Five Things To Watch: Notre Dame v. Purdue

I'm not sure that blemish on the right side of Notre Dame's Win/Loss column has quite set in yet. The grieving process post-Michigan has exhibited all the signs of supporters suffering withdrawls.. Fans blaming Diaco's blitzing … others attacking Rees's interceptions … Kelly haters questioning the play-calling … rumors of unsatisfied 5* freshmen – it's all a dark, yet familiar place. Then there was my own conclusion: Michigan is a high quality football team that is going to be nearly unbeatable when Devin Gardner plays at the level displayed against Notre Dame. I'm a fan of the game of football almost (ALMOST) as much as I am of the Irish. When replaying the performance of Gardner under the lights it became more evident – his ceiling is incredibly high and he's on the road to reaching that potential. If they Irish had played better, caught some easy passes, avoided a few questionable calls … do they win the game? It's debatable and that remains a credit to the Michigan Wolverines. That, my friends, is a good football team. The silver lining: Gardner can go pro next April and Matt Barkley might tell him to do so. Onto the Purdue Boilermakers and what are the five biggest things I'm looking for on Saturday.

Our weekly show Down the Line had former Irish safety Gerome Sapp stop by and take the defense to task. Sapp is on a group text with quite a few former players and there was plenty of griping about the embarrassing strip attempts by Bennett Jackson on Jeremy Gallon's 61 yard TD catch which also featured three other Irish defenders blow standard tackles on the play. Apparently former All-American corner Shane Walton was not impressed. Sapp also reviewed his thoughts on Devin Gardner and what he expects from Diaco and the defense in the coming weeks and months against a slew of mobile quarterbacks on the schedule. Maybe the most telling comments came regarding the Irish's offensive backfield. Sapp claimed if he was a defender watching film he'd have no idea why Amir Carlisle ever came out of the game …

5. Can Purdue Raise Their Game Two Years In A Row? It's supposed to be a rivalry and all but where is the mindset Saturday for Purdue? Look at their schedule! There isn't a game they should consider "winnable" until maybe November 9th. This is a team staring at a deep cliff as the herd comes thundering right behind. I don't see it for them this year. In 2012 Purdue was 3-3 on 4th down during a game where ND just kept letting them hang around. The 2012 team also had a knack for scoring. In Weeks 1-4 last year Purdue averaged 42.5 points/game even if it was 3 middling teams and the Irish. Headed to Week 3 in 2013 and Purdue has 27 total points after hosting Indiana State.

4. Is Notre Dame's Offensive Play Calling Going To Make A Statement? The Irish went undefeated against a brutal schedule in 2012 and it's still baffling when looking over the box score from the game between these two state rivals. Why did Notre Dame, mostly playing with a lead, throw the ball 39 times? Because Notre Dame made 32 rushing attempts for a pathetic 52 yards at a 1.4 Yards/Carry average. Last week the run game was abandoned mostly due to the scoreboard and in spite of some very healthy averages by the Irish backs on limited touches. Chuck Martin & Brian Kelly know that Tommy Rees's effectiveness for the next slate of games depends on the threat of the Irish run game. They may not "need" it to be beat Purdue, but they need to give something Michigan State and Oklahoma need to respect. I assume we'll see 40+ rush attempts split healthily between the backs.

3. Fresh Blood In The Defensive Backfield? Cole Luke and Max Redfield are the players fans want to see more of after the sub par performance in Ann Arbor by the entire unit. I'd expect to see a little more rotation with Lo Wood and possibly Eilar Hardy as the staff attempts to get longer looks at other options on that unit. Boilermaker QB Rob Henry has struggled out the gate. Maybe it's a great opportunity to see if there are some more play makers in the ranks and give incumbent starters Mathias Farley, Bennett Jackson, and Keivarae Russell something to think about.

2. Irish Linemen Racing To Meet At the Quarterback – The only people more relieved than Irish fans to see a drop back passer is the Notre Dame front seven. We can probably put that whole "Best Defensive Line in the Country!!" mantra from August to bed but Purdue could stir a perfect storm for ND. The excessive blitzing schemes from Michigan and Temple will be more effective when the man in the pocket can't extend plays or beat defenders to the 1st Down marker. Assuming the Irish jump out to an early lead and Purdue goes to the air – we've got Tuitt, Shembo, and Jaylon Smith teeing off. Sprinkle in some genuine outrage over their most recent performance and the 1st regular season loss in many moons and this group could be sack dancing early and often.

1. Big Game For the Offensive Line – Notre Dame's first two drives Saturday against Michigan ended in the same down, distance, play call and result: A 3rd & 3 running play that didn't garner a 1st down and led to a punt. Michigan was up 10-0 before Notre Dame moved the sticks. At the start of the 4th quarter and the Irish facing 3rd & 2 in a four down situation – Kelly opted to pass behind the line of scrimmage over pounding the ball twice for a 1st down. Early struggles by the OL Saturday led to less trust in the units ability to gut out tough yards as the game wore on. If Notre Dame makes a statement Saturday it starts with the five men up front pounding a less talented Purdue team on every snap.

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Twitter: @ManCaveQB