The Purdue Boilermakers came out on the short end of a 23-12 score in their 2010 season opener at Notre Dame, continuing the program's recent struggles in South Bend (16 losses in the last 17 visits).
Danny Hope's team obviously still has some work to do, but the schedule does them a bit of a favor with three straight winnable home games to close the month of September (against Western Illinois, Ball State, and Toledo, respectively).
Here are ten things we learned about the Boilers from Saturday's season debut.
1. The offensive line is a work in progress.
The Boilermakers introduced three new starters up front at Notre Dame Stadium, and although Hope was happy with their overall performance ("I'm pleased with the development of our offensive line", he told reporters today), there is much room for improvement.
Purdue yielded four sacks against the Irish, including three in the opening five minutes of the second half alone, and quarterback Robert Marve seemed to be running for his life from the opening play.
If Purdue is going to establish the run in 2010 (like Hope has preached since the day he took over in West Lafayette), the offensive line has a ways to go in consistently dominating the line of scrimmage before the Boilermaker offense can reach its full potential.
2. Purdue desperately needs a short-yardage offense.
This category could also be called "How much Purdue misses star running back Ralph Bolden", but with Bolden's services doubtful for much or all of the season, the Boilermakers need answers in the backfield quickly.
Four-star running back Al-Terek McBurse was held to negative-two yards on four carries, while co-starter Dan Dierking (although he at least contributed 56 yards on the ground) doesn't appear physical enough to convert the 3rd-and-2s, 4th-and-1s, etc.
The Boilers showed an over-dependence on the play-action pass in those situations, which would be fine as long as they could pick up the short yardage needed by actually running the ball every now and again.
Most costly was a Marve interception on 4th-and-1 that wasted an impressive 90-yard second-half drive. Trailing 20-3 and having marched from their own 5-yard line to the Notre Dame 5, the Purdue coaching staff didn't trust their backs to pick up the young season's most important yard to date, and the Irish defense took away all of Marve's aerial targets (due to an utter disrespect of the Boilermakers' rushing attack).
3. Keith Smith and Ryan Kerrigan are bona fide stars.
Purdue's best offensive and defensive players in the season opener were their senior All-American candidates at wide receiver and defensive end. Keith Smith and Ryan Kerrigan lived up to their offseason hype and then some, with Smith grabbing 12 passes for 80 yards (while adding punt returner to his list of duties) and Kerrigan piling up 7 tackles (2.5 tackles for loss) and a fumble recovery.
Smith had four catches on one second-quarter drive to help the Boilermakers' offense finally get on the board. His back-to-back receptions started the drive, which Carson Wiggs ultimately finished with a 25-yard field goal.
Kerrigan's most impressive play was a stop in the end zone against Notre Dame running back Armando Allen. Kerrigan and cornerback Charlton Williams teamed up to break through the Irish offensive line and throw Allen for a three-yard loss and a safety (nearly doubling Purdue's scoring output to that point). The momentum-turning stop pulled the Boilers within 20-5 and sparked a small fourth-quarter comeback.
For Purdue to reach a bowl game in 2010, their best players will have to step up big. The performances of Smith and Kerrigan on Saturday were good signs for the Old Gold and Black.
4. Tackling is still a concern.
With as much defensive talent as Purdue has returning in their front seven, a repeat of last season's consistently poor tackling is simply unacceptable. Against Notre Dame, unfortunately, the Boilers were gashed early and often, as running backs Armando Allen and Cierre Wood combined to roll up 151 yards on 25 carries.
Hope likes to talk about all of the youth and inexperience on his team, but with both a veteran linebacker corps (upperclassmen Jason Werner, Joe Holland, and Chris Carlino have been around the block) and talented ends like Kerrigan and Gerald Gooden, the defense should (and will) be expected to perform better during the next 11 games.
5. Rob Henry and Antavian Edison could contribute in the Purdue backfield.
Offensive coordinator Gary Nord threw a wrinkle at the Irish in the second quarter when he inserted backup quarterback Rob Henry for four straight plays. Henry didn't throw a pass while he was on the field, but picked up an average of 5.3 yards per carry on three rushes and helped the Boilers convert an important 3rd-and-8 out of a timeout.
According to Hope, Henry will have a role this season, and not just on the ground. "He's a very good runner with the ball- one of our better runners with the football," said Hope. "But his role as our number two quarterback is to execute the same offensive plan.
"We want to get him involved in the passing game."
Another surprising personnel move in Saturday's loss featured sophomore wide receiver Antavian Edison getting four carries at running back. Purdue has struggled with depth at tailback during fall camp, losing McBurse to a leg injury for a few days and projected backup Keith Carlos to a stress fracture ("I haven't seen him do anything football-wise since last spring", Hope said of Carlos's slower-than-expected recovery), so the decision was made to give Edison a few backfield snaps.
"We felt like, coming out of camp, that he was one of our better playmakers on the offensive side of the ball," Hope said. "[Edison] was running hard with the football, was very sure-handed catching the ball, was making people miss, finishing runs, and was very detailed with his assignments.
