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Way-Too-Early Preview: Irish set to revive in-state rivalry with Purdue

| Wednesday, March 24, 2021

We are back with another way-too-early preview for the 2021 Notre Dame football season, so let’s get into it.

Opponent: Purdue Boilermakers

Date: Sept. 18, 2021

Location: Notre Dame Stadium

Kickoff: TBD

History of the matchup

Some consider this matchup a classic rivalry, as the in-state clash was once played every year, but this battle with the Boilermakers will represent the Irish’s first meeting with Purdue since 2014. Notre Dame has dominated the overall series, with a 56-26-2 record, including five straight victories from 2008-2014 (seven if you include vacated wins in 2012 and 2013). In three valid games against Purdue in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish have given up 12 points per game and scored 30 points per contest en route to three relatively easy victories. Purdue’s last win in the series came in 2007, and their last victory at Notre Dame Stadium came three years earlier in 2004.

The Irish and Boilermakers have almost always played in September. Since 1965, only three games have not: a pair of games on Oct. 1, 2005 and Oct. 2, 2004, and a rescheduled game that took place in December 2001 due to the 9/11 attacks. Because of these early-season matchups, plus Purdue’s recent inability to build any kind of title contender, meaningful matchups for the Shillelagh Trophy have been few and far between. 

Notable clashes include the 2010 battle, as Notre Dame’s 3-4 defense shut down Purdue in a 23-12 victory — Brian Kelly’s first as head coach. In their last game before the modern era, Notre Dame slammed the Boilermakers 52-7 in 1988, a dominating statement win en route to their most recent national championship. That 2004 Purdue victory, a dismal 41-16 beatdown, still represents Purdue’s only win in South Bend since 1974, as Notre Dame has racked up an 18-1 record playing at home versus the Boilermakers in the 40 years following that ‘74 loss. They’ll look to run that record to 19-1 with a Sept. 18 victory in the 2021 season. 

2020 performance

Purdue played in the abbreviated Big 10 season during the fall of 2020, stumbling their way to a 2-4 season in a conference-only schedule. The Boilermakers started out strong with victories over Iowa, who finished in the Top 20, and a road win against Illinois. However, a COVID-induced cancellation threw an unexpected pause into the season, and a tough home loss to eventual Big 10 West champion Northwestern sent the Boilermakers into a tailspin. 

Purdue lost consecutive one-possession decisions, dropping games to Minnesota and Rutgers, before ending their 2020 campaign with a bad 37-27 loss to Nebraska, finishing in sixth place in the West Division.

Individually, the Boilermakers had two quarterbacks see significant action, with Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer putting up similar numbers and combining for 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. Redshirt junior Alexander Horvath was the key offensive playmaker, racking up 442 yards on the ground and 304 receiving yards, with a pair of touchdowns on the season. Sophomore David Bell was the biggest passing game threat, averaging nearly nine receptions, 104 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game in 2020. He will return as a prominent playmaker in 2021. 

Defensively, Purdue struggled down the stretch, allowing 36 points per game in their final three contests. Junior safety Damarcus Mitchell was a key player in blitz packages, notching six tackles for loss and a sack. Junior defensive end Derrick Barnes had 5.5 TFL and an interception, while sophomore cornerback Cam Allen had the other two interceptions recorded by the Boilermakers’ defense. 

On special teams, Purdue saw a strong effort from redshirt senior JD Dillinger, who was perfect on PATs and 7-9 on field goals. The Boilermakers largely utilized two punters, with sophomore Brooks Cormier putting up slightly better numbers, averaging over 40 yards per punt on 14 attempts. 

2021 outlook

Barring unexpected changes, Purdue will enter 2021 as a middle-to-below average team in the Big 10, again with head coach Jeff Brohm at the helm. 2021 will be Brohm’s fifth season with the Boilermakers after he spent three years with Western Kentucky. 

Offensively, fifth-year O’Connell and junior Plummer return in a QB battle for the starting job in 2021. With both putting up solid numbers, the Boilermakers are in decent position under center, regardless of who takes over. Bell, a junior, and Horvath, a fifth-year, return as key figures in the Purdue offense, so the nucleus of offensive production remains the same, leading to some promising potential for the Boilermakers on that side of the ball.

