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Carrying On About Big Ten Football: September 26

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Tim Cary

"We don't quit.  Boilermakers don't quit.  That's just the way it has to be... I don't think we're all that far off.  I don't think we've arrived yet: I don't think we're ready to take on the Patriots yet, but we certainly have a lot to look forward to." -- Purdue coach Danny Hope


UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: NOTRE DAME 24, PURDUE 21


No long-winded introduction today...mostly because I'm still sleep-deprived from not getting back to Ohio until 4:30 am Sunday!  So we'll jump right in with five things I observed from the Purdue/Notre Dame thriller in West Lafayette.


1.  The night game environment in Ross-Ade Stadium is absolutely incredible.  I was on the field when Purdue took the fourth-quarter lead, and from the moment Jaycen Taylor crossed the goal line until Jimmy Clausen broke the fans' hearts with the game-winning touchdown pass, I've never heard anything in sports approaching the decibel level on the sideline for those few minutes.

"I've been here five years and that's as loud as I've heard it," senior cornerback Brandon King told me after the game.  "It was fun, man...definitely an experience!"

Danny Hope was certainly impressed with the "Blackout" atmosphere.  "What a great way to represent Purdue and Purdue football," the first-year coach said afterwards.  "There wasn't a better game in a better atmosphere anywhere in the country this weekend.  That's exciting and that's a step for our program as well."

Give special credit to former coach Joe Tiller, who led the traditional singing of "Shout" between the third and fourth quarters and encouraged the fans to make some noise and get back into the game.  At the time, the Boilermakers were down 17-7 and hadn't scored since the opening drive, so fans had gone almost three quarters without anything to cheer about.  That didn't matter to Tiller. 

"You can't expect your team to turn it up if you don't turn it up as fans," the school's all-time winningest coach told the crowd of 59,000+.  And they responded.  The Boilers obviously fed off the Ross-Ade momentum in scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to nearly pull off a big upset.

Senior Joe Holland relished the home-field advantage.  "I've never played in a game in Ross-Ade that was anything like that.  The fans were incredible tonight, and they really added something extra to that game.  It was too bad we couldn't win for them," the linebacker said with a sigh.


2.  Third-down conversions are vital for streaky Purdue offense.   One of the reasons former Boilermaker great Drew Brees was so successful in Tiller's "basketball on grass" offense was his knack for converting 3rd downs with short, high-percentage throws.  Personally, I've always believed that next to turnover margin, 3rd-down conversions are the single most important statistic in football for any team, but for some reason, it's always seemed even more important in West Lafayette.

Maybe it's because Purdue hasn't had enough "home-run threats" at the skill positions over the years, so they've relied on possession receivers like Chris Daniels, John Standeford, Taylor Stubblefield, and now Keith Smith to move the chains a mere ten or fifteen yards at a time.  The shorter the average pass completion, the more conversions it takes to string together a scoring drive.
CFB: Minnesota vs Purdue OCT 25

Regardless, the Boilermakers need to convert a healthy percentage of third downs if they're going to rebound from a 1-3 start to make some noise during the Big Ten season. 

Consistency is a big issue, as Purdue went 2-2 on third down during their opening drive (en route to jumping on top of the Irish 7-0), but then didn't crack the scoreboard again until less than 14 minutes remained in the game.  Drops also plagued the Boilers early, as both Keith Smith and Ralph Bolden failed to make easy catches on a first-quarter drive that could have extended the home team's lead.  Even though those plays weren't on third down, they change potential third-and-short situations into third-and-long and lower the all-important conversion percentage.   

Quarterback Joey Elliott rued the missed opportunities.  "We could've gashed them pretty bad.  We should have had them down 14-0," said Elliott.  He also echoed the importance of the third down statistics: "You obviously want to be 50 percent on third down to be successful: you look at any team that's not 50 percent, you're not going to have that good of a chance to win the ballgame."


3.  Danny Hope's controversial timeout didn't cost his team the game, contrary to popular opinion.   Most of the postgame discussion has centered on Hope's decision to stop the clock with Notre Dame facing a 3rd down play from the 2-yard line and the clock running (there were 36 seconds left at the time).  The Irish were out of timeouts, appeared to be ready to spike the ball and leave themselves only one final play, and still needed a touchdown, trailing by four.

While I'm not sure I would have called the timeout personally, I understand Hope's line of thinking.  36 seconds is plenty of time for Notre Dame to call and run two plays (whether or not Charlie Weis was actually telling his team to waste one on a spike...it wouldn't surprise me if they have a fake spike/fade route to Tate they were planning to run and won't admit to now), and if the Irish end up scoring on either third or fourth down, Purdue needs as much time as possible to drive for a potential tying field goal.  Remember, the Boilermakers' kicker already has a 59-yard field goal to his credit this season, so his range is more easily reachable than most.

