Notre Dame Football Post-Game Awards: Pur-Didn't Edition
The Notre Dame football team made a winner out of Brian Kelly in his debut as Fighting Irish football coach on Saturday with an effective 23-12 season opening victory over Purdue.
The Irish defense held the Boilermakers to only 10 points (the other two were the result of a safety) despite having to chase dual-threat quarterback Robert Marve most of the day. Running backs Armando Allen and Cierre Wood showed that Brian Kelly's no-huddle spread offense is more than just a fun-and-gun offense, averaging over 6 yards per carry between them.
Now it's time for a deeper look at the performances, good and bad, that brought the Irish with a 1-0 record into Michigan week.
The Rainmaker (Offensive Player of the Game): Armando Allen
The Notre Dame rushing attack was mostly a formality during the last three seasons, despite what was considered a deeply talented group of backs. On Saturday, running back Armando Allen helped put this group back on the map, leading a resurgent Irish ground game with 93 yards on 18 carries, including a 22-yard touchdown sprint.
Allen was the featured back in 2009, but on Saturday showed improved vision and determination. On more than one occasion against the Boilermakers, the holes at the line had closed, but Allen bounced the run outside for larger chunks of yardage. Last year, he would have plowed forward into the pile for a very short gain or a loss.
Allen also chipped in on special teams with a 38-yard punt return that set up another Irish touchdown.
Runner-Up: RB Cierre Wood
The Showstopper (Defenseive Player Of the Game): Darrin Walls
Entering Saturday's game, the Notre Dame secondary was the team's biggest question mark, and cornerback Darrin Walls made a very positive answer. His first quarter interception deep in Notre Dame territory changed the tone of the entire game.
Notre Dame had stalled on its first two offensive possessions and Purdue was in the midst of nine-play drive that had the Irish defense back on its heels. But Walls' pick inside the Notre Dame 20-yard line swung the momentum back to the Irish and led to touchdown on the ensuing offensive possession. The Boilermakers never recovered.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference with Walls (and fellow cornerback Gary Gray) is his dramatically improved ability to make one-on-one tackles in space. With the exception of a few individuals, the 2009 defense was entirely incapable of open field tackling that turned short gain plays into huge gains or touchdowns.
Runner-Up: DE Ethan Johnson
The A-Team (Best Group Game Performance): Special Teams
The Notre Dame special teams unit appears to have adjusted quickly from it's role in 2009 as afterthought to actual contributors in 2010. Charlie Weis' fourth-down gambling addiction frequently kept Irish kickers on the sidelines, but they stood front and center against the Boilermakers.
Placekicker David Ruffer hit all three of his field goal attempts, including two long-range bombs from 37 and 46 yards out. Punter Ben Turk didn't have a spectacular day, but he also didn't make any mistakes and limited Purdue's return yardage. Freshman Bennett Jackson provided a one-man coverage unit, making four solid special teams tackles.
On the return side of the ball, Armando Allen had a long punt return and Cierre Wood exploded on a long kickoff return, although Wood almost lost a fumble on the same play.
The Irish avoided hurting themselves with no special team penalties, and did all the small things correctly that made the difference in the win.
Runner-Up: Defensive Line
The Goat: Brian Smith
Many players on the Irish team showed marked improvement from 2009, however, OLB Brian Smith still can't break his compulsive habit to over-pursue and get out of position.
On Purdue's only touchdown of the game, Boilermaker quarterback Robert Marve faked the inside hand off and then sprinted back to the outside. Smith was the linebacker responsible for the outside contain, but he bit hard on the fake hand off and his over-eagerness to get in on the play left a massive hole in the defense. Marve slipped by him untouched and scampered 23 yards into the end zone.
Smith will need a crash course in ninja discipline if Notre Dame has any hope of stopping the speedy and elusive Denard Robinson against Michigan next Saturday. The ability of defense to hold their containment points is absolutely critical to avoid the big plays that gouged them against the Wolverines in 2009.
Runner-Up: Michael Floyd
The Milk Carton (Missing Person): Theo Riddick
During fall camp, Brian Kelly highlighted Theo Riddick as one of the more impressive players in fall camp. In Saturday's game, Riddick was thrown at five times but had only two catches for 14 yards.
If his speed and elusiveness in space are as good as advertised, Riddick certainly has the potential to be a legitimate threat as a slot receiver. However, he will need to focus more on catching the ball first to complete his transition from running back to wide receiver. Quarterback Dayne Crist is still throwing rockets, even on short passes, so Riddick must get in the habit of catching first, then running.
Runner-Up: Kerry Neal
Stat of the Game: Third Down Conversions
A big reason that Notre Dame's defense was so effective against Purdue on Saturday is that the Irish limited the Boilermakers to only five converted third downs in 17 attempts (29%). And while the quantity of stops was important, the quality made them even more impressive.
Notre Dame stopped Purdue three out of five times on third-and-short and only gave up two conversions on third-and-long. These types of stops are critical for the morale and confidence of a defense.
Though the Boilermakers converted two of their four fourth-down attempts, the Irish ability to hold on third down proved to be a key element to containing the Purdue offense.
Game Ball: Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly had the Irish prepared on the fundamentals and mentally tough enough to recover from key mistakes to earn the game ball in his debut as Irish coach against Purdue.
One of the themes that Kelly touted during the spring and fall training camps was that, to win, the Irish needed to break the habits that contribute to losing. One of the most noticeable ways the team achieved that goal against the Boilermakers was by eliminating costly penalties.
Notre Dame was flagged for a total of only two penalties for 15 yards, and neither of them were at costly times. One of the most important instances of this discipline can be seen on the footage of Armando Allen's 38-yard punt return. On that play, there are two or three times where an Irish player could have been over-aggressive and committed an illegal block in the back.
This is one of the easiest penalties to commit, but the Notre Dame players stayed disciplined and held up their hands. Allen's return put the Irish in great field position and led to a touchdown.
Additionally, the team was able to rebound from the bad breaks of the safety and Michael Floyd's fumble to make defensive stands and hold off Purdue for the win. Those are marks of good coaching and Kelly had his team ready to win.
Runner-Up: Dayne Crist