SOUTH BEND – When Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend in December of 2009, he was quite clear what one of his many – but certainly near the top – priorities was, and that was constructing a defense capable of playing championship football.
The third-year coach has made great strides in doing so, but ironically, it will be the unit that wasn't in shambles when Kelly came into town that will play a bigger part in the Fighting Irish beating Purdue on Saturday (3:30 p.m., NBC) for the fifth consecutive time.
The Notre Dame (1-0) offense is simply too talented, athletic and explosive for the Purdue defense, which is solid, to slow down enough to pull off the upset. And that overwhelming ability begins up front.
“Now I think I said all along that I felt like our front seven (defensively) is going to be as good as anybody,” Kelly said. “And that our strength on the offense was the offensive line and I think that was validated through the Navy game (a 50-10 Irish win).”
The Notre Dame offensive line isn't deep after enduring the loss of several players for varying reasons. However, the guys that the Irish do have are big, physical and experienced.
“This is a collective group of guys that are physically stronger,” Kelly said. “They are more seasoned and they play very well together as a unit. It's as good as I've seen.”
Like any football team, the success of the offensive line affects every other facet of play on that side of the ball. Everett Golson was making his first career start last weekend, but he enjoyed the luxury of having some time to make decisions and plays. That won't be a given this weekend, however. If there is one area of the Boilermaker (1-0) defense that scares the Notre Dame coaching staff, it would be the Purdue defensive line.
“… we know what we are going to get,” Kelly explained. “Very stealth defensive line. Obviously (Kawann) Short and (Bruce) Gaston are two very, very good defensive linemen, as good as we are going to see during the year.”
If the Irish line can at least control the Boiler pass rush to a degree, that will allow Golson enough time to get the ball to his athletic, capable (though young) receivers, and most notably the best tight end in the country (Tyler Eifert). If Golson has time, as he did against Navy, Kelly likes what the young quarterback has shown thus far.
“I guess what I like the most in the big picture sense was his comfortable place out on the field,” Kelly said. “He did not seem overwhelmed at any time. He was extremely communicative when he got to the sideline. He could tell me what was going on. Those are all big picture, good things, after game one.”
Golson got passes to 10 different targets, which will obviously make it challenging for the Purdue secondary and linebackers to find one or two players to eliminate from the equation.
Another aspect of the Irish offensive arsenal that the Boilermakers will struggle to contain is the running backs – all of them.
How much depth does Kelly enjoy at that position? Notre Dame didn't even utilize a senior that rushed for 1,102 yards (Cierre Wood) last week due to suspension and the Irish still rushed for 293 yards (6.4 yards per carry on average). Wood will sit out this week's game as well.
In his place, Theo Riddick (107 yards vs. Navy), George Atkinson III (99 yards), and Cam McDaniel (6.6 yards per carry) each performed very well. In addition, the Irish may also get the use of USC transfer Amir Carlisle back this week.
“I think our backs responded,” Kelly said. “I thought Theo Riddick ran extremely hard, physical. I think George is getting there and we know his ability to hit daylight.”
All of these weapons should prove simply too much for a nice, but not quite good enough on Saturday.
Irish keys to success
1. Push and protect – The Notre Dame offensive line needs to keep the very tough Purdue defensive line away from Irish quarterback Everett Golson and open up running lanes.
2. Contain and corral - The Notre Dame defensive line has to get a pass rush so that Boiler quarterbacks Caleb Terbush, Robert Marve, Rob Henry, Mark Hermann (OK, he won't be playing, but you get the point) can't get comfortable. If Terbush/Marve is comfortable that leads us to…
3. Pray and play - Say a prayer for the very youthful Irish secondary. The Notre Dame cornerbacks and safeties didn't look spectacular against Navy, who throws every third war. So against an experienced quarterback (Purdue has seven of them, seemingly), it could spell trouble.
4. Eyeing Eifert – No defense can slow down the All-American tight end and Tyler Eifert will make Purdue fans nauseous (he grew up absolutely loving the Boilermakers) once again.
5. Protect the pigskin – Nothing can derail a team that outplays another easier than turning the ball over, and Notre Dame fans know this all too well. Even if the Irish dominate Purdue, a couple of critical turnovers are all that it will take to allow the Boiler Nation to party into Saturday night with abandon.