A defense that actually works and an offensive line that isn't going to get its quarterback killed.
Purdue was able to come up with two sacks, but Ryan Kerrigan is an elite, next-level pass rusher and will produce against everyone. WR Keith Smith destroyed the Irish secondary with 12 catches, but he's one of the nation's top targets and the grabs only went for 80 yards.
No, it wasn't a brick wall of a performance by the Irish defense, but it looked 1985 Chicago Bears against the Boilermakers compared to the Charlie Weis era.
No, the offensive line wasn't out of this world, but it did enough to give Dayne Crist time to have a smart, efficient day, even if he did play a bit timid at times, and it paved the way for 153 yards and a 4.2-yard average.
Brian Kelly's debut wasn't full of bluster and it wasn't full of a lot of big-time numbers compared to what he did with Cincinnati last year, but it was an even, good performance for a team that did what it was supposed to do against a lesser opponent. Purdue is good enough to go to a bowl game this year, and it has a few more explosive weapons on both sides of the ball than the Irish do, but it couldn't get anything going because Kelly's team didn't let it happen.
There were only two penalties (compared to five by Purdue), one fumble (compared to two Purdue turnovers), and the team was able to get up early and not let Purdue make a real run. Oh sure, there were some opening day moments that weren't so tight, but for the most part, Notre Dame played a solid game without a lot of drama.
Considering how the last few years have been, and how every Irish game seemed to be, a few business-like wins will go over just fine.
It was a good start for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. It wasn't too bad for his defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, either.
Saturday's win over Purdue will be all about Kelly, which is understandable since it was his debut in South Bend. However, it was Diaco's kids -- and the ground game -- which were the notable heroes of this game. No, Purdue isn't an offensive juggernaut, but Notre Dame showed more energy and physicality on defense than at any point in the Charlie Weis era. It flew to the ball, rarely missed tackles, and after some halftime adjustments, started getting steady pressure on Robert Marve. The front seven, in particular, was feisty and difficult to block. Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Ian Williams provided the push at the point of attack. Manti Te'o, Brian Smith, and Carlo Calabrese cleaned up whatever got beyond the first line of defense. Te'o and Calabrese are only in their second year with the school.
Although the passing game was sloppy and inconsistent versus the Boilermakers, given time, it'll be just fine with Kelly pulling the strings on QB Dayne Crist and pass-catchers Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and T.J. Jones. The potential of this team, though, rests with its ability to transcend beyond being just a finesse program. So far, so good. With no breathers until the middle of October, Notre Dame must continue to be more than just a high-flying passing attack, as was too often the case when Weis was calling the shots.
Let's get this out of the way: Michigan-Notre Dame just got a whole lot more compelling after week one. It will also tell us a great deal more about the Fighting Irish. However, if we're to tackle the 2010 season opener and make some sense of it, here are the thoughts that emerge:
1) Notre Dame committed very few penalties and did not serve up an outlandishly sloppy performance against Purdue. Brian Kelly's attention to detail is already apparent. As he builds the program in South Bend, expect the Irish to execute at an even higher level. What was noteworthy about this game was what you didn't see.
2) Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue will pick up an NFL paycheck as long as he stays healthy. Notre Dame's offensive line won't be the only bunch of big uglies Kerrigan will dominate this season.
3) Notre Dame's pass defense is particularly hard to grade or gauge after this game. In the first half on Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Purdue quarterback Robert Marve made poor throws and even more deficient reads. In the second half, the transfer from Miami (Florida) started to throw the ball well and gain a good rhythm, but his receivers -- particularly Cortez Smith on a fourth-quarter deep ball (with the score 20-12 in favor of the Irish, a one-possession game) -- did not finish their routes. Just when Purdue's signal caller began to play well, its receivers faltered. Before halftime, when the receivers were better, Mavre wasn't yet in the flow of the game. That's what ultimately killed the Boilermakers. Needless to say, the way the Irish handle Mr. Denard Robinson will be the biggest single key to next week's contest.