A final review of the weekend that was before our first preview of Saturday’s battle with rival Michigan.
Ranked each week and based solely on the individual’s performance vs. the previous opponent:
- Gary Gray – A force vs. the run; solid vs. the pass and created the game’s key turnover at the Irish goal line. Easily the best effort of his 21-game career.
- Darrin Walls – If there were a bounce-back award below, Walls would be the hands down winner. At times terrible last season, Walls looked like a senior cornerback: confident, aggressive, and consistent while mixing in two big plays – one in coverage, one in run support.
Also Considered: Braxston Cave (keyed the Irish running game as a pulling center and strong man finishing blocks at the point of attack); Cierre Wood: (11 touches, 132 yards, one fumble, one muffed catch on a kick-off…ball security will be key over the next two contests); Armando Allen (Steady as she goes: 18 carries, 93 yards, TD, 38-yard punt return…and trustworthy).
The 11 main position groups (QB, WR, RB, TE, OL, DL, LB, DB, Field Goal, Kick and Punt Coverage, Kick and Punt Return) will be reviewed for the five best…and worst, each week. There’s a hands-down winner for Week One:
- Defensive Backfield: Gary Gray and Darrin Walls were near-perfect in their execution, stopping the run, limiting yards after the catch (a key vs. Keith Smith) and creating both turnovers in the contest. Harrison Smith played glaring mistake free and Jamoris Slaughter made plays vs. the pass and run in just over a half of playing time. Zeke Motta made the game’s key fumble recovery (saving ND on special teams) and a downfield tackle that could have gone for big yardage.
The secondary didn’t allow a pass completion of more than 16 yards and yielded just five in excess of 10 yards. One fortuitous moment: a deep Robert Marve pass that sailed beyond a wide open Cortez Smith, who had run by Darrin Walls in the 4th Quarter. Hard to grade this unit any lower than an A for Game One.
- Running Backs: The 1-2 punch of Armando Allen and Cierre Wood accounted for 151 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. Allen recorded the longest TD run of his career (22 yards) and added carries of 11, 13 and 18 yards while Wood rambled for 15, 16, 15 and 13-yard gains in four of his seven carries; adding an 11-yard pass reception on a shuffle at the line of scrimmage. The Irish will finish the season’s first two months with fewer than two losses if the tandem continues that type of efficient production.
- Field Goal Unit: David Ruffer nailed field goals of 22, 47 and 37 yards. His 47-yard boot is the longest since November 1, 2008 (Brandon Walker drilled a 48-yarder in a 4OT loss to Pittsburgh) and the final kick from 37 sealed the contest, extending Notre Dame’s lead from 8 (one score) to 11 with 4:30 remaining. You could argue as high as No. 1, but the DB and RB combined to control the tenor of the contest.
- Kick and Punt Coverage: Freshman Bennett Jackson channeled the ghosts of David Bruton and Mike Anello in his first college contest; dropping Purdue return men after paltry gains of 10, 8, 17 and 15 yards (3 solos and an assist intermixed). Robert Blanton also recorded a stop after just a 12-yard return and kicker David Ruffer put one into the end zone. Purdue was limited to 82 return yards on six kick-offs.
The Irish punted three times, dropping one inside the Boilers’ 20-yard line and forcing two fair catches. Purdue did not have a return yard and began their three post-punt possessions at their own 25, 29 and 12-yard line. One criticism: punter Ben Turk was sub par (short) in his first two offerings.
- Kick and Punt Return: A kick return of 38 yards by Cierre Wood and a punt return of 38 yards by Armando Allen. The latter set up Notre Dame’s second touchdown and a 20-3 advantage; the former staked the offense to field position in Purdue territory while clinging to a suddenly worrisome 20-12 advantage. The only drawback was a Cierre Wood fumble on his long kick return, but Zeke Motta’s diving fumble recovery covered up the error.
