Week one has finally arrived! With the Irish set to face off against the Boilermakers this Saturday it's time to break down both squads. Today we preview the different units to analyze who has the edge in the rushing game, passing game, special teams, and more.
Three words come to mind when thinking about the Irish rushing offense under Coach Charlie Weis: sporadic, inconsistent, and under-utilized. Each of the past few years Weis proclaimed that he was dedicated to running the ball, but that commitment disappeared before you could say "San Diego State 13, Notre Dame 7."
Brian Kelly now brings the spread offense to South Bend, which doesn't exactly mean Notre Dame will be returning to the days of 50 rushes per game. In fact, on average Weis actually called more rushing plays per game than Kelly did last season (33 to 28). Kelly's Cincinnati squad just happened to get more bang for their buck when they ran than Charlie's boys (1803 yards at 5.0ypc compared to ND's 1539 yards at 3.8ypc).
Notre Dame has a lot of flexibility in terms of who they want to send into the backfield. There's speed (Armando Allen), shiftiness (Cierre Wood), brute power (Hughes), and a combination of all of them (Jonas Gray). The spread offense in theory spreads the field out—I know, crazy—which creates wider running lanes for running backs to exploit. Allen was miscast as a conventional back the past couple seasons; his skill set (fast, hard-runner with good hands, and underrated blocking) is tailor-made for the spread.
On the other hand, Purdue returns three starters on the defensive line—including All-Big 10 performer Ryan Kerrigan—along with the entire linebacking core. The unit had its ups and downs last season. They held the Irish to just 3.9ypc and limited Ohio State to just 2.4ypc in their big upset over the Buckeyes, but opponents average greater than 4.5ypc in eight of their games.
ND WINS THIS BATTLE IF...the offensive line gels quicker than expected.
PURDUE WINS THIS BATTLE IF...a veteran Boiler defensive line forces the youthful Irish offensive line into mistakes.
EDGE: PUSH...Notre Dame has a lot of talent in the backfield, but it's also going to be breaking in three new starters along the offensive line. It'll be hard to give them any sort of edge in this category until we see with our own eyes that there's a commitment to running the football and—more importantly—a change in the effectiveness of the rushing attack. Combine that with the fact that the Boilers are fielding a veteran front seven and the end result is a push.
Dayne Crist gets the first start of his career against Purdue, though his most extensive action to date was last season against the Boilermakers. Subbing for a banged-up Jimmy Clausen, Crist went 5 of 10 for 45 yards and rushed for another 16 yards in last year's heart-stopping victory. Purdue will get a totally different look from Crist this season though.
Last year Charlie Weis implemented a scaled back gameplan built to protect Dayne and guard against any mistakes that would cost ND the game. This year the training wheels will be off. At his disposal are two potential All-Americans, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, along with a host of other weapons chock full of size (Kamara, Goodman, Eifert) and speed (Riddick, Jones, Toma).
Crist couldn't ask for a better opening opponent if you're simply looking at personnel that must be replaced. The Purdue secondary had to be totally overhauled after being gutted by graduation. Breaking in four new starters against the likes of Floyd and Rudolph is a tough task.
If Notre Dame's young offensive line can keep the Boilers' front seven at bay then Dayne should be able to exploit the most glaring weakness on the Purdue squad.
NOTRE DAME WINS THIS BATTLE IF...the offensive line keeps Dayne upright.
PURDUE WINS THIS BATTLE IF...pressure from the front seven forces Crist to make bad decisions.
EDGE: IRISH...This could be a huge edge for Notre Dame, but that's totally contingent on the offensive line giving Dayne adequate time. If the Boilers are in his face all day then it'll lead to mistakes that could make this game closer than any Irish fan would like.
Purdue lost its starting running back, Robert Bolden, to a torn ACL this spring which leaves a big, fat question mark heading into the fall. Purdue wasn't a particularly prolific rushing team last year (especially on the road where they averaged a paltry 3.5ypc) and now it will be replacing it's top two rushers (Bolden and Jaycen Taylor, who graduated) with three new starters along the offensive line.
