SOUTH BEND – It's only a little more than 100 miles from West Lafayette to South Bend, but it's been seven years since either Purdue or Notre Dame made the trip to the other's campus to face off on the gridiron. That changes today, when the Irish and Boilermakers meet at Notre Dame Stadium for the latest iteration of a rivalry that began in 1896 and was played every year for 69 consecutive seasons before going on hiatus in 2014.
Beyond being a rivalry game for the Shillelagh Trophy, however, the Irish and Boilermakers have plenty at stake individually in this game. Both teams come in with worlds to prove: Notre Dame is out to show that its lackluster performances in Week 1 at Florida State and Week 2 against Toledo were mere blips on the radar on the way to another excellent season. Purdue is out to demonstrate that it can play with the big boys: after two victories over lesser opponents to open the campaign, the Boilermakers are trying to start 3-0 for the first time since 2007. This is the first of two games the Boilers will play this season against 2020 College Football Playoff teams, in addition to a Nov. 13 matchup against Ohio State in Columbus.
The Irish have had two main issues so far this season: on offense, their line, long a strength of the program, is suddenly a big question mark, while on defense they have had a penchant for giving up big plays. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Purdue is well-positioned to take advantage of both of those weaknesses.
Up front, the Irish were already replacing four starters from one of the best offensive lines in the country. True freshman Blake Fisher was the starter at left tackle to open the season, but he hurt his knee against Florida State and his backup, Michael Carmody, suffered a sprained ankle against Toledo. Carmody is a game-time decision and if he can't play, it will be third-stringer Tosh Baker getting the start protecting the Irish quarterbacks' blind sides. That will be a significant issue with Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis, whom Irish coach Brian Kelly called arguably the best pass-rusher in college football, coming off the edge. Karlaftis has been destructive in Purdue's first two games, creating all kinds of havoc in the Boilermakers' new, more aggressive defense. Snider graduate Lawrence Johnson also starts on the defensive front for the Boilers at nose tackle. Notre Dame will have to do a better job of protecting than they did last week, when Toledo sacked Jack Coan six times.
On defense, Notre Dame has given up four plays of 60-plus yards in two games through a combination of unfamiliarity with new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman's scheme and plain old poor tackling. For comparison, the Irish gave up only four such plays in three years under former defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Of course, the Irish have also had plenty of what they called "havoc plays" and tackles for loss this season and outside the big plays have given up fewer than four yards per snap, a terrific number. But they'll have to be extremely sound against Purdue wide receiver David Bell, one of the best wideouts in the Big Ten. Bell isn't a burner, but he's extremely good at going up and getting the ball in traffic and he's maybe the best receiver in the country at getting yards after the catch. Tackling will need to be extremely tight for the Irish this afternoon. Kelly said his team will likely bracket Bell, but if Notre Dame does that and doesn't get pressure on quarterback Jack Plummer, Plummer could find Milton Wright, slot receiver TJ Sheffield or tight end Payne Durham, all of whom are talented pass-catchers.
Of course, one of the main questions of the game is how the Irish play at quarterback. Last week, true freshman Tyler Buchner made his college debut and led the Irish on a 96-yard touchdown drive his first time with the ball. Buchner is a talented runner and he provides an extra threat for Notre Dame's struggling rushing attack. He is unproven as a thrower, however. Kelly said Buchner will play again this week, but how much remains to be seen. Much likely depends on how well Notre Dame can run with Coan in the game.
The Boilermakers, meanwhile will probably rely almost exclusively on the passing game. They haven't run particularly effectively all season and that was before top back Zander Horvath, an All-Big Ten honoree last season, suffered a broken leg against Connecticut that will sideline him 4-8 weeks. The Mishawaka native was likely looking forward to playing against his (almost) hometown team, but the Boilers will instead have to rely on King Doerue and Dylan Downing. It would not surprise me if Purdue runs into a brick wall repeatedly in the early going.
Meanwhile, it's a big game for Kelly, though he would never admit it. With a win, the 12th-year Irish coach will tie Knute Rockne for the most wins in Notre Dame history with 105. He spoke this week about the consistency that he has tried to build within the program as he approaches the record and it's hard to argue with the results: four straight 10-win seasons for the first time in Irish history.