Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Road Warriors | by Pat

QB - I really can't remember the last performance by an Irish quarterback that was that complete. He hit the short pass, the medium range pass, and the long pass. He avoided the sack and ran for the first down when the coverage was tight. Just an all-around excellent performance by Quinn. Weis mentioned that he actually called about 15 more runs in the game, but Quinn checked into pass plays due to what the Purdue defense offered. Perhaps my favorite play of the game was the pump-fake on the short pass to Matt Shelton. All of the Purdue defenders bit on the fake and Quinn hit Shelton for a first down. Quinn's pocket presence again shows poise as he's able to step out of the rush while still keeping his eyes down the field on the receivers. 440 yards and three touchdowns is obviously pretty impressive. What's also impressive is how close he was to three more touchdowns. Samardzija's amazing catch finished about 3 feet away from the endzone and was converted later by an RPN run. Stovall's great effort after a Quinn pass down at the goal-line ended up a foot short and two plays later a nice blitz by Purdue's Kyle Williams kept Brady from hitting an open Asaph Schwapp in the endzone. RPN eventually did end that drive with a touchdown. Finally, Maurice Stovall dropped a third down pass with nothing but green grass between him and the endzone. Now, I'm not complaining. ND scored plenty. Just pointing out how close Quinn was from having even more gaudy stats.

RB - Walker failed to reach the century mark, but credit goes to the excellent Purdue defensive line. Walker went east-west a bit too much in the game, trying for the corner against a defense that was content to string the outside runs all the way to the sideline. Perhaps it's the speed of the opposing defenses, perhaps he's started to get a bit banged up from all of the carries, but Walker does look a bit winded at times on the field. I suspect we might see a few more runs for negative or minimal gain if Walker keeps looking for the potential 4-5 yards to the outside rather than the sure 2-3 inside.

Powers-Neal's goal-line touchdowns were great, but what was really exceptional was his blocking. On more than one occasion he went up against Purdue's star defensive end Ray Edwards and kept him away from Quinn. RPN also continues to be very effective on screen passes.

For the second straight game Travis Thomas got in late in the 4th quarter and for the second straight game he ran in a touchdown from 10 yards out. Like RPN, he did a good job blocking. He made some appearances in the first quarter and had some key blocks, notably on the first 3rd down of the 98 yard drive when he released and blocked the linebacker, allowing Samardzija to get the first down and keep the drive alive. Plays like that will earn him extra playing time just as much as his hard-charging runs up the middle late in games.

WR - Crank up the Jeff Samardzija All-American campaign. Not only did he have one of the highlight catches of the season (again), he also showed an knack for yards after the catch. His performance so far this season has been nothing short of incredible. As with Hoyte, the Samardzija recap is getting repetitive, which is great for ND fans.

Stovall had an outstanding game as well, two drops notwithstanding. As long as the Purdue corners decided it was okay to play 10 yards off of Stovall, Quinn was content to hit him with a quick throw and let him use his size to race down the sideline for the first down. Wash, rinse, repeat. With both Stovall and Samardzija both finally starting to throw their size around on the field it's becoming a "pick your poison" dilemma for opposing defenses. The Boilers seemed content to cover Fasano and let ND's pair of 6'5" receivers take advantage of single coverage. My favorite play from Stovall was his holding penalty that negated a Walker 17 yard run. Now, the penalty was a bit obvious and hopefully he will learn how to block without tugging on the guy's shoulder pads, but as Walker passed Stovall by, Stovall kept blocking the guy. He didn't let up until the Boilermaker was blocked out-of-bounds and sent flying into a teammate standing on the sideline, at which point Stovall stood glowered over the fallen defender for a brief second before returning to the field. That play showed me more fire from Stovall than his first three years combined. If he can play with that kind of passion consistently, he'll be near unstoppable. Last but not least, credit Stovall for hustling back and tackling Rob Ninkovich after his interception.

Another welcome sight was Matt Shelton, showing no ill effects from his injured knee. He ran a number of nice hot routes on Purdue blitzes and did a great job holding on to the ball and getting the first down. If the Trojans focus on Samardzija, Stovall, and Fasano, it just might be Shelton's time to shine.

TE - Before the game, a Purdue coach mentioned that one of their strategies would be to take away Anthony Fasano. I suppose they were successful as he finished with a season-low 2 receptions -- even if they both did go for first downs. However, most of the night Quinn was throwing quick 3-step drop passes to negate the Purdue blitz, so waiting for Fasano wasn't always in the cards. Fasano still contributed with some excellent blocking to make up for his lack of production in the passing game.

One tight end that Purdue did forget to cover was John Carlson. He was so wide open in the endzone for a second I thought he was going to drop the pass out of pure shock. Ron Franklin proclaimed that Carlson could be a first-rounder, which I suppose is true, but seeing as how Franklin claimed it before Carlson snagged his first career touchdown reception, it's possible he was just trying to put a Beano Cook-esque curse on him. Let's hope Carlson proves Franklin correct, sweetheart.

OL - When NFL teams are deciding where to draft Mark LeVoir, the game film of the Purdue game is going to move him up at least one round. He kept Purdue's future first rounder, defensive end Ray Edwards, away from Quinn all night long. Bull rush...spin moves...the Reggie White club to the head...LeVoir held his ground against them all. Mark has been having a strong season, but last weekend he really shined. I believe he's our best offensive lineman right now. I never thought I would ever type that, and it's a credit to his hard work.

