WEST LAFAYETTE – What do you say when opportunity is lost, when victory becomes defeat and a national televised statement morphs into what might have been?
So there was Purdue coach Darrell Hazell, leaning close to a microphone in the Mackey Arena press room, black Purdue hat pulled low, seeking perspective in Saturday night's 31-24 loss to No. 21 Notre Dame.
“We played extremely hard,” he said. “We hung in there. We kept fighting. There are a couple of plays I'd like to get back, but I'm proud of our team. We continue to get better. We continue to make strides forward. Wins will come.”
For now, wins come slowly. Purdue is 1-2 and a brutal schedule continues next Saturday with a trip to Wisconsin in a Big Ten opener.
But that was for later. Hazell was focused on the silver lining in Purdue's sixth straight loss to Notre Dame.
“We were more consistent on offense. (Quarterback Rob Henry) played a great game other than the one throw. He created plays, which we thought he could do all along. We played great run defense. Our guys hit people. We're making strides.”
Purdue led 7-0 after the first quarter, 10-3 at halftime and 17-10 after three quarters. Then Notre Dame (2-1) erupted for 21 points in a four-minute fourth quarter burst that proved just enough.
“We've grown closer,” linebacker Joe Gilliam said. “We're playing better. We're not there yet. We still have steps to take.”
Yes, the Boilers showed the lie to their 21-point underdog status. But it wasn't enough. For Hazell, validation of his program building comes through victory – period.
“I'm not sure this validates or doesn't validate. We are getting better. That's the key for this program. Make sure we do improve. I'm not into moral victories. It's always hard when don't get what you're supposed to get.”
Quarterback Rob Henry had a career night, going 25-for-40 for 256 yards and three touchdowns, his first three TD passes of the season. But it was his fourth quarter interception that was returned 34 yards by cornerback Bennett Jackson that bothered him.
“(Jackson) is a good player,” Henry said. “He made a good play. Looking back, there are a million things I wish I had done. I wish I hadn't thrown that pass. I wish I had gone to my second read, third read. That was the difference in the game.”
Running back Akeem Hunt rushed for 22 yards and caught nine passes for 72 more, including a touchdown. Tight end Justin Sinz, replacing injured Gabe Holmes, had six catches for 45 yards and a touchdown.
The defense held Notre Dame to 91 rushing yards. However, quarterback Tommy Rees had his third 300-yard passing game of the season. He was 20-for-33 for 309 yards and two touchdowns. That included an 82-yard scoring pass to DaVaris Daniels, who beat cornerback Ricardo Allen.
“I got lazy on my technique,” Allen said. “It was a perfect called play. I didn't push out fast enough. (Rees) got me. That was on me. I didn't do my job.”
Purdue set the early tone. Henry hit Hunt for a 15-yard touchdown pass early in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. Kicker Paul Griggs, after missing an earlier 27-yard field goal attempt, hit a career-best 47 yarder for a 10-0 lead.
Just before halftime Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza hit a 20-yard field goal for a 10-3 halftime lead.
The teams traded third-quarter touchdowns. Notre Dame's Cam McDaniel scored on a 1-yard run. Purdue receiver B.J. Knauf scored on an 18-yard pass from Henry. The Boilers led 17-10.
Notre Dame scored three touchdowns in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter to take a 31-17 lead. The big blow was Jackson's interception return for a touchdown.
Purdue came back when Henry hit Sinz for a 9-yard TD pass on fourth and seven.
The Boilers got the ball right back when safety Taylor Richards knocked the ball loose from Notre Dame tailback Amir Carlisle. But Purdue couldn't capitalize and had to punt. Notre Dame ran out the clock.
“Our guys are mature,” Hazell said. “They're starting to understand adversity is part of the game. The only way to come out of it is to work through it. We did a good job of that. We have to keep getting better. We're starting to see things the way we need to see them.”