I've been lagging a bit this week as I recover from a crazy weekend in South Bend. Yesterday I finally had the opportunity to watch a replay of the game on NBC.com (which takes about 4.5hrs to do thanks to the same bleeping Mercedes-Benz commercial they show literally 84 times throughout the game). Combine that with the experience of being in the building on gameday and we've got ten closing thoughts on Purdue weekend before setting our sights on the Skunkbears.
10. We've got our best cornerback duo since Walton-Duff in '02
Gary Gray was probably the MVP of the defense against Purdue. He came out of the gate strong with a couple great sticks right at the line, rarely gave his man any breathing room in coverage, and when a receiver actually did come down with something in his zone the average YAC was right around zero.
Gray is bar-none the best tackling cornerback ND has fielded in the past decade. He attacks the ball carrier and is capable of laying the boom when the situation presents itself. In terms of coverage he picked up right where he left off last year, when he was the only consistent contributor among Walls, Blanton, and Raeshon. He made a great play on that 4th down pass on the goal line which led to the Ian Williams interception. A+ performance from #4.
It was also great to see the new and improved Darrin Walls. Darrin took a huge step backwards last season when he returned from his junior season leave of absence. He was tentative and despite the fact he's lightning fast and as fluid an athlete as you'll ever find in the secondary, he was regularly burned no matter who the opponent.
On Saturday he looked like the player many thought he could be when he flashed so much promise early in his career. He made a great read on the interception in the first quarter and showed just as much aggressiveness as Gray when meeting ball carriers at or around the line of scrimmage. There were a couple times where he was burned deep and either the pass was off or the receiver just dropped it (particularly in the fourth quarter when Marve threw a perfect ball that Siller biffed on), but Walls turned in a solid performance that he can certainly build on.
They won't be mentioned in the same breath as Walton-Duff until they start making game-changing plays on a regular basis, but for now I'm more than happy to see solid, reliable contributors on the edges that I don't have to worry about every play. Remember when we thought this unit would be a strength last year? It's arriving a year late, but it finally should be here. Speaking of the secondary....
9. Welcome Back, Harrison Smith!
The only reason the Purdue game would be considered a memorable performance for Hayseed is because it was so unmemorable. After a year of watching in horror every time he attempted to tackle someone or cover a zone in the secondary, Smith delivered a rock solid performance sans low-lights.
The confidence of the entire defense was broken down last year, but the secondary's was particularly shattered. Paralysis by analysis led to mental errors, tentative decision-making, and consistent breakdowns in fundamentals. You could tell by Harrison's body language that he was in a much better place mentally in this game. He made some good tackles and came thisclose to perfectly timing an interception that he read as the play developed (he was a step late but made a good hit to stop any further yardage).
Smith was one of the biggest question marks going into the season. If week one is an accurate indication of what's to come then he won't be the liability we feared he could be. The next step is morphing into a player that we can look upon as a strength, but every Notre Dame fan has to be encouraged by the direction he's heading.
8. Special Teams
In one week we had fantastic kickoff coverage led by freshman sleeper Bennett Jackson, a great 39-yard weaving punt return by Armando Allen, a 38-yard kickoff return into Purdue territory by Cierre Wood, and flawless kicking by David Ruffer. It was so good I don't even want to jinx it by talking about it.
Let's just say the performance on special teams is a very clear indicator of how this coaching staff goes about its business compared to the last one and move on.
7. Easy there, Manti...
Surprisingly, the player on defense that whiffed on the most tackles was our beloved Hawaiian assassin Manti Te'o. He seemed almost a bit too amped up and anxious, overrunning plays in a rush to make something happen instead of taking a split second to diagnose and time his angle to the ball carrier.
Maycock pointed out a couple times on the quick passes to the flat that even though Te'o couldn't wrap up the receiver he got to the ball so fast that it threw off the timing of the entire play, which ended up going for very little yardage. I remember him specifically doing that twice, but the third time they ran the play toward him--which came on third down of Purdue's final drive--Te'o came out of nowhere and blew it up for no gain.
I'm sure Diaco will break down the tape with Te'o and just tell him to calm down a bit. He was like a great hitter in baseball whose timing it just a hair off. Once he makes a minor adjustment then he'll be locked and loaded. I'm not even remotely worried. What I AM worried about is...
6. HOLDING ON TO THE BALL
First, Michael Floyd handed Purdue a lifeline when he fumbled inside the five as the Irish were about to slam the door shut in the third quarter. Then Cierre Wood put the ball on the turf on a kick return, which easily could have been a game-changing turnover had it not been for Zeke Motta showing up as Johnny On-the-Spot (for the record, there's a .0001% chance we recovered that fumble last year, because it was necessary for every game of '09 to be as stressful as humanly possible).
The margin for error for a team still finding its comfort zone with a new offense will be slim all year long. One thing the Irish simply cannot do is sabotage themselves with careless turnovers that are products of lax ball security. ND was lucky in the fact that it recovered three of its own fumbles (Cierre's kickoff, Allen on a run in the first quarter, and Dayne when he had it swatted out of his hand by Kerrigan) and the Floyd mistake didn't come back to bite them...those are mistakes that can be fixed with focus, let's not waste our luck on something so easily fixable.
5. The O-Line passes its first test
We had three new starters to break in along the offensive line and I thought each of them performed admirably. There were a few hiccups (namely the triple whiff on the Armando run that got stuffed for a safety), but for the most part they held their own.
