SOUTH BEND – In the 87th playing of the Notre Dame-Purdue rivalry, both teams proved plenty and both have significant questions still unresolved.
The No. 12 Irish won 27-13 at Notre Dame Stadium this afternoon in the first meeting of the rivalry since 2014, the eighth straight victory for Notre Dame in the series. The Irish made strides in both of the facets that gave them so much trouble in the first two weeks of the season and they improved to 3-0, keeping their win streaks at home (26 games) and against unranked opponents (35) alive heading into a marquee matchup against Wisconsin on Sept. 25.
For the first time in three games under new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, the Irish provided a glimpse of what Freeman's defense is meant to look like. Notre Dame gave up back-to-back 30-yard plays in the third quarter that led to a Purdue touchdown (a 31-yard run for King Doerue and a 32-yard pass to David Bell) and outside of that surrendered only 3.7 yards per play and 1.0 per rush. The Irish hit Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer seven times, sacked him three times, picked off backup quarterback Aidan O'Connell twice and held Purdue scoreless for the final 22 minutes of the game while keeping the Boilermakers from converting on 10 of their final 11 third-down attempts.
Kyle Hamilton was the star, recording 10 tackles, two pass breakups and an interception – he said his team was "annoyed" by the talk of the struggling defense – but Notre Dame played well from top to bottom. There are still question marks at the cornerback spots as Cam Hart got picked on a little bit against Bell (and then left the game with a hip injury in the fourth quarter), but Notre Dame looked fast, played opportunistically and limited big plays. There are building blocks here.
Coach Brian Kelly laughed when asked how much the defense benefits from not giving up big plays.
"Quite a bit, quite a bit," he said. "You saw the structure of our defense today. We executed better, we tackled better, not great, but better. This was an improvement. There were going to be growing pains and there were, but we did it through some wins. We got an ACC win, we got a win against a really good MAC team (Note: that might be stretching a term when it comes to Toledo, which lost to Colorado State 22-6 today) and we got a Big Ten win as we continue to grow and develop."
The same could be said for the offensive line, although the Irish still have further to go there. Notre Dame was down to its third-string left tackle with Blake Fisher and Michael Carmody out today because of injuries. Tosh Baker filled in at the spot and although he committed a false start, Kelly said he loved the third-stringer's intensity and competitiveness. The Irish once again struggled to protect quarterback Jack Coan in the first half – he was brought down for a 9-yard loss by a free-rushing linebacker on the first Notre Dame play from scrimmage – but Notre Dame went to some more max-protect packages with extra tight ends in the second half and that gave Coan some cleaner pockets. He took advantage, hitting Avery Davis deep for a 62-yard touchdown and also putting what should have been a 50-yard touchdown right in Braden Lenzy's hands in the end zone before Lenzy let it pop out. Coan also missed what should have been a touchdown deep to a wide-open Kevin Austin. Those big plays have to be converted when the Irish have the opportunities, but the good news was that Coan was getting time to at least look deep in the second half. The line is still a work in progress and Notre Dame will have to continue to utilize quick passes, moving pockets and extra blockers to give Coan time, but there is the outline of an explosive offense. Kelly said much of today's game plan was predicated on stopping All-Big Ten defensive end George Karlaftis, who had 1 1/2 tackles for loss, but was bottled up in the second half.
"If we didn't do some of the things we did, George was going to wreck the day," Kelly said. "That guy's good. He's really good. I was not going to let him wreck the day for us. We had to do some things that do not make for an offensive beauty show. There's no pictures. We just wanted to find a way to score enough points. Today was one of those where you have an elite pass-rusher like that."
It remains to be seen whether the improvement Notre Dame showed tonight will carry over against a big, mean Badgers team next week in Chicago, the biggest test for the Irish so far this season. But for the first time in three games in 2021, the picture of a very successful season in South Bend began to come into focus.
As for Purdue, the Boilermakers proved they could hang with one of the big boys, but they settled for field goals twice in the red zone and just weren't fast enough to finish against the Irish. Maybe the best example of that latter phenomena came in the third quarter, when the Boilers tried a halfback pass. The fake was perfectly executed and the Irish left a Purdue receiver running free deep down the field. It would have been a touchdown, but the Boilermaker running back didn't have time to load up and throw the ball before he was dragged down by Notre Dame's NaNa Osafo-Mensah for a loss. It was like that all day for Purdue: just not enough team speed.
"We love games like this, we need games like this," Purdue slot receiver Jackson Anthrop said. "Just the environment and everything that we do, especially the physicality up front. ... We look into winning every single game and sometimes that doesn't happen. Going forward we're going to see a lot more good football teams. ... We can't dwell on it. Does it stink losing a rivalry game? Yeah. It's not very fun, but at the same time we have more important games ahead."
The Boilermakers still have all of their goals in front of them. They have a terrific chance to start the season 4-1 with games against Illinois and Minnesota coming up next and if they can win those, a clash with No. 5 Iowa in Iowa City looms on Oct. 16. Purdue still has an opportunity to put together a very good season, but the Boilers need to hope that David Bell, who was knocked out of the game by a big hit in the fourth quarter, is not out for a prolonged period.