The Irish will face several talented defenses this fall, and if forced to pick the best, most fans would probably pick Tennessee, Michigan or Southern Cal simply out of habit. It’s hard to argue with any of those picks (and Tennessee might be the best of those three), but in my opinion, a fourth defense could be even better: Purdue.
Defensive coordinator Brock Spack's aggressive, one-gap defense has given the Irish fits ever since Jarious Jackson graduated; in the last five games, the Irish have scored only five offensive TDs. (For extra credit, name the ND players who scored TDs against Purdue. Answers below.) Purdue gave up fewer points per game than Iowa last year, but outside of West Lafayette, Spack and the Purdue D rarely get mentioned in the same breath with the cream of the Big 10 defenses. Pete Fiutak of CollegeFootballNews.com wrote up their Purdue preview yesterday, and he didn't even mention Brock Spack. And as unheralded as they were last year, Purdue should be just as good on defense this year, if not better.
The Boilermakers return all eleven defensive starters in 2005, which is exactly the same situation in which they found themselves in 2003, when their defense was absolutely dominant. In fact, a look at their defensive statistics for the last three years shows that Spack has developed a top-notch two-deep. Purdue’s defense hasn’t been rebuilding, it’s been reloading as departing seniors give way to talented underclassmen. Despite having seven starters drafted by NFL teams, there was little drop-off in the defensive performance, as the numbers below demonstrate.
|All Purdue Opponents||2002||2003||2004|
|Rush Yds Avg||160.5||159.1||138.4|
|Rush Yds vs Purdue||120.2||96.9||105.3|
|Yards/carry vs Purdue||3.3||2.6||3.0|
|Pass Yds Avg||205.0||204.5||209.6|
|Pass Yds vs Purdue||228.0||205.6||239.9|
|Points vs Purdue||23.2||17.4||17.2|
So what’s the answer to solving the Purdue defense? Pretty simple. We need to throw the ball.
At first, that answer may seem ironic given that we amassed 460 yards in last year’s 41-16 embarrassment and another 297 yards in the 23-10 loss in 2003. However, we started throwing the ball in those games after we couldn’t get the running game churning, and as a result our offense became feast or famine. For instance, Quinn would complete a pass for a good chunk of yardage, but he’d also get sacked or hit while he was throwing on the next two plays because Purdue’s speed rushing defensive ends could line up wide of the tackles and just tee off every down.
If you’re the sadomasochistic sort, review the first quarter of last year’s debacle. What you’ll see is an offense that had some success moving the ball by passing on 1st and 2nd down. Purdue’s defense was slightly on its heels until the ill-fated decision and attempt to establish a running game. That decision -- as well as the predictability of Bill Diedrick’s formations and playcalling -- played right into Purdue’s hands.
Despite our losses the last two years, offenses that can throw the ball reasonably well have actually had the most success against Purdue. Check out the following stats; there’s an interesting trend revealing itself.
On the right, I took the teams over the last three years who had the highest yards per rushing attempt. Again, I ranked them from highest to lowest. I also took the points per game average for both sets of teams.
Teams in red are teams that beat Purdue.
The two charts seem to illustrate that teams with a high yards per pass average perform better than teams with a high yards per rush average. Notice too how better passing teams have scored more points against Purdue. Now we’ll take it a step further, and take the more balanced offenses out of both charts.
These are the same charts but I removed the teams that appeared on both (teams that were balanced and could run and pass extremely well). I think this is extremely telling as far as how the average points goes up for passing teams and down for running teams, and one-dimensional teams who can only pass the ball are 5-2 whereas teams that can only run the ball are 2-7. Additionally, "passing" teams on the left averaged 25.4 points per game and "running" teams on the right averaged 16.6 per game. (Again, the winning teams in red.)
There are two obvious correlations. Teams that have competency throwing the ball are more likely to score points and beat Purdue than teams with competency running the ball. Why is this? From what I've seen, Purdue is simply too good at taking away the opposition’s running game, especially if an offense can’t be the aggressor with a passing attack.
History offers several more pieces of evidence why passing the ball is more important than trying to run on Purdue:
1. In their last four games, which Big Ten team has scored the most points against Purdue? It’s not Michigan; it’s actually Illinois. In fact, against Purdue the Illini have scored 30+ points in three of the last four years and, in those games, they averaged 170 yards rushing and 239 yards passing. Ron Turner is known for his pro-style offenses and, with their most talented personnel in 2001 and 2002, Illinois obliterated Purdue.
2. Check out Purdue’s bowl games the last four years. Purdue has played Arizona State, Georgia, Washington and Washington State; Dirk Koetter, Mark Richt, Rick Neuheisel and Mike Price are all known for their passing offenses. With a month to prepare, Arizona State, Georgia and Washington State beat Purdue while accumulating impressive passing yardage and scoring 27, 33 and 34 points, respectively. Neuheisel didn’t win, although he had the most one-dimensional team of the four. Purdue also played Washington in a fifth bowl game in January 2001, but that Purdue defensive line was soft up front and the defense was still a year away from being as good as we’ve recently seen it. Washington ran over them like a few other teams did that year.
3. As much as it pains me to say this, look at Michigan. The Wolverines have scored the second-most points against Purdue over the last four years, and they, too, are known for having a pro-style offense. With a talented quarterback and receiving corps, Michigan has had little trouble moving the ball against Purdue, although they have settled for more field goals than they would probably have liked (a testament to the Boilermakers’ run defense). What did Michigan and Illinois have in common? They both featured pro-style offenses.
4. Simply put, the Purdue run defense has held 20 of their last 37 opponents to less than 3.0 yards per carry, and 22 of their last 37 opponents to under their seasonal rushing average.
For what it’s worth, I’m not arguing that teams dependent upon running the ball are unable to beat Purdue. Obviously this has occurred from time to time. But the trends are there...it’s a lot harder to beat them on the ground, as Ohio State found out in last year's loss to the Boilermakers. In fact, had the Buckeyes not completed that miracle 4th down TD pass in 2002, Purdue would have won two out of the last three against OSU.
Enter Charlie Weis and his pro-style offense.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that, because of his success in the NFL, Weis will have the advantage going into the match-up with Spack. Not only has his preferred style of offense given Purdue the most trouble, but Weis is also recognized as one of the best offensive football minds in the game. This is going to be a battle, and as a football fan, I can’t wait to see it. What I would expect to see is a lot of passing formations to spread the field out, and an aggressive aerial attack that forces Purdue to get out of their base 4-3 package -- similarly to how Weis used 4-5 WR sets to keep Jeremiah Trotter off the field in the Super Bowl a few months ago.
He'll probably continue to press Purdue with Quinn's arm, but he'll also begin to run the ball out of these same passing formations. Then, when he does return to formations using regular personnel, including a fullback, he'll still be able to keep Purdue off balance with the pass (resulting in something like this.)
But Spack's steadfast defense, as we've seen, is nothing to sneeze at, and with Weis's renown for unpredictable playcalling, I think this could be the first game where we'll see Charlie get really creative. When it's all said and done, I believe that the Weis vs. Spack match-up will be one of the best chess matches in college football next year, and I think our offensive performance in that game will be a telling indicator of Weis’s future at Notre Dame.
Trivia answer: so who scored our five TDs against Purdue? Gary Godsey (2000), Ryan Grant (2001), Maurice Stovall (2003), Rhema McKnight (2004), and Rashon Powers-Neal (2004).