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Irish Insider: Gutting it out

Alex Barker | Monday, September 28, 2009

Plagued by a number of injuries at a multitude of positions, Notre Dame didn’t look itself Saturday night. But just as the hope began to fade, a familiar face came to the rescue.

Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen led the Irish on a mesmerizing 72-yard drive, capped off by sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph’s touchdown reception on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line with just 25 seconds remaining to give Notre Dame a 24-21 victory over Purdue Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium.

“It’s a standard red-zone play,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “We run it in practice all the time and Kyle ran it exactly how he should have.”

With 3:41 to play and the Irish down by three, an injured Clausen took the field for only the fourth time in the half to engineer the game-winning drive. On a key third down play from the Purdue 36, Clausen found senior Robby Parris for a 15-yard reception to keep the drive alive. After a 17-yard pass to junior Golden Tate, the Irish failed to punch it in on their first three tries from the three-yard line.

“After we broke the huddle [on fourth and goal], [Rudolph] came up to me and said, ‘Jimmy, get me the ball,’ and I told him, ‘You’d better get up and catch the ball,'” Clausen said.

Clausen completed 15 of 26 passes for 171 yards, a touchdown, and his first interception on the season.

“[Clausen] actually wasn’t supposed to play in the second half,” Weis said. “He took some medication at halftime, and we tried to run a lot of shotgun formations so it would take pressure off his footwork. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, he said he could go and when the game got to that situation, I listened to him and went ahead and put him in there.”

Before Clausen’s heroics stole the spotlight on the final drive, the story of the game was Notre Dame’s latest version of the Wildcat offense behind backup quarterback Dayne Crist. The sophomore, who had only taken two meaningful snaps before Saturday’s matchup with the Boilermakers, took over for Clausen in the second quarter after two less-than-impressive drives that yielded just three points, thanks in part to Purdue penalties.

On his first play from scrimmage for the Irish (3-1), Crist called his own number, dashing for a 16-yard gain. He finished with 23 yards rushing on the night.

“I thought [Crist] did a nice job,” Weis said. “There were a couple throws he would like back, but I thought he really managed the game well.”

After recording just one catch in the first quarter, Tate’s role quickly shifted from receiver to running back. The junior took seven snaps from the Wildcat formation, as well as the featured back behind Crist, in the second quarter, running for 50 yards and a score.

Junior Robert Hughes also took on a much bigger role in the offense for the first time this season. With the starting backfield of junior Armando Allen and senior James Aldridge out with injuries, Hughes led the Irish with 68 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

“Our focus was on running the ball and keeping possession,” Hughes said. “We wanted to keep Purdue’s offense on the sideline.”

Sophomore Jonas Gray got the start for Notre Dame at tailback, but received just four carries after the first quarter. He finished with 27 yards on nine carries.

The Irish offense had a strong showing in the second quarter with the implementation of their Wildcat formation, but it was the defense that stepped up when the offense sputtered.

After a poor effort on the first drive of the game that resulted in an 80-yard Boilermaker touchdown drive, the defense stifled a strong Purdue running game the rest of the way.

Boilermaker running back Ralph Bolden, who was ranked second nationally in rushing yards heading into the game, was held to just 67 yards on the ground.

On the flipside, junior wide receiver Keith Smith had his way with the Irish defense. Smith pulled in 11 catches for 136 yards, including a three-yard touchdown reception right between senior defensive backs Sergio Brown and Kyle McCarthy early in the fourth quarter.

Despite an ugly first quarter which yielded just a 34-yard field goal from freshman Nick Tausch, the Irish fought back to take a 17-7 halftime lead behind rushing touchdowns from Hughes and Tate.

Notre Dame’s offense dominated the third quarter, owning 11:40 of the possession time versus Purdue’s 3:20. However, the quarter rendered no points for either side. During the Irish’s second drive of the quarter, Crist and company found themselves facing a fourth-and-10 on the Purdue 34. After taking a timeout to mull a decision, Weis elected to go for it, but the Irish were turned away after Crist was sacked back at the 41-yard line.

“We talked about a few situations during the timeout,” Weis said of the play. “We were trying to figure out if we wanted to take a delay of game or draw them off sides. We had a lot of exotic punt formations we could have tried, but I have no regrets other than the fact that we didn’t get the first down.”

In the fourth quarter, the game slowly began to take on that same too-close-for-comfort feeling that has become a staple for the Irish games this season.

Purdue (1-3) wasted no time taking advantage of the faltering Irish offense, scoring on its first drive of the fourth quarter, a 59-yard drive culminating with Smith’s touchdown catch to pull within four.

Just two possessions later, the game looked to be swinging irreversibly in Purdue’s direction. The Boilermakers scored another touchdown, this time a 38-yard reception by senior running back Jaycen Taylor, who waltzed in for the score after being left completely unguarded on the sideline.

However, for the second straight week, the Purdue defense was unable to keep its opponent out of the endzone in the final minutes to clinch a win.

While the Irish victory was anything but convincing, Weis isn’t concerned as long as his team keeps winning.

“That’s three weeks in a row you come down to the last minute of the game,” he said. “Would you like the game to be easier than that? Yes, absolutely, but give me a close win anytime of the week. I’ll take it.”