Oct. 1, 2004
By Alan Wasielewski
Notre Dame will be looking at a series role-reversal this afternoon when the Irish play host to the 15th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers. Purdue is off to a fast 3-0 start this season while Notre Dame (3-1) has reeled off three straight victories following a season-opening loss at BYU.
With Purdue entering the contest with a lofty 15th ranking, it will mark just the fifth time in the 75-game series history that the Boilermakers are ranked higher than Notre Dame at the time of game. Purdue was ranked ninth in 1952, first in 1968, ninth in 1980, 13th in 2000 and 22nd in 2003. Notre Dame knocked off the Boilermakers in three of those five meetings, including a 23-21 victory in Notre Dame Stadium during the 2000 season when Nick Setta sent the 21st-ranked Irish past the 13th-rated Boilers with a last-second field goal.
The Notre Dame – Purdue series has transformed itself from a one-sided affair (the Irish won 10 straight games from 1986-96) to a highly competitive meeting each season. Take away Purdue’s big 23-10 victory in West Lafayette last season and the two teams have participated in five close games – decided in the final minutes of the game.
Those five games began with a 31-30 victory by Notre Dame in 1998, avenged by Purdue the next season with a 28-23 victory. The Irish squeaked out another win in Notre Dame Stadium courtesy of Setta during the 2000 season, then rattled off two more victories by close-to-identical scores in 2001 (24-18) and 2002 (24-17).
The Irish have controlled the series, as the 49 victories are the second-most against any team Notre Dame has played (67 in the Navy series is the highest). The unusual facet of the Irish-Boilermaker rivalry, however, is that the losses that Purdue has dealt Notre Dame have come at crucial times in the season and some are still felt by Irish fans today.
Bob Greise’s legendary performance in 1968 is still a haunting memory to Irish fans when the Purdue quarterback led his top-ranked team to a 37-22 victory over #2 Notre Dame in South Bend. Jim Everett led Purdue to a 23-21 victory over the eighth-ranked Irish in 1984 in the dedication game at the Hoosier Dome. Those are two memorable collegiate quarterbacks that have posted memorable wins over the Irish and yet another comes calling this afternoon for Purdue. Senior Kyle Orton, the early-season favorite for the Heisman Trophy, leads a potent Boilermaker offense that has yet to hit a speed bump in three games this season.
Orton’s statistics so far in 2004 are mind-boggling. He has thrown for 982 yards, 13 touchdowns and completed 70 percent of his passes as Purdue has dissected Syracuse, Ball State and Illinois. It is safe to say that the Notre Dame defensive backs are going to be challenged early and often this afternoon.
Other players to keep an eye on for Purdue include RB Jerod Void (5.6 yards per carry) and WR Taylor Stubblefield (21 receptions, 324 yards, eight touchdowns).
The Irish defense has been up to the challenges they have faced so far this season. Senior cornerback Dwight Ellick is coming off the best game of his career with the Irish against Washington, posting a team-high seven tackles, forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass and nabbing an interception. Notre Dame’s defense as a whole has been dominating at times this season and has forced 16 turnovers in four games, including collecting 10 fumbles.
The Irish defensive unit has its share of playmakers, which include Ellick, Mike Goolsby (38 tackles, three passes broken up), Brandon Hoyte (four tackles for loss, one sack, three forced fumbles) and Derek Curry (3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries). All of Notre Dame’s players will be tested today, however, as Purdue is averaging an eye-popping 561.7 yards per game on offense this season.
In the past, the Irish have found several ways to score defensively against the Boilermakers. Over the last three games against Purdue, five of the seven touchdowns scored by the Irish have come from their defense or special teams.
Vontez Duff returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in 2001, following Jason Beckstrom’s 29-yard interception return. For the 2002 meeting, all three scores were provided by the Notre Dame defense and special teams on a Gerome Sapp 54-yard fumble return and a Lionel Bolen fumble return on the ensuing kickoff. Duff then closed the scoring by bringing back an interception 33 yards for a score.
While Purdue has been putting up impressive offensive numbers so far in 2004, the Irish offensive unit has been slowly finding its identity. The emergence of freshman tailback Darius Walker (294 yards rushing in three games) has led to the team posting 28, 31 and 38 points in its last three outings. Walker has also scored at least one touchdown in each of his three career games played.
Sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn has shown improvement each week and posted one his best days at Notre Dame against Washington last Saturday. Quinn threw for 266 yards and four touchdowns against the Huskies and has developed a comfort level with close to every Notre Dame receiver on the roster. A remarkable 13 different receivers have nabbed a pass from Quinn this season, 14 if you include the deflected pass the Irish quarterback completed to himself against Washington.
One of the Irish players grabbing those passes who has made a special name for himself is senior wide receiver Matt Shelton. Shelton leads the team with four touchdown receptions and is averaging 30.4 yards per catch to take over the reigns as Notre Dame’s big-play receiver.
Notre Dame hopes to welcome back junior WR Maurice Stovall and senior RB Ryan Grant to the starting lineup this afternoon. Both were sidelined against Washington with injuries and look for the week off from action to give both players the rest necessary to return to action full time.
Purdue holds the unfamiliar role as the top-ranked team in the game and enter the contest with one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. The Boilermakers are also focused on breaking a 13-game losing streak in Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame is riding a momentum swing after its upset of eighth-ranked Michigan three weeks ago. The Irish have been dominating at times against Michigan State and Washington, but look at today’s game as a chance to define what the rest of the season will hold for the Notre Dame program.
Today’s game might prove to be one of the classics in the series. A Heisman Trophy candidate, long-time rivals, two-three game win streaks and a recent history of close games make up today’s game in the `House that Rockne Built.’