The emotional roller coaster that is the Notre Dame 2006 season continues this week with the Irish returning home to take on in-state rival Purdue. The undefeated Boilermakers will stroll into South Bend with an unblemished record at 4-0 and will be looking for revenge after last year’s blow win for the Irish. Before I get into this week’s preview though, lets do a quick review of just how crazy this season has been.
I’ll start in the pre-season. Brady Quinn graced the cover of just about every pre-season publication to come out this year and the Irish were a chic pick as a national title contender. After a rather unimpressive win in Atlanta over Georgia Tech, the Irish blew out a Penn State team that went in Columbus this past weekend and gave #1 Ohio State all it could handle for 57 minutes before Anthony Morelli remember that he was, well Anthony Morelli.
From there the Irish got beat up on by Michigan at home. The Wolverines jumped all over the Irish and three weeks into the season Quinn was no longer the Heisman front runner and the Irish were “overrated.” That brings us to last week. Down 17-0 in the first quarter and then 37-21 in the fourth, the Irish caught fire and came back to beat Michigan State in a driving rain.
And now the Irish will play their fifth undefeated team, in as many weeks, as the roller coaster ride continues when Joe Tiller brings his undefeated Boilermakers into Notre Dame Stadium.
Many questions face the Irish heading into this weekend’s content, most of them on the offensive side of the ball. Notre Dame has not been able to run the ball very effectively this year outside of the second half of the Georgia Tech game and they will look to establish some semblance of a run game this week.
I don’t think the running game will be as important for this game as it will for the rest of the season. Purdue has a patchwork secondary after Torri Williams and Aaron Lane were lost for the year with injuries leaving two freshmen and two JUCO’s rounding out the starters.
If there was any game this year for Quinn to get off to a fast start, this would be it. Brock Sprack is a decent enough defensive coordinator (despite his “what happened” moment last year), but he has to be having nightmares this week trying to figure out how his secondary is going to hold up against a Notre Dame passing attack that torched Purdue for 440 yards last year.
Weis will try to establish the run, but that will be more for getting the ground game on track for the rest of the season than attacking the Purdue defense. The passing game should be where the Irish do most of their damage Saturday. Look for David Grimes to be used more this week with the Irish trying to spread out the inexperienced Boilermaker secondary.
Expect Purdue to send a lot of pressure at Quinn, especially early. After four games there is no secret on how to slow the Notre Dame offense – pressure. With their secondary, Purdue’s best bet is going to be pressuring Quinn instead of letting him sit back and pick them apart.
For this reason, the Notre Dame offensive line is going to need to be at their best in order to give Quinn time to pass. If the line can slow down the Purdue blitz and give Brady time to pass, he could light up the Purdue defense. Slowing down the Purdue blitz and hitting some long passes early will also force Purdue to cut down on their blitzes which in turn could open up the running game for the Irish.
Notre Dame should get freshman James Aldridge back this week after some lingering injuries from the summer. Weis has stated that this was the week they were expecting to have Aldridge available to use for weeks, but hasn’t really said much about his plans for the freshman this week. Getting Aldridge back would give the Irish another back to use along with Darius Walker even though it unclear how much Weis would be willing to use a freshman who’s had injury problems this year.
Defensively, the Irish will have their hands full as always with a potent Purdue passing game. Curtis Painter took over the reigns at quarterback this year and has been solid so far. He has eight touchdown passes in four games, but has also thrown five interceptions including three against Miami of Ohio. He’s added three touchdowns on the ground as well.
Painter has a lot of weapons at his disposal with Dorein Bryant and Greg Orton at receiver, Dustin Keller at tight end, and Kory Sheet at running back. Bryant is an elusive, game-breaking receiver who has big play ability. He’s accumulated 351 yards this year and has caught three of Painters eight touchdowns.
Keller, a very talented tight end, will pose a big threat for Purdue and could give the Notre Dame linebackers some trouble. Look for Notre Dame to try and have safety coverage on him when possible to avoid getting him one on one with one of the Irish linebackers. Keller has racked up 359 yards to lead the Boilermakers and recorded the longest reception of the year as well with a 69 yarder.
This is an offense that can put up a lot of points, but has not been challenged all that much this year other than last week with their conference opener against Minnesota. How Painter responds to his first road start of the season will be interesting after his first road start of the season in 2005 resulted in 3 interceptions and a touchdown in Madison against the Badgers.
In the running game, Purdue is solid, but not overly impressive. Kory Sheets is averaging under 100 yards a game with 321 yards through four games. He is also a smaller back which bodes well for the Irish who had all they could handle trying to tackle Jehu Caulcrick last week in East Lansing. Sheets has found the end zone an impressive 10 times already this season (8 rushing, 2 receiving) and is averaging over five yards a carry. Joining Sheets in the backfield is sophomore Jaycen Taylor who is averaging 7.8 yards a carry. Taylor is a smaller, quick back who has homerun potential. With both backs being smaller backs, they should find it tougher going than power backs like Caulcrick and Mike Hart had against the Irish.
Still, I think Purdue will try to run the ball early and try to keep the Irish offense off the field. While their passing game is formidable, I don’t think they have the weapons on offense at this point to be able to get into a shoot out with the Irish.
This is exactly the kind of game Notre Dame should win, but hasn’t in recent years at least prior to the arrival of Weis. Last year the Irish went into West Lafayette and ran it up on Purdue and on paper they should be able to again this year. Purdue has a very green secondary, they have a sophomore starting at quarterback who has just nine career starts under his belt, and Purdue will be making their first road trip of the year. All signs are pointing to a fairly easy Notre Dame win.
The one thing that concerns me heading into this weekend, however, would be an emotional let down after that week’s thrilling victory. Still, I think the Irish got a wakeup call when they saw their season slipping away last weekend. A quick start for the Irish will be key, and if Quinn can come out clicking, the Irish win this one pretty easily.
Prediction: Notre Dame 42 Purdue 24