Unfortunately, I can't be as effusive for the rest of the line. Yes, the pass blocking was excellent and many kudos to the way they picked up the various Boilermaker blitzes, but the run blocking was once again lacking. On draws and the like the blocking is excellent, but on the short yardage straight ahead runs, the holes just aren't there like one would expect. It should be noted that I'm very high on Purdue's defensive line. Ninkovich played a great game and Brent Grover got the best of Santucci on a number of plays. Still, at some point, perhaps on October 15th, the inability to definitively get the tough short yardage could hurt ND.

One benefit of a blowout win is the ability to play the reserves and nearly everyone got in against the Boilermakers. Of particular interest on the OL were the freshman tackles, Michael Turkovich and Paul Duncan. In their first extended playing time, both looked like promising candidates. Turkovich in particular looked like he will make a quality left tackle one day. He was both bigger and faster than I had anticipated.

DL - To be honest, I thought the rush was a bit better in this game. On the first half blitzes the line did a good job occupying the offensive lineman and allowing the linebackers and safeties to get through with a minimal of obstruction. Landri got more penetration than he did in the last few games, but Kirsch's mobility negated a few of the better pass rush plays. Frome failed to contain Kirsch on one blitz and the result was a first down, but for the most part he did his job and kept Kirsch in the pocket. It didn't really help that the team went to a 3 man rush in the second half. (I'm not trying to second-guess the coaches as much as I'm voicing my own dislike of the ultra-conservative 3 man rush.) Of course, with the 3-step drop quick pass offense that Tiller finally decided to run it's really expecting a lot to get to the QB before he can release the ball. Then again, if Purdue wanted to dink and dunk down the field and chew up an inordinate amount of the limited time left in the game, that's fine with me.

The interior run defense was once again solid, making up, in some part, for the lack of a pass rush. Sure, it would be nice to get to the QB more often, but giving up 4-8 yard runs up the middle on a consistent basis would be far worse, and so far ND isn't allowing that. It might sound like I'm digging for positives here, but nothing kills a defense faster than a weak run defense.

As for the backups that got time later in the game, most still look like they need to add weight, which isn't unexpected for such a young group. Patrick Kuntz really was active the limited time he played and might just work himself into the DT rotation next year if he can add enough size.

LB - Mixed results here. Along with the DL they did a standup job against the interior runs, but weren't nearly as effective on the outside option runs. Crum in particular had trouble fighting off blocks, one reason the early outside pitches were so successful. Mays quietly finished third on the team in tackles, but wasn't able to get to Kirsch on his blitzes. Purdue tried to pick on Hoyte a bit in the second half by throwing at his man repeatedly, but Hoyte did about as well as one could expect. Hoyte also did a great job of getting his head between the football and the endzone on Jerod Void's fumble. I'm sure he planned it like that. The linebacker blitzes occassionly forced an early throw and incompletion, which aren't as noticable (or demoralizing) as a sack or interception. I just hope that whatever led to Kory Sheets being so open on the outside edge is fixed before Reggie Bush gets the same idea. The fact that Leinart isn't an option threat helps.

DB - Purdue took their shot at a knockout punch early in the game by sending their fastest player, Dorien Bryant, streaking towards the endzone. Ambrose Wooden not only kept up step for step but also turned back to the ball and swatted it harmlessly away, giving Purdue their first clue that fun time was over. And then for an encore Wooden reprised his Michigan peformance by flying across the field and knocking Kory Sheets out of bounds short of the endzone. And just like at Michigan, that play saved a touchdown when Jerod Void was kind enough to cough it up on the next play. Permit me some Ron Franklin premature speculation and predict All-American honors for Ambrose Wooden before he leaves ND.

Seeing how much fun it is to turn around and look for the ball, Mike Richardson did a great job covering Purdue's wheel route later in the game, nabbing an endzone interception. One thing I noticed about Richardson is that as much as he catches grief for losing receivers occasionaly, he's the surest tackling corner we have and is a tough guy to block.

Safety play was hard to compare to other games as Purdue was content to dink and dunk more often than take shots down the field. Nduwke was solid against the option on occasion and almost pulled down his second interception. As for the backups, Purdue did seem to move down the field quickly against them. Leo Ferrine allowed a number of completions but always seemed to be right there, which bodes well for the future. Lambert was challenged with a deep pass (that was overthrown) and managed to stay step for step with his man. I think both Ferrine and Lambert are earning more of Coach Lewis' confidence. It was hard to see if Bruton did anything particularly good or bad at safety, but on one play he really came up and planted a Purdue receiver who was cutting across the field. We all know he's fast so seeing him be physical was great.

Special Teams - Supreme effort play by Trevor Laws on the blocked field goal and he's been rewarded by being named special teams captain for the USC game. Have I said I really like this new tradition of not only having a special teams captain, but picking the best performer from the previous game as the current week's representative? Just another way not only to reward great efforts but also reinforce the importance of special teams in the context of the game. The rest of the special teams weren't terribly noteworthy. Grimes had another nice kickoff return and Bruton (again) out-raced everyone down the field for an excellent open field tackle behind Purdue's wedge. The kickoffs still seem to die before the endzone, but they are getting closer. The 70-something yard kick return by Purdue was a buzzkill, but credit Chase Anastacio for taking a great angle and getting the tackle right before Bryant hit the open field.

Overall the offense played an amazing game and the defense was able to make the big play when it counted. It really was the kind of dominant performance needed to give the Irish a shot of confidence heading into the 2-week prep for the Trojans.