Hope's strategy actually worked to some extent.  When Notre Dame scored on fourth down, 24 seconds still remained.  If Purdue runs the kickoff back for a touchdown, gets a healthy return to make a field goal realistic, or even completes a long pass instead of getting sacked on first down, we could be heralding Hope as a genius today.

Instead, he's taken much of the blame for the Boilermakers' third straight defeat.  Let me point out that I do agree with the critics who say letting the Irish regroup and huddle with their coaches instead of having to hurry to the line of scrimmage wasn't the best idea, and for that reason, I probably wouldn't have used my timeout in a similar situation...but I'd consider it a toss-up, with valid arguments on either side. 

Others have complained that calling the timeout didn't show faith in the Purdue defense, but I don't really buy that idea.  Give most teams two cracks at the end zone on a play shorter than a two-point conversion and they'll manage to get one in.  Sorry to the Boilermaker loyalists, but the odds were against a Purdue goal-line stand.  Especially with how poorly the rush defense had played (more on that later). 

If anything, the defense probably appreciated the breather as much as the Irish offense did.  I don't think Brandon King or David Pender came off the field thinking, "Well, now Notre Dame is definitely going to score on us because our coach doesn't believe in us."

One more point about this very dead horse we're beating: if Hope doesn't call timeout and Notre Dame scores on the same fourth-down play as time expires, fans would be openly criticizing Hope for not stopping the clock and giving his team a chance.  Don't even pretend they wouldn't.  Welcome to the catch-22 of the college football spotlight, Danny Hope.

Bottom line: Hope wasn't clueless, blind, or stupid as many have said: he wanted to give his team an extra possession and one more chance to try and win the game.  In his mind, the advantage of another chance with the ball outweighed the risk of letting Notre Dame huddle.  Whether he would make that decision again in hindsight or not, the choice was a debatable one, but arguments can be made for either side. 

Purdue's poor kick return and first-down sack tip the scales against Hope's choice somewhat, but he shouldn't be held accountable for the final drive's failure.  If Purdue completes two passes, makes a 55-yard field goal, and ties the game at 24-all, there's a Danny Hope statue outside of Ross-Ade next week.  Let's not villify him because his calculated decision didn't pan out.


4.  Waving the yellow flag...  Purdue entered Saturday's contest with the third fewest penalty yards of any FBS school.  So much for that statistic.  The Boilermakers were flagged a whopping 13 times for 103 yards against Notre Dame, including two costly penalties on the first Irish touchdown drive to keep Clausen and company on the field. 

Whether it was due to the adrenaline of playing in a nationally-televised night game or the emotion of a heated in-state rivalry, the Boilers consistently beat themselves with stupid mistakes and personal fouls.   "I'm very disappointed that we accrued so many penalties," said Hope.  "It's a big game and sometimes it goes that way."


5.  I think it's gonna be another run play, fellas.
  The Boilermakers' much-maligned rush defense, a weakness for several years now, was once again exposed on national television this weekend.  Notre Dame was forced to play without wide receiver Michael Floyd and running back Armando Allen due to injury, and quarterback Jimmy Clausen was flirting with the injured list as well (turf toe).  In the second quarter, the Irish sat Clausen down, leaving them virtually devoid of every playmaker on the roster except wide receiver Golden Tate...and promptly responded by scoring back-to-back touchdowns.
CFB: Notre Dame vs Syracuse NOV 22

With backup quarterback Dayne Crist on the field, coach Charlie Weis went to the well-known Wildcat formation and completely eliminated passing from the team's playbook.  Crist and Tate alternated taking snaps on the two Irish drives, and Purdue never figured out how to defend the suddenly one-dimensional visitors. 

When the dust had settled, Notre Dame had turned a 7-3 deficit into a 17-7 lead, thanks to 15 rushing attempts in 16 total snaps.  The final play in the barrage, a 14-yard Tate touchdown run, was the 13th straight running play Weis called.  It defies reason that any football team could look so unprepared to handle the Wildcat when the formation is a shoo-in to win the just-invented ESPY award of "Most Overused, Talked-About, and Imitated Play of 2009". 

"We were really expecting Clausen to play a lot more than he did, but we did prepare for the Wildcat," Pender told me afterwards.  "They made play after play after play."

Actually, with 13 straight rushes, that would be play after play after play after play after play after play after... well, who's really counting?

While it doesn't make sense on paper, the Irish were a more explosive offensive team with Clausen on the bench Saturday (until the final drive, obviously).  When Crist and the Wildcat took over, Notre Dame consistently moved the ball and piled up rushing yards.  At one point in the third quarter, the visitors had run 21 plays in the period, compared to only four for Purdue.  The Irish domination of the second and third quarters ended up being a critical factor in Notre Dame's road win.



