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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Purdue’s 2020 slide a sign of worrisome trends

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Northwestern at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Purdue Boilermakers wide receiver David Bell (3) dives for a pass defended by Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Greg Newsome II (2) during the college football game between the Purdue Boilermakers and Northwestern Wildcats on November 14, 2020, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Notre Dame had faced Purdue just a year ago, the jokes would have written themselves, just as they did when Bowling Green visited South Bend back in 2019. Alas, Bob Diaco’s 2020 Boilermakers defense performed poorly enough to earn him a December dismissal and thus perhaps force the Irish to face a now-improved defense.

Purdue’s 2-4 during the pandemic fit into a longer trend, winning exactly a third of their last 24 games. While those 24 were not spread across two seasons for the obvious *2020* reasons, two years worth of games finishing 8-16 does not bode well for anyone, and the defensive coordinator being shown the door at the end of that stretch is often just a nod toward a larger inevitability a year later.

The Boilermakers chances to cover for that defense last season took a hit when star receiver Rondale Moore initially opted out of the season, and then when he opted back in, he was either injured or making up his mind, depending on which expert you listened to. Without him, Purdue did not even average four touchdowns a game (27.2 points, to be exact).

More than any of these long-term or pandemic-induced frustrations, what should most worry Boilermakers fans is how their 2020 ended. No program can enter an offseason with any version of momentum or optimism after losing to Rutgers and Nebraska, both as home games, in consecutive weeks.

Moore’s hesitation, tied to lower-body muscular worries or simply more broadly-based, was understandable given the uncertain nature of the season in comparison to the certainty of his NFL draft prospects. Indeed, the Arizona Cardinals selected Moore in the second round, formally ending his college career that began with such magnificent promise and never truly came to be much else after that upset of No. 2 Ohio State in 2018 when he turned 14 touches into 194 yards and two touchdowns. (It was Notre Dame’s idle week; some among us were leading a bachelor party through New Orleans, and still, Moore’s dazzling is remembered.)

Purdue is now also without left tackle Grant Hermanns, who started 33 games in college and is now working with the New York Jets, hoping to snag a roster spot.

Defensively, the Boilermakers lost linebacker Derrick Barnes, who made 55 tackles in just six games last season. Not that Purdue was pushing for a bowl berth (even with a few non-conference wins, that would have been a tight call), but to put that into 13-game context, Barnes was on pace for 119 tackles in 2020.

As it pertains to Diaco, he worked under head coach Jeff Brohm for just the one season, and it can be argued he did not do a terrible job. Purdue gave up 29.8 points per game — not good, but when playing opposite a Brohm offense, should be good enough — and 5.38 yards per play. It was arguably serviceable — even if it did not create any defensive pressure, it allowed only 3.62 yards per rush attempt (sacks adjusted).

Brees will debut in the “ND on NBC” booth the week prior in the Irish home opener against Toledo, but he will gain most notice when Notre Dame faces the Boilermakers, not just because it will be Brees’ first game on NBC, rather than on Peacock, but also because he obviously played for Purdue, twice losing in the last minute in South Bend.

“I remember vividly my two experiences at Notre Dame, both in 1998 and 2000,” Brees said this spring when NBC announced his new role shortly after his retirement from the New Orleans Saints became official. “Both games, in my opinion, we should have won and somehow, someway, Touchdown Jesus got us in the end.”

That will make for some fun anecdotes in the broadcast, if a viewer is open-minded enough to acknowledge Brees’ self-deprecation in even discussing those losses. When Purdue is not the Irish opponent, Brees will call the game impartially, as a broadcaster should. On Sept. 18, he might slip once or twice, though probably only in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“I will be impartial for every game with the exception of the Purdue game, because my bloodlines run deep with the black and gold and the Boilermakers,” Brees said.

“On a serious note, I’m excited to be a part of and really continue the legacy of what Notre Dame football has meant to so many.”

It should be noted, with the surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer now in the NBC booth, this intrastate rivalry is no longer an annual affair and will not return to being one for the foreseeable future.

The Boilermakers return 74 percent of their production, even without Moore (though, playing only a couple games obviously diminished the production he brought with him to the NFL), yet do not have an established quarterback. A pair of experienced passers are in the midst of a competition to start for Purdue, but neither is especially notable.

In Brohm’s offense, however, a quarterback does not need to have elite physical talents. He needs to be willing to take deep shots to let his perimeter playmakers simply outdo opposing defensive backs, and he needs to get the ball into those playmakers’ hands on short routes in space. When clicking, usually with someone like Moore putting together highlights such that an entire bar crawl halts to watch, Brohm’s offense can be dynamic. When a defense has cornerbacks to match those receivers or disciplined linebackers to eat up the open spaces, the offense can be staltering.

The Boilermakers have the receivers this year, led by junior David Bell, possibly the best receiver in the conference outside of Ohio State, 6-foot-3 junior Milton Wright and Marshall transfer Broc Thompson.

Bell caught 53 passes for 625 yards and eight touchdowns in six games last year, while Wright broke out with 24 catches for 305 yards and two scores. Not that this is intended as a matchup-specific preview, but they will test the Irish cornerbacks more than anyone else does in the season’s first quarter.

It is a one-dimensional offense these days, with no worthwhile rushing complement. Purdue averaged 81.5 rushing yards per game last year and 3.26 yards per carry in 2020.

Brohm turned to Marshall to replace Diaco and give his tenure a boost. Brad Lambert coordinated the Thundering Herd to be the No. 1 scoring defense in the country last year and the No. 2 total defense.

Upon arrival in West Lafayette, Lambert revamped the entire defensive coaching staff and more tangibly pulled in two defensive back transfers, one from Kentucky and one from Division II’s Findlay. But they obviously will not help with the Boilermaker’s lack of pressure up front.

For that, they will continue to turn to star defensive end George Karlaftis. Though he lost most of the already-truncated 2020 season to injury and pandemic protocols, Karlaftis had 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks in his freshman year in 2019. He alone will be a useful asset for Lambert that Diaco hardly got to enjoy.

PointsBet sets Purdue’s season win total over/under at a mere 5. To top that, the Boilermakers will need to find traction in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They will have time to find their footing in that respect, opening the year against Oregon State and at Connecticut, but then come the Irish.

Purdue may well reach its idle week at 4-1 (with home games against Illinois and Minnesota following the trip to Notre Dame), but after that, the quality of the Big Ten populates the schedule. For the Boilermakers to become bowl eligible, even after that strong start, they will need to beat two of Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern, or secure a 2018-esque upset against a vastly superior opponent.

Brohm started 11-9 at Purdue, but has lost most good will since then with a three-year slide. Firing Diaco may not have been enough to halt that trend.

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