Notre Dame improved to 2-1 on Saturday, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to come back and beat Purdue by seven in West Lafayette, 31-24.
Read that sentence again.
Notre Dame didn't run up the score with 21 fourth-quarter points. It needed almost every one of them to avoid the upset. This, against a team that lost to Cincinnati by 35; which was one week before the Bearcats lost to Illinois by 28; which was one week after the Illlini needed a goal-line stand to beat FCS Southern Illinois.
The Irish were almost a transitive property nightmare.
Now 0-3 against the spread this season, Notre Dame has technically, in Vegas terms, performed worse than it was expected to each week.
Even at 2-1—and a relieved 2-1 at that—this is not the start that folks in South Bend envisioned after a BCS National Championship berth. And if something doesn't change quickly, it might only go downhill from here.
Of Notre Dame's next four games, three come against teams that are currently ranked in either the AP or coaches poll (Michigan State, Oklahoma and Arizona State), and the other comes against USC, which spent the first two weeks of the season in both.
Knowing how good Michigan would be, the Irish figured they might be 2-1 heading into this brutal stretch. But they also figured they'd look the part of a highly ranked team.
They didn't know how brazenly they would have flirted with being 1-2, and they certainly didn't know that the once-vaunted defense—not Tommy Rees' offense—would be the primary cause for concern.
But that is the case moving forward, as Notre Dame's secondary finally appears to be regressing toward the mean.
Cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell were a major question mark heading into last season, but instead they emerged as one of the premier young coverage tandems in America.
Or so everybody thought.
Yes, last year's defense was great against the pass. But with each new game this season, that looks more and more attributable to factors missing from the 2013 team. The pass rush looked better. Zeke Motta was around to clean up messes. Manti Te'o—one of the best coverage linebackers of the last decade—was there to patrol the middle.
Now all of that is gone, and the duo of Jackson and Russell is starting to be exposed.
Jeremy Gallon ran rampant for 184 yards and three touchdowns in Ann Arbor, and Purdue, which averaged just 4.06 yards per play against Indiana State (which allowed 7.52 yards per play against Indiana) averaged 4.76 against the Irish, including 6.24 yards on its 41 passes.
Those are numbers that last year's defense didn't sniff, and people said that team was lucky to finish with such a strong record. If haters loved hating on a defense that averaged 4.55 yards per play last regular season, how will they excoriate a defense that allowed those numbers—plus more—against lowly Purdue?
There's a slight silver lining in all of this. Other than Arizona State, the other three immediate opponents—Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC—have all had their share of passing problems this year. And that might be an understatement.
Prior to last week, none of those teams had a true starting quarterback, and together they averaged a fierce 4.11 yards per pass. But each one's (potentially new) starting QB began to get his act together in Week 3:
Yes, that improvement came against lesser opponents, but it's still better than anything Purdue was able to produce against Indiana State, its own cupcake opponent.
If Rob Henry was able to move the ball through the air on Notre Dame, who's to say that Cook, Bell and Kessler can't—especially with receivers like Aaron Burbridge, Jalen Sanders and Marqise Lee there to assist them.
The Irish are lucky to be 2-1 right now, not because Purdue outplayed them (it didn't), but because it wasn't someone better who caught them in Week 3. Any of the next four teams on their schedule, even USC, would have turned that performance into a loss.
Things need to get better, and they need to get better quick. Weird things always happen when Sparty comes to South Bend.
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