Notre Dame shook off a sloppy first half and held off a commendable upset bid from Purdue on Saturday night, using a huge fourth quarter to escape Ross-Ade Stadium with the 31-24 victory.
The Boilermakers struck on the first drive of the contest, moving 75 yards down the field on 12 plays. The Irish appeared to have Purdue stopped on multiple occasions, but quarterback Rob Henry converted three third-downs, including a well-timed screen to Akeem Hunt on 3rd-and-11 for the touchdown.
ESPN College Football's Twitter feed gave us a look at the score:
No. 21 Notre Dame struggled to respond with much of anything. The Irish notched just one first down on their first three drives, and after a Paul Griggs 47-yard field goal, it was suddenly 10-0 in favor of the underdogs.
After Tommy Rees failed to connect with Troy Niklas on 4th-and-4 on the next drive, the Chicago Tribune's Brian Hamilton summed up the concerning start:
#NotreDame almost throws two INTs on one possession, then caps it off with a failed 4th-and-4 conversion. That was the BEST drive yet.— Brian Hamilton (@ChiTribHamilton) September 15, 2013
The Irish finally found their way onto the scoreboard just before halftime, however. Rees found Chris Brown for 40 yards, and Cam McDaniel proceeded to grind his way through the Boilermakers defense on the 11-play, 80-yard drive.
Unfortunately for the Irish, the drive stalled at the one, and Brian Kelly was forced to settle for the 20-yard field goal from Kyle Brindza.
With the Irish down 10-3 heading into the locker room, CSN Chicago's JJ Stankevitz provided this frightening stat:
Through three games, Notre Dame has played from behind for 68:43. In the regular season last year, Notre Dame played from behind for 67:30.— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) September 15, 2013
They came out looking more like the 2012 squad, however, as Rees found No. 1 wide receiver TJ Jones for a couple of big plays, and McDaniel eventually punched it in from one yard to even the score at 10.
McDaniel's brother and high school coach combined to praise the tough junior running back:
But with the momentum shifting away from them, the Boilermakers showed impressive resolve with a methodical response. Henry led a quick 54-yard drive, culminating with this catch-and-run from B.J. Knauf for the score:
Then came Notre Dame's counterpunch.
After a punt from each squad, the Irish used a heavy dose of Rees to march back down the field. On a 66-yard touchdown drive, the senior QB was 6-of-8 for 62 yards and a touchdown toss to DaVaris Daniels.
Notre Dame Director of Media Relations Michael Bertsch noted the historical significance of the score, which tied the game at 17:
Tommy Rees tosses his 40th career TD pass; fifth Irish signal caller to ever reach 40 career TDs passes— Michael Bertsch (@NDsidBertschy) September 15, 2013
Following a Purdue punt, it took Notre Dame just one play from scrimmage to take its first lead since Week 1, as Rees hit Daniels for an 82-yard score.
Take a look at the beautiful throw, blazing speed and embarrassing (for Purdue) stiff arm:
Three plays later, Notre Dame doubled its lead when Bennett Jackson intercepted Henry and returned it 34 yards for the score.
Irish Illustrated noted an encouraging resemblance to last year's elite defense:
Notre Dame's secondary looks like the Notre Dame secondary of last year as Bennett Jackson goes pick six on Rob Henry. Irish up 31-17.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) September 15, 2013
Of course, that only served as a jinx of sorts, as Henry came right back and constructed a 75-yard touchdown drive in just over three minutes, completing a nine-yard score to Justin Sinz on fourth down to help cut Notre Dame's lead to 31-24.
Amir Carlisle then made things extremely interesting when he fumbled the ball right back to Purdue on the next play from scrimmage. But the Irish defense came up huge, forcing a subsequent three-and-out fueled by a sack from Jackson.
Thanks to a bruising dose of McDaniel and a key third-down completion from Rees to Daniels, the Irish held the ball for the final seven minutes, refusing to give the Boilermakers another shot at the upset.
DaVaris Daniels, WR, Notre Dame: A
TJ Jones entered the year as the Irish's top receiver, but Daniels stepped up in a big way on Saturday.
Who was Notre Dame's Player of the Game?
While Jones pulled in four catches for 57 yards, the talented junior tallied nine catches, 177 yards and two touchdowns in an unstoppable performance.
The talk will rightfully focus on his 82-yard score, but he made several other important receptions, including one on 3rd-and-long during Notre Dame's eventual game-tying drive, and one on 3rd-and-6 as the Irish played keep-away late in the fourth.
Rees played tremendously and deserves plenty of credit, but he also owes Daniels dinner.
Rob Henry, QB, Purdue: B+
Henry perfectly managed the game—for three quarters.
While the senior QB's final numbers weren't massive (25-of-40, 256 yards, three touchdowns, one interception), he was putting together a really solid all-around performance. He strung together several long drives, made nice throws, converted third downs and took terrific care of the ball.
His untimely interception in the fourth quarter, however, proved to be a turning point.
Nevertheless, Henry still looked far better than he did in the first two weeks of the season.
Cam McDaniel, RB, Notre Dame: A
To most people outside of South Bend, Cam McDaniel is probably mostly known as the guy who once did this:
But for those who follow the Irish, the hard-nosed junior running back is someone who is willing to do whatever necessary to help his squad—fill in at cornerback, make tackles on special teams, grind out yardage as a running back. His spot in the Notre Dame record book for most carries on consecutive plays (nine) should tell you what kind of no-nonsense player he is.
It was just that kind of effort on Saturday.
McDaniel's final numbers aren't anything mind-blowing. He totaled 56 yards on 16 carries. But he gave the team a necessary spark late in the first half, scored a touchdown in the third quarter, followed that up with a special teams tackle and was trusted with the ball late in the fourth as Notre Dame protected its lead.
He may not have been the Irish's most talented player on the field, but the effort he gave (and always gives) deserves credit.
Safe to say that Cam McDaniel would have caught that. Probably could have thrown it to himself even.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) September 15, 2013
The legend of Cam McDaniel continued to grow on Saturday.