Moving forward...   Where do the Boilermakers go from here?  With a 1-3 record heading into conference play, Hope termed his squad "very disappointed but not discouraged".  After playing Oregon close on the road and nearly toppling Notre Dame at home, the Boilers enter the Big Ten slate with confidence that they can play with anyone in the country. 

"We have high goals and high aspirations for our football team, and there's nothing wrong with that.  Some people would like us to wave the white flag and admit defeat with three months to go, but that's not gonna happen," Hope concluded.  "We'll bounce back, no question about it."

Hope springs eternal, right?
  


MAYBE BROADCASTING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT

My favorite quotes of the weekend...

"He looks like a waterbug." -- Ray Bentley

"Well, what a block by Bobby Burger, I believe it was.  Watch outside here...whoever this guy is.  Great block." -- Todd Blackledge

"I need more cowbell." -- Kirk Herbstreit

"That's the third straight game we've been had.  I mean, it's the third time I've seen it happen in my 37 years." -- Don Fischer, Indiana University radio play-by-play man

"He's quicker than a hiccup." -- Ray Bentley

"I apologize for calling you John, but it gave you an opportunity to officially introduce yourself." -- Ron Franklin (to studio host Matt Winer)

"Did you have any Peachy Paterno [ice cream]?" -- Kirk Herbstreit
"No, I was reaching for a Peachy Sam Adams." -- Brent Musberger



MAYBE COACHING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT

Anyone know why Indiana coach Bill Lynch called timeout at the end of the first half against Michigan?  As fourth down approached, the Hoosiers were getting ready to kick a field goal, attempting to end the half with a 23-21 lead, and the clock was running with 20 seconds left.

Instead of waiting until the time had almost expired to snap the ball, or letting the clock run down to about four seconds left and calling timeout, the Hoosiers inexplicably chose to stop the clock and leave Michigan almost 20 seconds to try and score before halftime.

Sure, let's give the opponent extra plays.  That makes sense.

Indiana followed up its brilliant decision with another one, squibbing the ball to the Michigan 33 after the made field goal.  The Wolverines returned the ball to their own 45 and still had 12 seconds left to try and add to their point total before intermission.

Maybe coaching IS easier than I thought.



THANK GOODNESS FOR MY DVR

What an athletic play by Notre Dame wide receiver Golden Tate to jump over a Purdue defender in the second quarter.  Does the Olympic hurdles team have an opening?

Excellent diving catch by Northwestern's Brendan Mitchell in the corner of the end zone.  Great concentration from the senior to pull the ball in after juggling it.

Play of the week had to be Michigan State wideout B.J. Cunningham's twisting third-quarter touchdown catch. How did he come up with that football anyway?
Purdue-MSU


MAYBE OFFICIATING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT

Seems like every week, some strange play is added to my "I've never seen that before" category.  And this one's a classic.

After Eric Decker made a brilliant diving catch while falling out of bounds in the first half against Northwestern, play was stopped so the replay officials could review the video.

And the verdict is...

"After further review, the ruling on the field is confirmed.  It is a catch."

Awesome.  Cool.  Nice grab, Eric Decker.  He seems to make about 20 a game.  Whatever.

Now why aren't we playing yet?

Let's delay the game for a few more minutes.  Nobody knows why.

Players are milling around.  Commentators are stalling for time.

Look, it's the referee again.

"After FURTHER review, the ball came loose prior to the catch being completed.  The pass is incomplete."

Oh, that makes sense. Of course.  Because the last video review upheld the catch and all. 

Want to go back and look one more time?  Just to be sure?

Third time's the charm?

Maybe officiating is easier than I thought.

(Which reminds me, I could write a whole separate article about the horrendous call during the Michigan/Indiana game that thwarted a Hoosiers' fourth-quarter drive.  But enough people have complained about that already.  Let's just say Bill Lynch had a right to throw his gum.)


Remember, if you hear a wacky announcer quote or see an amazing highlight on Saturday, send us a Twitter message or e-mail: you could make it into next week's "Carrying On" column!


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3 Comments

Brent said:

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It's about time... I spent all day yesterday waiting around for this. It's the highlight of my week. (not really... but's its up there)

Tim Cary said:

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Thanks for reading! Agree that while Michigan fans might not have enjoyed the way the game ended, especially since Indiana seemed to get hosed, you have to take a win any way you can get it! Undefeated is a good place to be.

Brent said:

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oh... and you are definitely right about that "interception" at the end of the UM/IU game.

Michigan didn't deserve to win that game... but an ugly win is still a win. And you can't be a champ, if you can't win ugly.

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