Sophomore Al-Terek McBurse, who had only four carries for zero yards last season, is now the starter. There's been juggling along the offensive line as well with sophomore guard Peters Drey shifting to center to replace last year's starter, All-Big 10 Honorable Mention Jared Zwilling.
The Irish will be fielding an aggressive, athletic front seven that's champing at the bit to erase the memories of Jon Tenuta's 2009 disaster. What Irish fans may forget when thinking about last season is just how well the defense bottled up Purdue on the road last year, limiting them to just 2.8ypc. Look for defensive end Ethan Johnson and linebacker Darius Fleming to give the young Purdue line fits early and often.
NOTRE DAME WINS THIS BATTLE IF...they can be effective in limiting Purdue's first down rushing yardage.
PURDUE WINS THIS BATTLE IF...they effectively use the pass to set the run up.
EDGE: IRISH...Purdue did nothing against the Irish on the ground last year when they had a healthy Bolden and a somewhat mobile quarterback (Joey Elliot). If Purdue pulls the upset it'll be because they did damage through the air, not the ground.
Miami (FL) transfer Robert Marve takes over for last year's starter Joey Elliot. He had substantial playing time during his freshman year at Miami but was unspectacular at best—his stats were poor and decision-making shaky. One has to keep in mind that he was thrust into a starting role as a young, inexperienced freshman and there were sure to be plenty of bumps along the road, but there weren't enough positives throughout his 11 starts for him to keep the starting job. The book on Marve is that he's got a rocket arm, you just don't know where those rockets are going to land.
Top receiver Keith Smith (1100yds, 12.1ypc, 6TD's) returns, as does starting tight end Kyle Adams (249yds, 8.6ypc). Purdue's offense lends itself to not missing a beat no matter what receivers rotate in and out of the starting lineup. This year they only lose one receiver (Aaron Valentin) who caught more than ten balls so that shouldn't even be an issue.
The biggest question—much like with Notre Dame's passing offense—will be how the new starters along the offensive line perform. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will likely bring heat early and often. If the blitzers start breaking through and getting to Marve then it'll lead to turnovers.
Notre Dame had a tendency to make every quarterback it faced last year look like a Heisman candidate and Elliot was no different. He sliced through the Irish's Swiss Cheese secondary for 289 yards and three touchdowns last season, including a pair in the fourth quarter that nearly won Purdue the game.
The secondary last year was supposed to be a huge strength for the Irish and turned out to be far and away the biggest disappointment. The talent from last year returns; it's just a matter of whether players' confidence has risen to the level necessary to take a giant step forward from last season's disaster.
NOTRE DAME WINS THIS BATTLE IF...the secondary starts to play up to its talent level.
PURDUE WINS THIS BATTLE IF...Marve has time to sit back and pick apart the defense.
SLIGHT EDGE: PURDUE...This sounds a lot like the ND Passing vs Purdue Pass Defense breakdown, doesn't it? New starting quarterback, three new starters on the offensive line, success hinges on how the line holds up against the defense's pressure.
So why does the ND pass attack get the edge while Purdue's only gets a slight edge? Because Notre Dame's secondary won't have to deal with anyone like Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.
Frankly, on paper this should be a push...but it's tough to totally erase the memories of last year's debacle and say that ND's secondary will stifle anyone.
Notre Dame routinely lost this battle over the course of the past three years, but at the very least the field goal unit showed progress last season. Nick Tausch made 14 of 17 field goals as a freshman while David Ruffer also went 5 for 5 as his backup. Ruffer apparently has been regularly booming touchbacks on kickoffs in practice, which would be the first time a Notre Dame kicker did that consistently since the Reagan Administration.
Will sophomore punter Ben Turk step up and become more consistent? He and Eric Maust played hot potato with the starting job for the first ten games of last season, but Turk came on strong at the end of last season (47.0ypp vs UConn and 43.0ypp vs Stanford).
