As Kyle Brindza's 27-yard field goal split the goal posts, giving the Fighting Irish a 20-17 lead with seven seconds to play (via msn.foxsports.com), you would think that the Notre Dame crowd would have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
And there was an immediate rousing cheer as Notre Dame (2-0) secured a victory in its home opener, providing the team its best start since 2008.
But the boo birds that flew when junior QB Tommy Rees ran onto the field for the game-winning drive tell the greater story.
No one wanted this.
Heading into the toughest matchup of the first half of the 2012 slate at Michigan State, Notre Dame needed a win. They would have preferred another dominant win, but a win would do.
Against a very athletic Purdue defensive front, the Irish did amass 376 yards of total offense. The surprise was that 324 of those yards came through the air, especially against a Boilermakers defense that features two very talented cornerbacks.
After rushing for nearly 300 yards a week ago, Notre Dame's OL was unable to move the Purdue defensive line. Defensive end Kawann Short created a good deal of havoc, disrupting plays in both the rushing and passing game.
It was fairly obvious that the game plan coming in was to use a pass-first approach, as carries were few and far between for Notre Dame's running backs.
Thirteen of the 17 plays the Irish ran in the first quarter were either a called pass or a T.J. Jones reverse, signaling a preference to find slot receivers and tight ends rather than test the interior of Purdue's defense or the aforementioned corners.
On the day Notre Dame ran the ball 36 times for 50 yards.
Defensively for the Irish, the game unfolded as expected.
Purdue had a difficult time gaining traction, being held to less than 200 yards passing and 90 yards rushing. Bennett Jackson picked off a pair of Caleb TerBush passes, and Purdue's game-tying touchdown was set up by Notre Dame's only turnover of the day.
The defense has established a trend of late-half lapses, as their opponent's final drives of each of the first two games resulted in the team's first points. Although it was most responsible for the Irish win today, the defense will likely be largely left out of the conversation over Notre Dame's victory.
As always, the discussion comes back the quarterback.
Second time starter Everett Golson by all accounts played well. Golson completed 21-of-31 for 289 yards and found T.J. Jones for his second career touchdown pass.
He also carried 16 times for -16 yards but displayed his athleticism on a second quarter three-yard touchdown run that found him flying through the air, horizontal to the field, touching the ball against the pylon as he was slammed out of bounds.
Despite the positive numbers, he never found consistency in the second half.
Purdue was able to use Golson's inconsistency to keep Notre Dame in poor field position and keep pressure on the young quarterback to prevent the Irish from pulling away.
For most of the game, however Golson avoided mistakes. But after a defensive stand that nearly sealed the game for the Irish, Golson had a little first-year starter meltdown. After running Theo Riddick three straight times for 12 yards and a critical first down, Golson tried to escape pressure and ran into a sack, losing ten yards. On the next play Golson lost the handle on the ball, and gave the Boilermakers a first-and-ten at the Irish 15, setting up the tying score.
After George Atkinson III returned the ensuing kick off 32 yards to the Irish 35-yard line, Tommy Rees came jogging onto the field to a chorus of boos. Adding further stress to the situation was the fact that Notre Dame had long before used all three second-half time outs to avoid delay of game penalties.
But the unflappable Rees proceeded to connected on three of his next six throws (his stat line will read 3-of-8 because of clock-stopping spikes) for 35 yards, setting up Brindza's game winner.
What was obvious about Rees' handling of the offense was that there was no pre-snap uncertainty. The team lined up faster, and the plays were run with less confusion. Rees also seemed to have a very clear picture of what was to happen once the ball was snapped.
Even in the face of pressure, Rees was able to go through his progressions and find an open receiver.
After the game head coach Brian Kelly mentioned that Golson had hurt his hand on the sack preceding the fumble, and that—combined with Rees' familiarity in the two-minute offense—led to the decision to the junior QB into the game.
What today's win says for the long term is quite unclear.
If healthy, Golson will more than likely start next week in East Lansing. How long a leash he is granted against a tough Spartan defense will be a better indication of head coach Brian Kelly believes is the long-term solution at the quarterback position.
For now, Kelly's squad must take this as a hard-fought win and move on. 2-0 for the first time in five years is a fine place to be sitting.
Now, go to work on fixing issues in blitz pick-up, trap blocking, route running and kicking field goals.
And get ready for the best team of the first half of the season.
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