It’s rare for a week three game against a team like Purdue to be a pivotal game for Notre Dame, but after two uneven performances to start the season, the Irish are at an early-season crossroads. Are they a good team that has played poorly and can get better, or are they simply just a team with a lot of flaws that is going to struggle more than most people thought? This week’s contest will Purdue should give us insight into the answer.
Purdue isn’t a great team by any means, but they are a solid, maybe even good team. They are the kind of team that in recent years, however, Notre Dame’s beaten relatively easily. That’s why this game will let us know what this team really is. Struggle for a third week in a row against a team like Purdue and you are what you are. Win relatively comfortably and you’re not out of the woods yet, but everything is still in front of you.
So let’s get into which way it’ll go.
Worries Me This Week
Offensive Line, Obviously
You simply cannot write about this game, or Notre Dame football in general, right now without mentioning the biggest concern of all so far for the 2021 Fighting Irish – the offensive line. After a rough opener in Tallahassee, the line looked worse last weekend against Toledo. It looked so shaky that Brian Kelly said they expect to use a rotation at the guard positions. Andrew Kristofic and Rocco Spindler are the guards who could spell starters Cain Madden and Zeke Correll. It is not ideal to be tinkering with the lineup and using a rotation in week three.
Purdue features a pretty good defensive line, including one of the best pass rushers in the country, George Karlaftis. Add in injuries at LT to starter Blake Fisher and backup Michael Carmody, and things could get dicey again this weekend if the Irish aren’t able to find some stability.
I don’t think the line will suddenly look like the 2017 Joe Moore award-winning line anytime soon, but I do think they’ll look a little better mainly because I don’t think they could look much worse.
That stupid drum
The drum “controversy” this week was both dumb and awesome at the same time. It only worries me because I don’t want to hear about it tomorrow during the game, and I don’t want to hear about it for years if Purdue were to pull off the upset somehow. It’s funny that Notre Dame isn’t letting Purdue use the home team tunnel for it, and it’s stupid that the two schools couldn’t work something out like, I don’t know, having the drum on the field early? Regardless, if NBC mentions it more than once, I will be annoyed.
Narrator voice: Frank will be annoyed before kickoff.
Containing David Bell
David Bell has 14 catches for 255 yards and 3 touchdowns in just two games this season. Granted, all three of those touchdowns came against perhaps the worst team in the FBS, UCONN, but still. For a defense giving up big plays at an alarming rate through two games, a dynamic wide receiver is cause for concern.
Notre Dame has had some issues on the backend of the defense that has not been fully exposed to date this year primarily because of the pass rush, so it does worry me that Bell could do some damage. Something about knowing Drew Brees will be in the stadium has nightmares of Taylor Stubblefield in my mind. For those who are maybe a little too young to remember Stubblefield, he did this to Notre Dame in 2004.
Notre Dame did not have Kyle Hamilton in 2004, of course, but if Purdue has any semblance of sense, they will try to get Bell the ball far away from the human highlight reel wearing #14 for Notre Dame.
What Doesn’t Worry Me
Notre Dame’s pass rush
Notre Dame has 10 sacks through two games this year, and they have probably left another four or five on the field. For all the concerns on the defensive side of the ball right now, the pass rush is not one of them. I don’t expect that to change this weekend. Jack Plummer has been sacked five times this year and isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks.
Notre Dame’s pass rush will be bolstered even more with the addition of sophomore Jordan Botelho, who Brian Kelly has said will make his season debut against the Boilers after missing the first two games. Botelho was expected to play a big role on the third-down defense this year with Marist Liufau, who was lost for the season. Getting Botelho back should help improve an already excellent pass rush and clean up some of the issues on third down.
Freshman Tyler Buchner is going to play against Purdue. It’s only a matter of how many snaps he gets at this point. That said, I am not concerned at all with Jack Coan when he’s on the field. He’s been great when he has been given time. However, the struggles of the line have limited what Coan can do at times and seems to have affected his pocket presence.
Coan is a gamer who threw a game-winner last week after needing to have his finger popped back into place. When he is in the game, I am confident that he can not only run the offense but put up points. We saw it in the opener and I think we’ll see it when he’s in again this weekend.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to be excited about Tyler Buchner after his debut. Purdue does now have some film of Buchner and will be ready, unlike Toledo, though so it will be interesting to see how the staff handles his snaps. Personally, I’d love to see them let Buchner drop back and let one rip on his first play with everyone expecting him to run.
Notre Dame’s intensity
Brian Kelly mentioned that this week is the first time Notre Dame will have a typical prep week after starting the season on a Sunday night and then having a short week last week. At first, I scoffed at it, but the more I thought about it, the more it does at least give me some hope that the sloppiness we’ve seen can be cleaned up and is, in part, a product of the weird schedule to start the season.
No more excuses this week, though. Notre Dame will be playing back-to-back home games on a normal week of rest. If you listened to the team this week, you could sense a bit of frustration in them this week too. They know they aren’t playing to their standard, and they know that they need to play with more intensity this weekend. I think they will.
Other Players to Watch
- I already mentioned Jordan Botelho, but watch him specifically in the dollar package that Freeman loves. Isaiah Foskey has played in a stand-up linebacker position in that package at times in Botleho’s place.
- Rylie Mills – It has been hard to take Jayson Ademilola off the field this year because he’s been so good, but I have to think we see Mike Elston and Freeman get Mills more snaps this week.
- Kyle Hamilton – It was a quiet week for Hamilton last weekend. Look for that to change.
- Braden Lenzy – I am borderline shocked we haven’t seen Lenzy get the ball on any pop passes or jet sweeps. His wheels are back. Use him.
- Avery Davis – Davis has been open down the seam multiple times this year without having the ball thrown his way. Get the poor guy the ball.
- Jack Kiser – Local kid has a lot of ties to Purdue, and I am a sucker for a good storyline.
- Drew White – He only has 8 tackles so far this year. I figured he would average more than that per game.
- Cam Hart/Tariq Bracy – Bracy replaced Hart at the end of the game last week, so it will be interesting to see if there is any shuffling in the lineup this week.
The line on this game is down to 7.5, which would have seemed crazy in the preseason, but it’s not surprising based on Notre Dame’s performances so far this year. If Notre Dame plays like they are capable of, it should be a relatively easy day at the office. We haven’t seen a performance like that so far this year, though.
The only outcome that would surprise me at this point would be a Purdue easy win. Other than that, I wouldn’t be shocked by almost anything else – close Purdue win, close Notre Dame win, big Notre Dame win.
I think we see the offensive line solidify a bit this week and expect that the defense not only eliminates the big plays but delivers a few of their own. The normal week does Notre Dame some good, and we see a team that’s left entirely too many plays on the field clean things up. Notre Dame has too much talent and has built too much of a winning culture over the last four years for me to give up hope that this can still be a very good team.
This could be more of a projection than a prediction at this point because I am not yet ready to believe that this team isn’t as bad as they looked last week.
Notre Dame 38, Purdue 21