Purdue returns third-year starter Carson Wiggs at kicker, who comes equipped with a booming leg. He nailed two kicks from over 50 yards last year, including a school-record 59yd bomb against Toledo. Overall he was a little inconsistent last season, ending up 14 of 21 after hitting 8 of 11 his freshman year.
Punting is a whole different ballgame. Wiggs was penciled in as the starter in spring but he's been beaten out by freshman Cody Webster. That's probably good news for Boiler fans since Wiggs averaged only 31.2 yards per punt last season.
In the return game, Notre Dame will have the sophomore pair of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood (RS-Fr) back fielding kicks. They're not only fast and dynamic, but they both seem to possess that nose for the big run that Armando Allen lacks. This duo will spring a touchdown before the end of the year—and it could be sooner than you think if Purdue doesn't tighten up its kickoff coverage that allowed 24.7 yards per return last season. Armando will handle the punt returning duties, hoping to shed his moniker of "Almost" Allen.
Starting running back Al-Terek McBurse doubles as the lead kickoff returner for the Boilers. He took one to the house last season and averaged 24.6 yards per return, so he's dangerous if the Irish are caught napping like they repeatedly were last season (see: Michigan, UConn).
NOTRE DAME WINS THIS BATTLE IF...all their units are consistent, which will lead to a field position advantage.
PURDUE WINS THIS BATTLE IF...they can spring McBurse for a game-changing return.
EDGE: PUSH...The units are almost like mirrors of each other: good kickers, shaky and unproven punting situation, dangerous returns, and coverage units looking to bounce back from tough 2009 campaigns.
Danny Hope did a heck of a job taking over for Joe Tiller last season and taking a squad pegged to be one of the bottom two teams in the league to the verge of a bowl berth. The Boilers upset Ohio State and would have knocked off Notre Dame as well were it not for Jimmy Clausen's late game heroics. He's done a lot in making the Purdue faithful feel more comfortable about the direction of the program in the Post-Joe Tiller Era.
Brian Kelly's resume is very impressive. He's coming off an undefeated regular season where he led Cincinnati to its second straight BCS bowl, which ranks a shade below Bruce Snyder resurrecting Kansas State in terms of impressive feats. He's won everywhere he's been, he's overachieved everywhere he's been, and he's taking over a team that has more talent than he's ever previously coached.
NOTRE DAME WINS THIS BATTLE IF...Brian Kelly controls his team's emotions and finds a way to treat this like any other game.
PURDUE WINS THIS BATTLE IF...Hope's gameplan finds a way to expose the weaknesses that certainly exist on the Irish.
EDGE: IRISH...Kelly is respected as one of the best coaches in the country and one of the rising stars in college football. Hope did a great job in year one but he needs more stamps on his passport to get to Kelly's level. This is the first time in a long time the Irish get the check-mark in this category.
This is the first BCS conference opponent Purdue has faced in the opener since Syracuse in 2004. They'll be breaking in a new offensive line on the road along with an unproven quarterback who hasn't taken a live snap in two years. Purdue has also only won one time in their last 12 visits to South Bend.
Notre Dame Stadium will be absolutely electric for the dawn of the Brian Kelly Era and that wave of emotion from the stands should have a definitive impact on the game. Players and fans alike are anxious to erase the memories of the fall of the Charlie Weis regime, one that was marred by failures on the field and division in the stands. A key to the game will be how well Notre Dame contains what's sure to be a flood of emotions early in the game.
NOTRE DAME WINS THIS BATTLE IF...the game is played as scheduled.
PURDUE WINS THIS BATTLE IF...the Irish allow their emotions to fog their focus.
BIG EDGE: IRISH...This is a no-brainer. Expect a totally united Notre Dame Nation for the first time since 2006, which will contribute to a truly memorable atmosphere. This is probably the most hyped and anticipated opening game for a coach since Faust in '81—let's hope it's the start of better things than that day.