Defensively, junior Cam Allen returns as Purdue’s top playmaker, although he’s listed as a safety rather than a cornerback on the spring roster. Mitchell will also return as a valuable asset in the secondary, but Barnes departs for the NFL draft, leaving some question marks within Purdue’s front seven. While Purdue did not bring in a dynamic recruiting class — ranking last in the Big 10 after only securing 15 commits — their one four-star prospect could help in this area, as Yanni Karlaftis elected to stay in his hometown and play for the Boilermakers. Karlaftis, an outside linebacker, is easily the top recruit in the class and could be a day-one starter as a freshman. Beyond Karlaftis, Purdue will look to a young group of players at the linebacker and defensive line positions to step up and be playmakers for a defensive unit that really struggled down the stretch in 2020.

The kicking position is a definite question mark for Purdue, following the graduation of Dillinger. They have four players at the position — all sophomores or younger — that did not attempt a PAT or field goal last season. Cormier returns as a strong option in the punting game, but spring practices may go a long way towards determining who’s taking over the kicking duties in West Lafayette.

As a team, Purdue will have a strong chance at entering this game 2-0, with their biggest test prior to Notre Dame being a season-opening home game against Oregon State. The Beavers went 2-5 in Pac-12 play, although they did notch a solid victory over Oregon. After facing OSU, Purdue travels to UConn for what should be a near-automatic win before taking on Notre Dame in South Bend.

Meanwhile, should Notre Dame survive a season-opening road trip to Florida State and a home game against Toledo, the Fighting Irish will also enter this game 2-0, giving this game some early meaning and a chance for Purdue to secure a likely top-15 victory in September.

(Way Too Early) Predictions

Aidan Thomas – Sports Writer
The offense will likely have settled in — be it under Jack Coan (most likely) or Tyler Buchner. Look for Notre Dame to have experimented with their aerial attack and new receivers against Toledo the week before, getting them ready for this clash with Purdue. Against a below-average Purdue defense, I don’t think offense is going to be an issue for the Irish in this one. 

Given that Purdue does return their playmakers, and they too should be coming off a gimme win, Notre Dame should not overlook what Purdue can do offensively. This game reminds me a little bit of last year’s Florida State game, as the Irish torched an abysmal Florida State defense but looked shaky at times defensively, before securing a 42-26 win. With Wisconsin and Cincinnati awaiting the Irish in the ensuing two weeks, and coming after a likely easy win, Purdue does have that classic trap game feel, so I think Purdue may at least keep this one close in the early going with a touchdown or two. 

However, I trust Notre Dame’s defense to respond to adversity and shut down the Boilermakers after some early struggles, and they’ll run away with a big third quarter in this one. 

Final: Notre Dame 49, Purdue 20

Emily DeFazio – Associate Sports Editor 

Considering Purdue’s recent track record, it should be a relatively uncomplicated decision to give the game to the Irish. Purdue does not have a top-ranked recruiting class to fill out their roster with, and several areas in their lineup still remain shaky. Notre Dame has a solid group of talent from the past recruiting cycle to add to an already skilled team. However, this should not be cause for Notre Dame to rest easy.

Purdue will most likely be coming off of an upswing after gaining momentum from two early wins in the season and will have some strong players returning on both sides of the ball. This could give the Irish a run for their money. As of now, though Coan is likely to start at quarterback, there will definitely be a battle for the coveted position, and I wouldn’t put it past Kelly to try out different options right up to the first kickoff of the season. This could cause the offense to start off a little shaky. We also saw in 2020 that a relatively easy matchup for Notre Dame could turn into a struggle, as the Irish just beat Louisville (who finished their regular season 4-7 as compared to Notre Dame’s 10-0) 12-7 with only a single touchdown to show for it.

Yet, I still believe Notre Dame will come out on top — our team is the stronger competitor in this one, with too much talent on both sides of the ball to let the game go.

Final: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 17

Mannion McGinley – Sports Editor

All of the 2020 season, college football fans talked about how being 6-0 was not enough to establish if a team is actually any good. Ohio State proved that idea to be beyond wrong. In the same vein, I believe it is much more telling than it might seem to finish a six-game season 2-4.

With a strong incoming class for the Irish and a less-than-stellar Purdue defense after their 2020 performance, I don’t expect too much from the Boilermakers. The one space where Notre Dame tends to fall though is when they head into a game expecting a win. That mentality tends to cause a mess for the Irish. Both teams should be off of a fairly easy win, so it will be interesting to see who responds better to a more challenging game the next week. I don’t expect them to, but if the Irish cannot step up to the challenge, they will have to do some second-half reworking as we’ve all seen them do.

Doesn’t mean that will be too hard if it has to happen though. The one thing about this frustrating Irish pattern is that they eventually pull through on the other end.

Final: Notre Dame 21, Purdue 13

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