn’t changed from when Tiller roamed the sidelines. But in a trend that differs from the recent past, the Boilermakers feature more balanced play-calling (106 rushes vs. 103 passing attempts) and more production on the ground.

Hope would likely prefer to throw the ball with greater frequency, but the loss of quarterback Curtis Painter, wide receivers Greg Orton, Desmond Tardy and Brandon Whittington, and tight end Jerry Wasikowski left the cupboard pretty bare.

The strength of the offense is the front five. Four returning starters anchor a unit that has performed well opening holes for the running game (see tables below) and keeping Elliott upright (one sack per 51.5 passing attempts).

Despite this strong running game and solid protection, Elliott hasn’t enjoyed a very efficient start to the season (72nd in passer efficiency with a 120.82 rating). While the redshirt senior has a respectable completion percentage, the rest of his numbers are average and the five interceptions have proven costly.

Without a doubt, the strength of Purdue’s offense is the running game. The Boilermakers rank in the top 25 in all four major statistical categories including averaging six yards per rushing attempt, a large contributor to the 6.3 yards per play and 36.3 points per game averages.

Sophomore running back Ralph Bolden leads the way with 421 yards on 62 carries (6.8 yards per attempt). Bolden is second in the country in yards per game (140.33) and 14th in per carry average. Fellow running back Jaycen Taylor (23 carries, 106 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt) and Elliott (16 carries, 80 yards, 5 yards per attempt) are also effective running the ball.

While the rushing production has been at the expense of some less than stellar run defenses, Purdue has been a large contributor to the inflated defensive numbers of their opposition.

Typically teams that run the ball well thrive on third down (due to manageable distances) and in the red zone where play-action is a valuable weapon and a short field doesn’t hamper the offense.

Purdue seems to be the exception.

Despite the potent running game the offense has struggled on third down and in the red zone, even against defenses that aren’t overwhelmingly good at getting off the field (opposing defenses allow nearly a 45 percent third down conversion rate) or stopping teams from scoring (Toledo, Oregon and Northern Illinois rank 76, 43, and 101 respectively in red zone defense).

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Boilermaker offense.

Purdue Offensive Efficiency

[table id=45 /]

Purdue Total Offense

[table id=46 /]

Purdue Rushing Offense

[table id=48 /]

Purdue Passing Offense

[table id=47 /]


The departure of defensive coordinator Brock Spack hasn’t improved Purdue’s defense. As the tables below indicate, the Boilermakers rank in the bottom third of the country in nearly every statistical category.

Defensive coordinator Donn Landholm uses a 4-3 scheme similar to Spack’s with size in the interior defensive line (Mike Neal – 6-2, 302 and Kawann Short – 6-4, 310) and speed in the linebacker corps (Joe Holland – 6-1, 220, Chris Carlino – 6-2, 215, and Jason Werner – 6-4, 221).

The similar scheme has largely produced similar results as Landholm and company haven’t been able to stop opponents from scoring, possessing the ball, or gaining yards on the ground or through the air.

Third down and red zone efficiency have been particularly problematic for the Boilermakers. Opponents have converted 22 of 50 third down opportunities and scored touchdowns on nine of 11 red zone tries. While the defense has faced some moderately efficient offensive teams, those numbers are bad by any standard.

It appears that the secondary is the strongest unit on the defense, but this is largely a function of the competition. Toledo finished with 423 yards through the air. Oregon and Northern Illinois averaged only 168.5 yards passing, but this was largely because they chose to run the ball (236.5 yards per game on the ground). In other words, the strong passing team threw the ball well and the run-first teams did so with ease.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Boilermaker defense.

Purdue Defensive Efficiency

[table id=49 /]

Purdue Total Defense

[table id=50 /]

Purdue Rushing Defense

[table id=52 /]

Purdue Passing Defense

[table id=51 /]


Purdue possesses an effective—but not overly efficient—offense. The Boilermakers feature a offensive line equally adept at run blocking and protecting the passer. The former has paved the way for a strong ground game, the latter has been undermined by Elliott’s poor decision-making.

The defense is another story. Little stands out about a unit that has given up points and yards in large chunks (opponents average a gaudy 5.5 yards per play), and with relative ease.

So what must the Irish do to exploit a suspect defense and stop a potent rushing attack?


  1. It’s just like before. Purdue can run the football. The Irish defense cannot stop the run. The offense must pitch in by controlling the clock and building an early lead. The former aims at playing keep-away, the latter forces the Boilermaker offense to abandon their strength. Methodical and meticulous drives are preferred to quick scores. This has been, and will continue to be, a critical element of success.
  2. Protect your most valuable asset. Prior to his season-ending injury, wide receiver Michael Floyd was the best player on the Irish offense. That doesn’t mean he was the most valuable. With Floyd, fellow wide receiver Golden Tate, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and a resurgent running game, quarterback Jimmy Clausen could go down the field with ease. Without a weapon like Floyd, distributing the ball becomes more important and makes the Clausen’s job less forgiving. With an injured toe, it is likely Purdue will try and generate pressure. Head coach Charlie Weis must minimize the risk of (further) injury to Clausen.
  3. Adjust the play-calling. Without Floyd Weis must also adjust his play-calling and avoid becoming predictable. The Irish struggled without him last year, largely because spread formations screamed pass and heavy personnel forecasted the run. Much of the early offensive success of 2009 is due to the personnel flexibility that is a core feature of Weis’ offensive philosophy. The Irish must maintain this going forward.


  1. Tend to the biggest concern. First down has been abysmal for the Irish this year. Against Nevada, Michigan and Michigan State, Notre Dame has allowed over 6.2 yards per first down play (six yards per rush, 6.5 yards per pass). To effectively run the ball Purdue must stay ahead of the chains and keep the playbook open, i.e. maintain the run as a viable option. This makes first down defense of vital importance. The Irish will undoubtedly focus on stopping the run, but failure to play better first down defense will present an additional challenge as favorable down and distances allow Elliott to mix in passes and keep Tenuta’s unit off balance.
  2. There are really 13 defenders. Purdue’s running game is similar to that of Michigan. They run some inside and outside zone, but they like to use the stretch to take advantage of their speed and quickness in the backfield. Against Michigan the Irish played with outside-in leverage, trying to force runs back to the inside pursuit. The inability to shed blocks foiled the success of this plan. Tenuta would be better served taking advantage of the athleticism of the front seven and stringing plays to the sidelines, using them as extra defenders. If the Irish can maintain blocks and extend the running plays, they should have success containing Bolden.
  3. Lock it up. As much as Hope likes to spread the field, Notre Dame should get pressure on Elliott, even against a good front five. Purdue’s apposite counterattack is quick throws to the flats and over the middle, i.e. to the vacated area(s). The secondary must play tighter coverage to prevent these easy outlets. This was problematic last year against the Boilermakers. Allowing short, consecutive passes will build Elliott’s shaky confidence and keep Purdue in the game.


Notre Dame certainly has better talent than Purdue. But the previous two games featured a similar situation that didn’t result in an advantage for all three phases of the game. In other words, Purdue should not win, but the Irish could certainly lose.

This game features strength on weakness for the Notre Dame defense. While quarterback Jimmy Clausen and the Irish offense should put up plenty of points, the front seven will be repeatedly tested by Bolden and a veteran offensive line.

After an emotionally-charged win over Michigan State it will be important for the Irish to come out focused. Penalties will be particularly costly against a team that doesn’t commit them.

If the defense plays well and stops the run, particularly early in the contest, this game shouldn’t be close. If the Boilermakers are allowed to hang around, the lack of size, strength and depth in the Irish front seven may enable an upset.



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