Once we get past a 23-0 halftime deficit, a yet-again woeful running game, and the ongoing struggles of the ND secondary (in the first half, anyway), there are lots of different "glass is half-full" kinds of ways for Irish fans to conceptualize yesterday's loss.
One possibility, taken up for instance over at Classic Ground, would be to think of the game as a coming-out party for ND's underclassman wide receivers: seven catches for 93 yards by sophomore Robby Parris, six for 68 yards and a touchdown for freshman Duval Kamara, three for 104 yards and a touchdown - plus another where he could have taken it to the house but was underthrown - by freshman Golden Tate, and four catches for 37 yards by sophomore George West. (Junior David Grimes (three catches for 34 yards in the first half before going out with an injury) and fifth-year senior tight end John Carlson (five catches for 30 yards and a great leaping grab to give Jimmy Clausen his first career TD pass - the video is here) also had strong games.)
We could also talk about the play of the defensive line: Trevor Laws (six tackles, three for a loss and one sack) and the much-maligned John Ryan (also six tackles, two for a loss and one sack, starting in the place of the injured Justin Brown) both played tremendously, as did linebacker Joe Brockington, who led the team with nine total tackles. (As I noted yesterday, for some reason Derrell Hand, last week's replacement for Brown, didn't see the field at all. No word yet on any possible reasons for this.)
Another possibility, which is pretty ridiculous by my lights, focuses on the strong play of Evan Sharpley, and even argues that Clausen, despite having almost the same numbers, should be benched.
Meanwhile, a somewhat different way to think about Saturday's storyline, exemplified by OCDomer's post on the game, turns to the stat sheet to highlight the ways the Irish have improved, but also to bring out the extent to which having lost that game should be regarded as a disappointment rather than a sort of moral victory.
I think this last approach is pretty much the right one, though I want to take it in a somewhat different direction. Last week one of the ways I broke down the game was in terms of what I called Inexcusables: "a tendency for stupid mistakes, bad penalties, and other sorts of errors that are frankly inexcusable for a top-flight team (think Justin Brown getting tossed out of the GT game, Travis Thomas getting into a fistfight against PSU, and so on)." When I look back at the Purdue game and the sorts of mistakes that the Irish made, what I see is a case where what clearly could have been a win against a top-25 team turned into yet another disappointing loss, thanks in this case to many instances of the sorts of mental and physical mistakes that have no place on a top-flight team.
Based on my back-of-the-envelope notes, here's a narration of some of the key "Inexcusables" from the first half:
- On the first series of Purdue's opening drive, the Boilermakers faced third down and two yards to go from the Irish 44 yard line. Curtis Painter was sacked on the play, but freshman linebacker Kerry Neal, who didn't factor in on the sack, was caught offsides, giving Purdue a free first down. This drive ultimately led to a field goal, and a 3-0 lead for the Boilermakers.
- On Notre Dame's second offensive series, with the Boilermakers leading 10-0, the Irish faced fourth and one from the Purdue 35 yard line. Charlie Weis elected to go for it, but freshman tailback Robert Hughes was stopped for no gain.
- After the Irish - led by Laws, who had two straight tackles for losses of eight and eleven yards respectively, though Painter did follow these up with a 40-yard completion to Greg Orton, on which Darrin Walls was burned badly - forced a Boilermaker punt on the ensuing drive, Tom Zbikowski - who did have seven tackles and a pick, but also missed pretty badly on some plays - let the ball bounce by him at the ten yard line, thinking it would carry into the end zone. It didn't, and was downed by Purdue just outside the goal line.
- On the next drive, Clausen got out of his end zone right away, with a 17-yard completion to Grimes. But after two failed rushing plays - both by James Aldridge, who fumbled on the second one - Jimmy Clausen rolled to his left under pressure and then tried to throw across the middle to John Carlson, who was blanketed by the Purdue defense. Clausen's pass was picked off and returned to the Notre Dame 25, and six plays later - the last of them a John Ryan sack on third and five - the Boilermaker lead stood at 13-0.