Unit Looking to Improve
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s linebackers accounted for 31 total tackles but routinely over-pursued ball carriers, missed open-field tackles and lost sight of the football on read option plays. A defense can get away with mental and physical errors vs. the Purdue offense – it’s the worst the Irish will face until mid-October – but the myriad 8 and 9 yard gains following those mistakes will turn into 20+ yard forays vs. future foes.
Singular moments or decisions that affected the outcome of the contest or simply caught my eye:
Coaching Move of the Week: Brian Kelly’s decision to start David Ruffer – The easy way out was to go with the scholarship sophomore that set a program record last season. The tough decision was to go with the big-legged walk-on that stepped into difficult situations last November when Tausch pulled up lame in back-to-back pre-game warmups; responding by nailing each of his five field goals in close contests. Ruffer is 8-8 in his career – not a bad start for a kid that missed a token extra point the first time he stepped on a college field (Washington 2008).
Block of the Week: Take your pick of Braxston Cave specials – His first pulling cut block in space to spring Wood for 16 yards on his first career carry…or one play later, when he repeated the effort, this time to the left side, for 15 more yards. Cave added a third in space in the second half (he did miss a cut attempt in the 4th Quarter) and played an all-around strong game in his first collegiate start.
Hit of the Week: Brian Smith’s violent collision with fullback Jared Crank with just under 5:00 minutes remaining in the 3rd Quarter. Highlighted by new color commentator Mike Mayock on replay, Smith leveled Crank (his assignment) but Purdue running back Dan Dierking fired up the gut for an 8-yard gain on 3rd and 1. Smith will put himself with good stead with the coaching staff if he continues to sacrifice himself as such every play.
Top Frosh: Six true freshmen debuted: T.J. Jones, Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood, Prince Shembo, Austin Collinsworth, and Danny Spond. Jones was the first true freshman WR to start the season opener since Milt Jackson in 1982; he responded with 3 receptions, 41 yards and one of the team’s two touchdowns. Jackson was a one-man wrecking crew in kick coverage (highlighted above) while the latter trio played on special teams (Shembo recorded a tackle).
Jackson deserves our Week One honor despite Jones nifty square-in for the score.
It’s All Relative (O’Malley’s Unsung Game Ball): To right tackle Taylor Dever, for consistent effort vs. All America DE Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan played well, recording 7 tackles, a sack (vs. Dever) a Safety (from the opposite side of Dever) and a forced fumble (vs. Dever, but that was Dayne Crist’s lack of pocket awareness). I don’t know what Dever’s overall grade was from OL coach Ed Warinner, but he A.) Had by far the toughest assignment of the afternoon, and B.) Gave ND a chance to win with his effort. To quote Brian Kelly in August, that was “winning football” by the first-time starter.
Gold Stars: Ethan Johnson (2 sacks, faced a heavy dose of double teams…or at least three shoulders)…Ian Williams (held the point inside for the bulk of the contest and was a rock in the second half; added two big plays vs. the pass)…Carlo Calabrese (far better than I had anticipated; Calabrese is quick to the ball, wraps up and loves to run and hit…he also has four seasons of eligibility remaining)…
Manti Te’o (missed way too many tackles; also shut down at least three tunnel screens with solo stops: a play that killed the Irish last season in West Lafayette)…Kerry Neal (only defender to consistently stay home among the front seven....Neal keeps his feet much better than do his position mates)…Trevor Robinson (name rarely came up, which means he executed his assignment)…Zack Martin (solid first start, great feet and use of leverage…only one glaring error: the Safety)…Kyle Rudolph (clutch 3rd Down catch to set up Ruffer’s clincher)…
Dayne Crist (Four consecutive Irish QBs lost their first start before Crist’s victory Saturday; Crist threw only 3-4 “poor” passes, didn’t commit a turnover and should improve his pocket presence in Game Two now that he’s seen live action)…Zeke Motta (filled in for the bulk of the second half and helped control the Purdue passing game; not an easy task vs. a rolling pocket and mobile QB)…Harrison Smith (no mistakes and no missed tackles).
