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Monaco: With tough foes on horizon, Irish need to find identity (Sept. 16)

Mike Monaco | Sunday, September 15, 2013

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Maybe their ears were ringing from the banging on Purdue’s ‘World’s Largest Drum.’

Maybe they had the same post-Big House hangover the Wolverines had Saturday against Akron.

Whatever the reason, the Irish started slowly. But then Notre Dame turned it around and did what it was supposed to do to Purdue. All is well, right? Not quite.

Before facing the Irish, Purdue defeated FCS Indiana State by three points and lost by 35 to Cincinnati. Notre Dame’s next four opponents – Michigan State, No. 14 Oklahoma, No. 23 Arizona State and USC  – are a combined 10-1.

So when Brian Kelly says Notre Dame’s identity is still “cloudy” and DaVaris Daniels says the Irish “came out flat” and “weren’t ready to play,” it’s troubling. No, Notre Dame is not a finished product. But the team will have to play like one against an upcoming slate of stiff competition.

On Saturday night, the first two times the Irish touched the ball, they muffed it. George Atkinson couldn’t handle the kickoff cleanly and barely made it back to the 17-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, Nick Martin’s snap went right through the hands of Tommy Rees to running back Amir Carlisle, who promptly lost three yards. On the fourth play of Notre Dame’s early second-quarter drive, Rees was nearly picked off by Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen. The pass was intended for Chris Brown and, if Allen had snared it, Purdue likely would have had a pick-six. Three plays later, Rees was almost intercepted again, but the Boilermakers couldn’t make the play.

Those types of fortunate breaks won’t fly next week against Michigan State, the team tied for sixth in the nation with eight forced turnovers, five of which the Spartans have converted into touchdowns and two of which have netted field goals.

Notre Dame surrendered 75 yards on Purdue’s first 12 plays Saturday. But after that opening drive, the Irish limited the Boilermakers to 71 yards on their next 23 plays. Some might say the Irish turned it around. But that’s merely what they should have been doing from the outset, considering the Boilers had mustered only 54 and 69 yards, respectively, in their previous two first quarters against the Sycamores and Bearcats.

That type of slow start won’t work two weeks from now against No. 14 Oklahoma, who Bell-dozed out of the gates with three scoring drives of 72 yards or more on its first three possessions Saturday against Tulsa.

Notre Dame bailed itself out of a lifeless start by holding Purdue to 219 yards and 17 points after the Boilermakers undressed the Irish on that opening touchdown drive. Purdue punted twice and threw a costly interception on three of its last four possessions Saturday night.

That type of second-half defensive turnaround won’t be as easy three weeks from now against No. 23 Arizona State, a team that scored touchdowns on three of its last four possessions Saturday night against then-No. 20 Wisconsin.

Late in the first quarter, TJ Jones made a fair catch at his own 4-yard line, and the Irish followed it up by racking up one yard on three plays. Notre Dame punted and Purdue had terrific field position, but the Boilers couldn’t capitalize, missing a 27-yard field goal. In fact, Purdue’s average field position on its three first-quarter drives was its own 41.7-yard line, but the Boilers only walked away with seven points.

That type of Nik Wallenda tight-rope walk won’t succeed against USC, who never started a drive in enemy territory against Boston College on Saturday but still posted 35 points by churning out four scoring drives of at least 75 yards.

So, call it a flat start for Notre Dame against Purdue. Call the Irish an unfinished product.

Whatever Saturday was and whatever the Irish are, things won’t be as easy moving forward as they were in week three.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.