"We got lean at the running back spot, so he got some reps at practice, and got a few in the game. We want to manufacture ways to get Antavian the ball, so it’s a good thing."
Edison finished with 17 rushing yards to go along with two catches against Notre Dame.
6. Turnover margin is crucial to Purdue's success.
Boilermakers fans remember last year's dismal 1-5 start, which can be directly attributed to Purdue's 20 costly turnovers in that six-game span. For Purdue to come out on the winning side of things more often in 2010, they'll have to cut down on the giveaways.
Hope is always reminding his players that "the ball is the program" (i.e. they're carrying the fate of Purdue football when they lug the pigskin on a given play), so it was discouraging to see the "program" be thrown Notre Dame's way a couple of times in Saturday's opener.
On the bright side, the Boilers did force a turnover themselves, stripping Michael Floyd of the football inside the Purdue 5-yard line to keep Notre Dame from blowing the game wide open and extending a 20-3 lead.
Turnover margin is a key for any team, but it's proven to be especially important for Purdue under Hope.
"If we had done a better job of taking care of the football from a ball security standpoint [in 2009], we probably would have been one of the great success stories in college football," he told writers before the season began.
Keep an eye on this statistic as the season goes on, since Purdue needs to find a way to start winning the turnover margin on a consistent basis.
7. The Boilermakers have to convert on big plays.
With Purdue suddenly only down one score (20-12) and less than nine minutes to go, Marve rolled out in his own end zone and heaved the ball 50 yards downfield to wideout Justin Siller on a 3rd-and-19 bomb.
Marve's pass hit a single-covered Siller in the hands before falling harmlessly to the ground, and while the catch was not easy by any stretch of the imagination (Siller was twisted around and going down fast), it needed to be made.
Pull the ball in, and the Boilermakers have more momentum, better field position, and 80,000 Golden Domers get more nervous in a hurry.
Instead, Purdue punted from their own end zone, Notre Dame took over at their own 41, and the home team promptly marched downfield to add three points to their lead and put the game out of reach.
The Boilers will have more chances to make big plays through the air, thanks to their quarterback's rocket arm, but they need to start converting the opportunities.
8. Carson Wiggs' leg changes the dynamics of a two-minute drill.
Almost every team in the country would play conservatively with the ball at their own 22-yard line, 40 seconds on the first-half clock, and only having scored three points in the first 29+ minutes of the game.
But no other team in the country has Carson Wiggs.
Purdue hasn't made a secret of wanting to give Wiggs a chance to set the NCAA record for field goal length (currently 67 yards), and knowing your kicker has a realistic shot from 70 completely changes how Hope, Nord, and the coaching staff attack different situations.
The problem is when that ace in the hole causes an over-aggressive approach, as it did in South Bend.
I don't mind seeing Hope defy the odds by letting Marve and company air it out in the final minute before intermission, but they need to make sure the execution is there. Against Notre Dame, two Marve incompletions and an offensive penalty forced the Boilers to punt with 13 seconds left.
Sure, it's nice to know you can try a field goal if the offense can crack midfield, but when your offense has been sputtering and mis-firing all half, handing the ball back to an opponent after only 27 seconds is a recipe for disaster.
Wiggs will win a few games for Purdue before the year's done, but Hope needs to make sure he doesn't give up extra possessions to show off his star's booming leg.
9. The secondary may just be all right.
Two new cornerbacks. Two new safeties.
A true freshman and two JUCO additions in the defensive backfield two-deep.
Forgive Boilermaker fans if they spent half of Saturday's game flipping back and forth through the roster just trying to learn names and numbers: that's a ton of new faces.
But despite breaking in four novice starters, the Purdue secondary may not be as much of a liability as most onlookers had feared.
Freshman Ricardo Allen has the makings of a star, Mike Eargle and Max Charlot look like Big Ten players already (thanks to their junior-college experience), and more-familiar names like Charlton Williams, Josh Johnson, Albert Evans, and Logan Link have improved every year in the program.
It's the new guys' time to shine, and holding Notre Dame and Brian Kelly's vaunted no-huddle attack to 205 passing yards in their 2010 debut is an encouraging start.
10. Robert Marve still has some growing up to do.
Marve was assessed a personal foul penalty on the lone Boilermaker touchdown, thanks to a showboat dive into the end zone to celebrate a huge 4th-and-1 conversion for points. With new NCAA rules that can actually take touchdowns away for excessive celebration likely going into effect next year, a stupid play like Marve's could have cost his team the score they had worked so hard for.
The good news is that Marve's matured since his troubles as a Miami Hurricane; the better news is that the Boilermakers are holding him to a high standard as his career resumes. Purdue's captains and coaches got in the young quarterback's ear as soon as the play had finished, and it's safe to say Marve's celebrations will be a bit toned down in the future.
Purdue fans just hope their talented signal-caller has a lot more scoring plays to celebrate as the 2010 season continues.
For more Purdue football coverage from Bleacher Report writer Tim Cary, follow him on Twitter at @TimCary.