After narrow win, Notre Dame still searching for answers
September 14, 2013, 10:30 pm
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The talk ever since the clock hit zero in Miami Gardens was about closing the Alabama gap. Initially, Notre Dame saw a gulf between its program and the Crimson Tide. Upon further review, Irish coaches thought it wasn't as great as they first thought.
A 31-24 win over Purdue Saturday night at Ross-Ade Stadium, though, was another display of how wide the gap is between Notre Dame and college football's elite.
The Irish were listless in the first half, managing just three points and 123 yards of offense. That they were lucky to be down 10-3 spoke to the struggle, which could've been made worse had Purdue not dropped two or three shots at game-changing interceptions.
"As a team, we came out flat," wide receiver DaVaris Daniels said. "We weren't ready to play."
A Purdue team that was blown out by Cincinnati and squeaked by FCS-side Indiana State gave Notre Dame fits. Behind quarterback Rob Henry -- who hadn't thrown a touchdown in his first two games -- Purdue converted on four of nine third-and-long attempts in the first 30 minutes as the Irish offense sputtered.
The mantra remained the same from Notre Dame players and coach Brian Kelly after the game: We expect to get every team's best, and the Purdue that showed up against Cincinnati and Indiana State wasn't going to show up against Notre Dame.
This is an Irish team still searching for its identity. Manti Te'o, Everett Golson, Danny Spond, Theo Riddick, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Tyler Eifert -- none of those guys are walking through the door and taking the field.
It's a returning group that's familiar with each other, and one just about everyone says is tight-knit. But that hasn't equated into the team finding itself yet.
"I thought it was something we would get throughout camp, but it's something that we're still trying to build as a team," cornerback and senior captain Bennett Jackson said. "I don't think we know who we are yet."
"It's a little cloudy, but it's starting to clear up a little bit," coach Brian Kelly said. "We got more work to do. We're not a finished product by any means. But we're starting to kind of figure it out as well."
Notre Dame showed plenty of resolve in the second half, scoring three touchdowns in less than four minutes to open the fourth quarter. Tommy Rees hit DaVaris Daniels for a nine-yard touchdown, then followed that up with an 82-yard bomb, the ninth-longest scoring play in school history. Bennett Jackson seemed to put a bow on the game when he picked off Henry and raced into the end zone, putting Notre Dame up 31-17.
But Purdue struck back, with Henry heaving a 48-yard prayer to set up a touchdown on the next drive. Amir Carlisle promptly fumbled on the first play of Notre Dame's ensuing drive, but the Irish defense held strong and Cam McDaniel bled the clock out to secure the win.
Notre Dame saw the victory as a good start toward finding that identity.
"We've been really trying to get our hands around this thing," Kelly said. "We know we got good players, we know we got good personnel, we're trying to figure out the parts and pieces and where they go and I really like the way they fought and some of the things that came out tonight."
On a national scale, Notre Dame doesn't have much time to find what kind of team they'll be this year. Even throughout the near-misses of 2012, the identity of Notre Dame was clear: it was a team that'd win games on the back of its defense, and feature an offense that generally didn't turn the ball over.
That was good enough for a berth in the BCS Championship. A berth in a BCS bowl for this current Irish team is hardly a slam dunk.
Defensively, Notre Dame has shown an ability to stop the run, but mobile quarterbacks can give them fits. The secondary has loads of question marks, and at times Notre Dame's defense didn't seem as if it had the speed to keep up with a bottom-barrel Big Ten team.
Offensively, games will go through Rees as opposing defenses load the box and aim to stop the run. While Rees has thrown for 300 yards in all three games this year, he's had some near-misses that could've tempered the enthusiasm.
Right now, Notre Dame doesn't stack up with college football's elite, even if they do control their own BCS destiny. Alabama, Oregon, LSU, Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State -- put Notre Dame on the field with any of those teams, and it's difficult to see the Irish being competitive at this juncture.
But Notre Dame doesn't have any of those top teams on its schedule, at least not until Nov. 30's date with Stanford in Palo Alto. So the game for Notre Dame, now, is to survive and advance.
It may not be pretty, it may not be flashy and it may be frustrating, but as Jackson put it, a win's a win -- even if it's a close one against Purdue.
"I don't really care how we win," Jackson said. "Of course everybody would like to win by a couple touchdowns or blow a team out, but at the end of the day it's still going to be a W on the board."