Irish defense has work cut out for them Saturday
Posted: Sep.27, 2006, 3:53 pm EDT
Notre Dame's run through Big Ten foes has been a wild one - an impressive victory, an embarrassing home loss and a stunning comeback win. The conclusion could be fairly intriguing as well.
The 12th-ranked Irish, hopeful they won't need another astonishing rally to stay in the thick of the BCS bowl picture, will face what has been one of the nation's top offenses when they host undefeated Purdue on Saturday.
Notre Dame (3-1) climbed to No. 2 in the rankings following a 41-17 rout of then-No. 19 Penn State on Sept. 9, but has since looked little like one of the country's elite teams.
The Irish may have seen their national championship hopes dashed with a 47-21 loss to Michigan in South Bend on Sept. 16. Their hopes of making a BCS bowl nearly suffered a major blow last week at Michigan State with the team trailing by 16 points midway through the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame came back to win 40-37.
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Brady Quinn may have thrown himself back into Heisman contention last week."That would have been the issue that I would have been most concerned with, is making sure the players didn't think, 'We've played four games, the season's over already,''' coach Charlie Weis said. "That's something that you really don't know how you'd handle. Right now it's a rhetorical question because you didn't have to.''
Besides the Irish helping their chances for a BCS bowl berth, Brady Quinn may have thrust himself back into the Heisman Trophy race. He threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Samardzija with 8:18 to play and a 14-yarder to Rhema McKnight with 4:57 remaining to cut Notre Dame's deficit to 37-33.
It was cornerback Terrail Lambert, however, who provided the go-ahead touchdown with a 27-yard interception return with 2:53 to play.
"It doesn't get any better than that,'' Weis said after Notre Dame's biggest comeback win since erasing a 22-point deficit to beat Houston 35-34 in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.
"It really doesn't get any better.''
Quinn could not have been much better down the stretch. After going 2-of-8 for 6 yards in the first quarter as Michigan State took a 17-0 lead, he went 18-of-28 for 313 yards with five touchdowns.
"The game was on the line, he threw five touchdown passes. What more can you say? That's what good quarterbacks do,'' Weis said.
Notre Dame's defense has been far from good, and now must face a Purdue team which ranks fifth nationally with 40.8 points per game and 10th with 461.5 yards per contest.
Though the Boilermakers (4-0) have not faced a ranked opponent, this will be the fourth straight game in which the Irish play a team that has yet to lose. Their next six contests all come against teams with at least one loss - only two have winning records and none are ranked - before closing the regular season against No. 3 Southern California.
"We're like the weather right now,'' Weis said. "Seriously, I mean it would be tough to evaluate us right now because I really don't think we've established a personality at this point. I think when it's all said and done, this will all settle down.''
Last week, Samardzija and McKnight combined for 11 receptions and 183 yards with four touchdowns while tight end John Carlson had four catches for 121 yards and a score, but the running game remained ineffective.
The Irish's 299 rushing yards is 16th-worst among Division I-A schools and tailback Darius Walker, who ran for 1,196 yards last season, has just 227 this year.
Penalties and turnovers continue to plague Notre Dame. The Irish were penalized eight times against Michigan State and have 36 this year after totaling 71 last season. Their seven turnovers are half as many as their 2005 total.
They might not be able to afford many mistakes against Purdue, which takes a seven-game winning streak into this contest - its longest since a 10-game run from 1998-99.
Despite a high-powered offense led by quarterback Curtis Painter, it was the Boilermakers defense which keyed the team's 27-21 win over Minnesota last Saturday in its Big Ten opener.
"Every week, we strive to get better,'' Purdue defensive tackle Alex Magee said. "From the first week until now, we've come a long way, both offensively and defensively. We need to continue to do that so that we remain successful.''
Magee's sack with 1:50 to play forced Minnesota to punt, and Purdue was able to run out the clock. The 6-foot-5 sophomore also blocked a field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, but it was defensive end Anthony Spencer who was named Big Ten defensive player of the week for collecting a career-high 10 tackles with two sacks.
Spencer also forced and recovered a fumble for Purdue, which had three sacks and an interception.
"We're better than we were last week, and we also played a better opponent,'' Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller said.
Painter completed 18-of-27 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Jaycen Taylor had 90 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Purdue lost 49-28 at home last season to Notre Dame as Quinn threw for 440 yards and three touchdowns. Quinn had 432 yards passing when the Boilermakers visited South Bend in 2004, but the Irish lost 41-16.
Notre Dame leads the all-time series 50-25-2.