For this week’s scouting report, we’ve traded reports with the Purdue blog Hammer and Rails. They have provided us with a scouting report of the Boilermakers and we have provided them with one of the Fighting Irish. Here’s their take on Purdue heading into this weekend.
Consistency has been the biggest issue for Purdue’s offense so far. In the first two games against Oregon and Toledo, it looked like there would be no expected step back despite the fact that Keith Smith was the only returning skill player with significant experience. The offense scored at will against Toledo, and if not for two interceptions and a fumble that directly led to 17 points against Oregon, the Boilers would have blown out the Ducks in their own stadium. The Oregon game was the most impressive. The first interception was deep in Purdue territory and led to a field goal. The second interception and a fumbled snap were both returned for touchdowns, but in all three instances Purdue answered with a scoring drive.
Turnovers were the issue in the first two games. Joey Elliott had five interceptions combined against Toledo and Oregon, but all three against Toledo were either tipped passes or receiver drops. The Oregon picks were just bad throws. Elliott cut down on those mistakes last week, but the offensive explosiveness we saw in the first two games was not there.
To me, it looked like Purdue’s offense was a step slow. The offensive line was not opening holes against a Northern Illinois defense that executed perfectly and sold out against the run. The passing game was never in sync. Elliott cut down on turnovers, but so many three and outs meant we barely had the ball to do anything. Even then, we finished by scoring the game’s final 14 points and, if not for a gutsy fake punt call, would have had plenty of time to orchestrate a tying scoring drive.
The biggest surprise of the season has been running back Ralph Bolden. Bolden played sparingly last year as a true freshman, not even getting more than 30 yards for the year as he continued to recover from a knee injury in high school. He had a great spring, but most people attributed to the fact that 5th year senior Jaycen Taylor was still not 100% after missing last year with a torn ACL and 4-star recruit Al-Terek McBurse was unable to practice. Still, Bolden held onto the starting job in fall camp and responded by taking his first carry of the season 78 yards for a score. He finished with 234 yards and two scores that day, dropped 123 yards and two TD’s plus 52 yards receiving and a third score on Oregon, then was “held” to 64 yards on 12 carries against NIU. He is averaging 6.8 yards per carry and has 421 yards rushing and 127 yards receiving so far. This is not your typical pass-first Purdue team, as Bolden’s numbers so far are good season total for many Tiller-era backs. Bolden does a great job of getting yards after contact and has next level speed.
Elliott has been good, but not great in the passing game. If you take away the interceptions, he has been an accurate passer (61 for 100) for 674 yards and four scores. His main targets are Keith Smith (17-222-1) and Aaron Valentin (16-139-1). Smith is a converted quarterback who actually threw the TD pass to Valentin in the waning moments of the Oregon game. Tight End Kyle Adams (10-85-0) has been a decent weapon that we have not looked to enough. JuCo transfer Keith Carlos (5-65-1) has shown some promise as an outside receiver, but he has had some key drops that should have been catches.
If Purdue’s offensive line can return to its stellar play of the first two games Purdue will have a chance in this one. They are the main reason Purdue was so successful in the first two games, but they got outworked by NIU and the result was disjointed play. Purdue likes to run behind massive sophomore guard Ken Plue. Fullback Jared Crank has also played a key role so far by opening several holes for Bolden and Taylor.
It is safe to call this unit a major disappointment so far, as many people expected it to be the strength of the team. As a unit they have tackled poorly and they have shown an inability to stop anyone on third downs. All Notre Dame needs to do is throw on crossing routes over the middle on any third down and they will convert as long as the receiver catches the ball. It is that simple. We don’t believe that crossing routes are legal plays, let alone have any idea how to stop them. Toledo exposed this weakness all day on us, but I thought it was because our defensive line was gassed from their hurry up and the linebackers were just playing up. Oregon and NIU converted every key third down this way, however.
