Notre Dame football: Irish regroup in second half, subdue Purdue

South Bend Tribune


The big-picture context was irrelevant, for a few fleeting moments anyway.

Cam McDaniel’s bulldog attitude, and a rugged running style to go along with it, allowed 21st-ranked Notre Dame to play keepaway and bully Purdue when it mattered most.

The flaws that enveloped those moments and ND’s 31-24 escape over its three-touchdown underdog hosts Saturday night at Ross-Ade Stadium are the lasting reverberations that are becoming this Irish team’s identity.

More perplexing than promising a fourth of the way through a season that started with a top 15 ranking, Notre Dame (2-1) had to rally in the fourth quarter against a team that labored to edge FCS’ Indiana State by six points last week and got throttled by Irish coach Brian Kelly’s old school, Cincinnati, in its opener.

For the second year in a row, the Irish failed to reach the 100-yard rushing mark against Purdue, and Saturday allowed 24 points and career numbers to Purdue quarterback Rob Henry – this from a team that came in 116th in the nation in total offense (out of 123 in the FBS) and lost its leading receiver, senior tight end Gabe Holmes, to a season-ending wrist four days ago.

“I told our team, we're still kind of defining who we are,” Kelly said. “We're still trying to find ourselves. Here’s what we did: We played hard for four quarters and we fought our butts off. And then we found a way to make some plays. I feel really good about our kids and the way they played.”

The longest pass play of senior quarterback Tommy Rees’ career, an 82-yard connection to DaVaris Daniels over arguably Purdue’s top defensive player, senior cornerback Ricardo Allen, provided the Irish with their first lead, 24-17, with 12:40 to play in regulation.

Daniels caught the pass in stride along the visitors’ sideline, then broke free of Allen, who tried to drag him out of bounds. The burgeoning junior standout finished with eight catches for 167 yards, career highs in both, and two TDs.

It was the ninth-longest in Notre Dame history and the longest by the Irish since a 95-yard connection between Dayne Crist and Kyle Rudolph against Michigan in 2010.

Three Purdue plays later, Irish senior cornerback Bennett Jackson jumped a route and took inside position on a third-down pass intended for Purdue wide receiver Shane Mikesky. He then toted his fifth career interception 34 yards for a TD and a 31-17 Irish lead with 11:18 left.

But true to form, Notre Dame found a way to infuse drama back into the game.

Holmes’ replacement, Justin Sinz, scored from nine yards out on fourth down to pull Purdue within seven, 31-24, with 8:16 left. A pass-interference call on Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell on third down followed by a 48-yard completion on an underthrown ball to Mikesky set up the score.

ND’s initial stab at closing out the game fizzled on its next play from scrimmage, when Purdue safety Taylor Richards jarred Irish running back Amir Carlisle, knocking the ball loose in Irish territory and Boilermaker middle linebacker Joe Gilliam falling on it.

An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of the play, charged to Purdue safety Anthony Brown, pushed Purdue back across the 50 to its own 44. Three plays resulted in minus-2 yards, so the Boilermakers punted with 7:22 left in the game.

TJ Jones fair caught the ball at the 25 and the Boilermakers never got the ball back, despite burning three timeouts. McDaniel carried the ball on 10 of 11 players in the drive until Rees went into victory formation to kill off the final seconds.

McDaniel finished with a game-high 56 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown.

“He definitely impacted the game, no question,” Kelly said. “You saw how hard he ran. He had to come out one drive. He got four stitches at halftime, went back in and really was a huge part of what we did tonight.”

So was Rees, who followed a so-so first half with 215 of his 309 passing yards after halftime. It was his third 300-yard passing game in a row, and his two TD tosses to Daniels pushed him into a tie with Rick Mirer for fourth place on ND’s career TD pass list with 41. Next up is Ron Powlus with 52.

“I really don't care what you guys think about Tommy Rees,” said Kelly, who added the game ball went to his senior starter. “This is about our football team and Tommy Rees. You guys can have your own opinions about him.

“The guys love him. He's a college student. He goes to class. He's got pimples. You guys are at 35,000 feet. I'm really proud of the way he settled down in the second half and helped our football team win.”

Purdue’s opening drive looked like it was cut and pasted from the Michigan game. The heretofore languid Purdue offense zipped 75 yards in 12 plays, converted three third downs and kept the Irish defense off-balance with a mix of short passes and runs.

Running Akeem Hunt covered the final 15 yards on a screen pass from Henry. It was the first time in the Brian Kelly Era that a Big Ten team took the opening kickoff and scored a touchdown on its opening drive.

The Boilers were knocking on the door again shortly thereafter, but Paul Griggs missed a 27-yard field goal. Later, though, Griggs connected on a career-long 47-yarder with 10:44 left in the first half for a 10-0 Boilermaker lead.

The Irish finally got on the board, on a Kyle Brindza 20-yard field goal, 44 seconds before the half.

“I don't know if it was frustration as much as there was a confidence that we were going to be OK,” Kelly said of the first half. “I was never worried in a sense that there was a panic. It was gonna come out, and I felt really confident that we were going to win the football game. We just needed to settle down a little bit.

“We got better. To win on the road against a team that played very well tonight, you’ve go to have some of those things. To win you've got to do some things well, again, late in the game. In the second half we outscored our opponent 28-14. I think a lesser team wilts under the way they started. We didn't start very well but we hung in there, kept playing, kept fighting.”

Notre Dame's DaVaris Daniels misses a catch in the end zone next to Purdue's Antoine Lewis, left, and Ricardo Allen, right, during the game between Notre Dame and Purdue on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN