Clausen Leads Great Escapeposted by John Vannie
Notre Dame built a 17-7 halftime lead behind a strong running game and a defense that solidified after a shaky opening series. Coach Charlie Weis implemented a package for Crist that featured runs by Golden Tate out of the Wildcat formation and effectively used both Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes at running back in the absence of injured starter Armando Allen. The patchwork lineup was productive as the offensive line dominated play.
The Irish defense gave up an easy touchdown on the opening series as Aaron Valentin turned a slant pass from Joey Elliott and several missed tackles into a 35-yard score. Ralph Bolden contributed a 26-yard run during the drive, and Notre Dame appeared to be in trouble. Remarkably, Purdue did not threaten for the rest of the half as the Irish tightened up and shut down Bolden and Elliott’s short passing game.
Meanwhile, Tate led the offense to three scores. A series of well-conceived sweeps, draws and misdirection with Crist at the helm had the Boilermakers on their heels. Hughes and Tate ran for touchdowns while Nick Tausch added a field goal after a penalty negated another score.
Notre Dame continued to dominate the game in the third quarter, but two time consuming drives failed to yield any points. Purdue’s defense adjusted to the run with Crist in the game, but the Irish were still in control. Momentum turned in favor of the Boilermakers when Weis elected to try a fourth and 10 pass at the Purdue 35. Crist was sacked on the play, and Purdue took over with two minutes left in the period.
Elliott quickly moved his team downfield as the senior started to find his receivers. Keith Smith, who finished with 11 receptions for 136 yards, caught a three yard slant early in the fourth quarter to pull Purdue to within 17-14. Elliott moved the hosts down the field again moments later, but a fourth down pass was intercepted by Darrin Walls at the Notre Dame 20.
Weis countered by reinserting Clausen at the 7:30 mark, but the Irish gave up a sack and went three and out. Starting from his own 30 with six minutes left, Elliott and Bolden worked the ball to the Irish 38. The Boilermakers then scored the go-ahead touchdown on a perfectly executed wheel route by Jaycen Taylor, who was wide open in the left flat and waltzed into the end zone. Carson Wigg’s extra point put Purdue ahead by 21-17 with 3:41 remaining.
With the game on the line, Clausen was sharp. He hit Tate for 12 yards and Kyle Rudolph for 22 before being sacked by Gerald Gooden. Facing a third and 14, he found Robbie Parris on the right sideline for a first down at the Boilermaker 21. Two plays later, a reception by Tate brought the ball inside the Purdue five with a minute left in the game.
After two plays netted only one yard, the Irish were out of timeouts and faced a third down with the clock running. Just as Weis signaled Clausen to spike the ball to set up a game-deciding fourth down play, Boilermaker coach called timeout to set his defense. This turn of events allowed Notre Dame to run two plays instead of one in the time remaining. Clausen rolled out and misfired on third down, but his last pass was on target to the big tight end from Cincinnati.
The narrow escape against a mediocre opponent was a relief more than a statement for the depleted Irish, who just need to keep winning until their injured offensive starters can return to health. Jon Tenuta’s defense showed improvement this week and even some restraint from the all-out blitzing strategy that was largely ineffective.
Let’s review the questions that were key to the outcome:
How effective will Clausen and Allen be after walking around with protective boots all week? Clausen blocked out the pain when his teammates needed him, while Allen got some much needed rest.
Will Bolden replicate his lofty 6.8 yards per carry and help Purdue approach its weekly average of 211 rushing yards? Bolden managed only 67 yards in 17 carries, and had only two runs that produced any real yardage.
Will Elliott surprise everyone with a breakout performance this week? He looked poised and displayed accuracy despite the fact that everyone knew he was going to throw it short.
Can the Irish defense finally force a few turnovers? Yes and no. Walls’ interception on a fourth down cost Notre Dame 15 yards of field position and Purdue fumbled on its last desperation play.
Can Notre Dame’s running game dominate if Allen is not 100%? The Irish managed a healthy 167 yards on the ground, with most coming in the first half. They needed the threat of Clausen’s passing to sustain the offense in the second half, and ultimately needed Clausen’s heroics to win.
Will the Irish special teams finally show some improvement? Baby steps. Tausch kicked off well and Riddick had a nice return, but punt coverage was weak.
Can the Irish close out the game in style or will they have to hang on for dear life? Irish fans had better keep their cardiologists on speed dial.
At 3-1, Notre Dame returns home to host an improved Washington team before the midterm break. Clausen’s health remains the most important factor and difference maker for the Irish, but the running game and the defense must do their part since this team’s margin between victory and defeat remains razor thin.