- A few drives later, with the score now at 20-0 Purdue, Sam Young was called for holding on first and ten. The very next play saw Armando Allen fumble the ball after catching a screen pass from Clausen. The Boilermakers recovered, and just over a minute later extended their lead to 23-0.
- Next up, on Notre Dame's last drive of the second half, after two nice catches by Kamara and West brought the Irish near midfield, John Sullivan - who made this same mistake either two or three times against Michigan - snapped the ball over Clausen's head on second and five, for a seven-yard loss. Clausen got out of this jam, though, finding Golden Tate for a 36-yard completion on third and twelve. At this point, though, the Irish offense stalled, with three straight incompletions, and the team lined up for a 35-yard field goal attempt, to try and get on the board before halftime. The kick was blocked by Alex Magee and returned to the Purdue 46 yard line.
- Finally, the ensuing Boilermaker drive saw David Bruton flagged for a late hit after a catch by Selwyn Lymon. He was bailed out, though, when Kyle McCarthy intercepted Painter on the very next play.
While the Irish looked much better in the second half, though, it too was far from mistake-free:
- On Notre Dame's first drive of the half, Michael Turkovich was called for holding on third and two from the Purdue 46 yard line, and two plays later the Irish had to punt the ball away.
- After a Zbikowski interception and a solid drive resulting in Clausen's TD pass to Carlson, the Irish failed to convert on their ensuing extra point attempt.
- After another solid defensive series and a solid drive that got the Irish to the Purdue 31 yard line, Junior Jabbie was held to no gain on fourth and one - the second time in the game that this had happened.
- On the ensuing drive, Purdue faced third and 21 from their own 33 yard line. Painter came under pressure and tried to scramble for the first down, but freshman linebacker Brian Smith ran him out of bounds ten yards short of the marker. But Smith (at least I think it was him - the box score, though, says it was Dwight Stephenson) shoved Painter after he was clearly off the field - a ticky-tack call, but a foolish mistake in any case. On the very next play, after Dan Dierking was held to two yards on first and ten, Stephenson was whistled for a personal foul facemask call, giving Purdue yet another free first down, at the Irish 25. Then, once again on the very next play, Smith was caught offsides, moving the Boilermakers to the 20. The Irish defense held Purdue to a field goal, though, and the score stood at 26-6.
- The next Irish drive, highlighted by a 43-yard bomb down the sidelines to a speeding Golden Tate on fourth and five from the ND 37, led to another touchdown: but this was followed up once again by a missed extra point, this time with Nate Whitaker kicking in place of Brandon Walker. What could have been a 26-14 game stood at 26-12.
- A bit later, after the Irish had scored again (and hit the PAT this time) to narrow the margin to 26-19, Walls was flagged for holding on the very first play of Purdue's ensuing drive. This moved the Boilermakers past midfield, and they were in the end zone five plays later.
- Notre Dame moved down the field quickly on their next drive, though, with a long completion to Parris and a personal foul against Purdue bringing them to the Boilermaker 18 yard line within a minute. But on second and ten from the 18, Evan Sharpley was intercepted - it is unclear whether he simply misthrew the ball, or whether Carlson or Duval Kamara might have run the wrong route - and Purdue had the ball back, with a two-touchdown lead and 4:33 on the clock.
- Finally, after the Irish forced third down and four and called timeout with 2:16 on the clock, Walls was called for holding once again, ending any hope of a last-dash comeback as the Boilermakers were able simply to run out the clock on their next four plays.
If the Irish are going to avoid going 0-8 to start the season, their so-far steady diet of these sorts of mental and physical mistakes is going to have to change. Some of them can be attributed to underclassman jitters, others to players trying to do too much to help a team dig itself out of a hole, and others perhaps to frustration. But they've got to stop, and it's hard to believe that the coaching staff doesn't know that.
(But hey - at least we're not the Bears.)