Fun with numbers and words
A few stats and a comment that caught my eye:
- Kyle Rudolph didn’t catch a pass for than 40 game minutes, but still recorded the third highest reception total of his career (5)
- Notre Dame kickers have missed field goals in just two of the team’s last 15 contests, hitting 23 of 26 in that span
- Yesterday’s contest was the first in which ND failed to score at least three touchdowns vs. the Boilers since 2004
- Six players earned their first start Saturday: C Braxston Cave; LT Zack Martin; RT Taylor Dever; WR Tai-ler Jones; WR ILB Carlo Calabrese and QB Dayne Crist…Eight non-freshman made their Irish debut: Wood, Calabrese, Martin, LB Dan Fox, Short-Snapper Bill Flavin, LS Ryan Kavanagh, OG Chris Watt, NG Tyler Stockton…
Quote of the Week: Reporter to Kelly at the conclusion (fittingly) of Saturday’s post-game press conference: “A lot of people see you kind of as the ‘White Knight’ coming in to save the program; do you see yourself that way?”
It’s a Wrap
Final impressions of the season opener and a few early observations heading into Michigan Game Week:
Irish fans might not be looking for a QB to “manage the game” but the head coach is, at least until the offense finds its sea legs, which is why I predicted in the summer that Notre Dame would run more than it passes this season. Crist played it close to the vest, rarely venturing downfield, but completing 4 of 7 on attempts that traveled 15 or more yards…Crist looked hesitant in the pocket: a possible result of Ryan Kerrigan’s presence, or more likely, the by-product of a career that included 20 total pocket opportunities entering the contest…
Allen and Wood are the best Irish backfield tandem since Darius Walker and Ryan Grant in 2004, and Grant played injured much of that season…Riddick resembled a running back playing receiver on Saturday…Floyd has fumbled twice inside the opponents’ 15-yard line in his last three games: one more and its an issue…Cave and Martin will be tough to extricate from their starting roles over the next three seasons…Chris Stewart needs to be better than that; he was at times last year…I said it in the spring and I’ll repeat it here: T.J. Jones simply knows how to play the position…Walls looked like a new man; Gray looked like an All-American; Te’o looked like a fast sophomore playing linebacker…Couldn’t have been more impressed with Calabrese’s first start…Couldn’t have been less pleased with Darius Fleming’s 11th…
That’s the worst rushing attack the Irish defense will face until, well, next September…I’m not sure Purdue 2010 will end up better than Nevada 2009…the mobile Marve will look like Ron Powlus on the move after Irish fans (and defenders) encounter Michigan QB Denard Robinson next week…The secondary played exceptionally well vs. Keith Smith: double-digit catches were assured, but 80 yards on 12 grabs incurs minimal damage on a defense…If Ian Williams keeps this up the run defense will be fine…Kapron Lewis-Moore seemed a half-second late Saturday…Ethan Johnson finishes plays in the pocket…I can think of one Irish linebacker that would repeatedly fall for the Lucy/Charlie Brown ball trick…
Surprised we didn’t see Jonas Gray on Saturday…Did anyone else notice punt protector Bobby Burger catch – and pitch – a snap back to punter Ben Turk? It seemed quite nonchalant for such an odd occurrence…I don’t remember Mike Elston playing for Michigan in the 1994 classic in South Bend (sorry coach)…I do remember ex D-Coordinator Corwin Brown getting “Reggie-d” in 1992 (stronger wording is readily available, but this is a family show), however…I despise that muddle pass rush thing the front seven employed in the opener (it worked for the Patriots because they had four All Pros intermixed)…
The true test for the backup D-Line trio of Hafis Williams, Sean Cwynar and Emeka Nwankwo begins in Games 3 through 6; Saturday’s matchup will be decided more by the Cat and the Dog…as well as the Buck (Motta)…Forcier, Minor, Mathews were the trio of note vs. the Irish in last year’s Big House loss; none will be involved in Saturday’s contests…ND vs. UM is the Irish rivalry of my generation: remember, for 13 years, ND was the hammer while USC was the nail – that’s never been the case when the Irish face the Wolverines.