In truth, however, I don’t think the defense has been as bad as expected. Many of Toledo’s yards and points came in the sloppy portion of the game when the Boilers were ahead comfortably 45-14. Purdue’s defense only surrendered 21 points at Oregon and actually had several big stops. Purdue also had four stops against NIU that would have given Purdue the ball back and thus more time of possession, but two fumbled punts, a fake punt, and a roughing the kicker penalty on a punt gave the ball right back to the Huskies. NIU managed just seven points off of these mistakes, but they are a very large reason the Huskies dominated time of possession.
Mike Neal and Kawann Short have been two pretty good defensive tackles for us so far. Ryan Kerrigan has not played up to his potential at defensive end, but I think that is because our other end position has done very little. At linebacker, Jason Werner has finally gotten a chance to play after missing the past two years with a back injury. He has done very well, but sophomore’s Joe Holland and Chris Carlino are about a step behind where they should be. Antwon Higgs and Dwayne Beckford are playing quite a bit as true freshmen. Though they are talented, they play like true freshmen at times.
The real disappointment has been in the secondary. We start four seniors, and they have failed to cover the middle of the field at all. Cornerback Brandon King missed the last two games with a deep thigh bruise, but he will be back for this game. That should be a huge boost as we can then move 6th year senior Torri Williams back to safety. David Pender is a jekyl/hyde type of player. He is a pretty good cover corner, but a lousy tackler.
For Purdue to have success on Saturday it has to generate a better pass rush. I think this will be a unique game for us because it is the first time we have not faced a mobile quarterback this year. Chandler Harnish and Jeremiah Masoli used their elusiveness to get out of several sacks, while Aaron Opelt for Toledo had a very quick release on 3-step drops that negated any rush. We have not blitzed very much yet, but I do not know how effective that would be when Clausen has so many good receivers. I must say that I wish Michael Floyd a speedy recovery, but I am not disappointed I will not be seeing a great player like him on Saturday. The player that really scares me is Golden Tate. Tate had basically his only significant contribution as a freshman against Purdue two years ago and he lit us up last year. We must also do a better job against Armando Allen. Quite frankly, our effort against the run in South Bend last season was nothing short of embarrassing because Notre Dame didn’t have a running game before that since 2006.
Purdue’s Special Teams:
This at times has been a blessing and a curse. Carson Wiggs kicked a school record 59 yard field goal just before halftime against Toledo that would have been good from 65, but he missed a 60 yarder in the same situation against NIU. A key play from the Oregon game was a blocked extra point in the second half that was simply kicked too low. As a result, we had to go for two at the end and failed. Last week our punt return game netted the first punt return for a TD since 2003, but Valentin promptly fumbled the next two times. Wiggs has long range as a kicker, but last week we had a couple of drives end on turnovers on downs where we really could have used a field goal.
Our coverage units can be great or awful. Chris Summers is having a much better year punting the ball, but coverage on kickoffs and punts can be dicey at best. I can easily see Notre Dame having a backbreaker kickoff or punt return just like Vontez Duff did in 2001.
This game will be decided by which Purdue team shows up. If the team that played Oregon shows up and eliminates its turnover problems I absolutely believe that Purdue can win. As maligned as our defense has been, they really haven’t been that bad in the two games. It is easy to give up 400+ yards, even to a MAC team, when the offense (and four huge special teams mistakes) does absolutely nothing to keep an exhausted defense off the field. Against Oregon, the Ducks only had a few big plays, but were generally frustrated all night.
Purdue needs to play with the energy it had in the first two games. No one will give them a shot in this one, but as long as they don’t come out and crap the bed like they did in the last night Notre Dame game in 2005 they will be fine. I still expect Notre Dame to win, but the margin of victory will be determined by the amount of mistakes Purdue is able to correct this week. If it corrects them all, Purdue has a shot at the upset.
More on Purdue
Here are some game recaps from each of Purdue’s game from Hammer and Rails.