Zach Martin probably grades out the highest though I was very pleasantly surprised by Braxston Cave, who flashed impressive mobility in getting out ahead to flatten linebackers when he pulled on a couple big Cierre Wood runs. Cave was another player that there were big question marks attached to--so big that I (and many others I'm sure) were secretly hoping that Chris Watt would learn the center position as fast as humanly possible and supplant Braxston in the lineup--so it was a relief to see him perform well.
Taylor Dever had some issues with Ryan Kerrigan, but frankly Kerrigan might be the best end Dever faces all year. All things considered he did a good job containing him and didn't commit one holding penalty.
I know it's only been one game and Purdue is not Southern Cal, but I feel like our bookends are already on par with the ones we trotted out last year. Could I be imagining this and the only reason I think that is due to four years of scar tissue accumulated from Sam Young and the Duncan-Turkovich Pu-Pu Platter? Perhaps, but these guys were more agile, handled speed and power well, and didn't get flagged for one costly penalty--which happened last season every...single...game.
The three greenhorns are by no means finished products, but it's another example of how every unit appears headed in the right direction.
4. Michael Floyd: Cornerback Killer
Not only does Floyd make life miserable for cornerbacks in coverage, but now he's decided he's going to make their life a living hell on run plays as well. Floyd laid some devastatingly effectively blocks that led to big gains in the running game. He was responsible for the final lane Armando squeezed through to the endzone on the first touchdown and also blew up a cornerback on a few of Cierre's good runs.
Floyd is a LARGE American, someone who will routinely have 30-40lbs and 3-4 inches on every cornerback trying to get by him to the running back. Kelly made a point of pushing #3's buttons upon arrival and what has emerged is a player whose effort on every play is starting to match his unbelievable talents and physical ability.
He hasn't pancaked any cornerbacks like Mo' Sto' did back in '05, but I think it's only a matter of time before it happens.
3. Dayne's Wheels
I won' t lie: every time Dayne took off running I thought "please don't get hurt, please don't get hurt" far before I considered what was actually happening in the play. For all the "Keys" to the season his health is the ultimate one.
I have to say after watching the game again that he looked pretty darn good. His scramble for a first down in the first half was a great job of feeling out the pocket, finding a lane, and getting downfield. He even gave an ever-so-slight juke to make a guy miss and pick up another 5-6 yards. He stood in there and delivered a strike to TJ Jones for the touchdown even though defenders were falling around his knees and one railed him as he let go of the ball.
Kelly called a couple designed quarterback runs, which I'm sure were meant as much to get Dayne comfortable with taking a hit or two as they were to move the ball. I was expecting some tentativeness out of the gate--much like you could see Tom Brady not quite trusting himself as he stepped into deep balls last year--but that wasn't the case.
Being able to block out the injury requires more mental toughness than people realize. His ability to do so is just another reason to like the kid.
2. Stadium Etiquette
I sat in the South Endzone and unfortunately experienced the curmudgeonly part of Notre Dame Stadium that so many people rant and rave about.
Listen, it's unreasonable for young alumni to ask all the alums to stand all game...but there need to be some concessions from the older crowd as well. Fans need to go to games with the mindset that they can influence the game in key situations. Why? BECAUSE THEY CAN!
Notre Dame Stadium doesn't have a reputation for being a hostile, loud place to play on a consistent basis, but I've seen what it's capable of (see: '05 ND-Southern Cal, '88 ND-Michigan).
Here's when the non-students MUST be standing/yelling:
* Defensive third downs when an Irish victory is still in question...this is when the fans need to step up and be a game-changer...scream, jingle your keys, blow a vuvuzela, do whatever, just show some effort and make some noise.
* Defensive fourth downs...if you argue against this then you need to stop attending football games.
* Any defensive drive that could provide a huge momentum swing...an example is if ND scores a touchdown to pull within one score...gut it out, pretend you're part of the squad.
I think the majority of time we're on offense it's acceptable to sit down since we don't want to make noise anyway, but people need to step up when we're on defense. That's a fair compromise, isn't it?
If you're against this and think that the young alums that continue to cheer like they're students are obnoxious, then you need to remember what Lou Holtz asked the pep rally crowd in '08: "Would anyone miss you if you didn't show up at the game?"
There are tens of thousands of ND fans who would kill to be in ND Stadium and probably millions that would do anything in their power to help the Irish win. The best way to do that at Ohio State or Southern Cal is to give potential recruits cars and money; the best way to do that at Notre Dame is cheer consistently throughout the game.
It's something that Charlie's teams could never learn to do over the past few years. Notre Dame had the Boilermakers on the ropes early in the third quarter and were driving for what would've been the knockout blow, but Michael Floyd's goal-line fumble let the opponent off the mat. It's a far too common occurrence for the Irish, one that must stop.
Sometimes you'll luck out and the opponent won't be able to climb all the way back and win a game, but you make it infinitely more difficult and stressful when you don't close the door when you have the opportunity and sometimes you'll end up losing (see almost every game last year for examples of every conceivable part of that spectrum).
Notre Dame must acquire the killer instinct that's been lacking since Lou Holtz prowled the sideline. They can't ease off the gas once the lead gets to three scores--they need to press until it's four, five, and six scores.
Developing this finisher's mentality will be one of the toughest things for Brian Kelly to instill in this squad, but it's a challenge I'm sure he's itching to take on. After all, if you're learning how to finish opponents it means you're leading in the first place.
No better time to learn to step on an opponent when its down (literally on the field and figuratively off it) than this weekend against the Skunkbears.