Published September 11, 2013
| Sports Network
West Lafayette, IN – The 21st-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish continue a three-game stretch of opponents from the Big Ten Conference as they collide with the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium.
This will be the 85th meeting in history between these Sycamore State rivals. The Fighting Irish own a 56-26-2 all-time record against Purdue and have won 22 of the previous 27 encounters. The Boilermakers' 20-17 loss to Notre Dame last season was their fifth consecutive setback in the series.
Notre Dame had its 12-game regular season win streak come to an end last week as it fell, 41-30, to Michigan in Ann Arbor in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 115,109 fans. Coach Brian Kelly's team dropped seven spots in the ranking after coming up short against the Wolverines. The Irish were impressive in their season opener as they coasted to a 28-6 win over Temple. They have not lost back-to-back games in the regular season since their 0-2 start to the 2011 season.
Darrell Hazell will be looking for his second win as Purdue's head coach after his squad's 20-14 home win over Indiana State last week. In his debut with the program, the Boilermakers were handed a 42-7 loss at Cincinnati. Hazell guided Kent State to the best turnaround of any FBS program last season. The Golden Flashes were defeated in double-overtime by Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship, which ruined their bid of being a mid-major BCS Bowl buster.
Purdue's lopsided loss to Oklahoma State in the 2012 Heart of Dallas Bowl gave it a 6-7 final record. Hazell has a rebuilding process on his hands as Purdue has several players experiencing their inaugural season in a starting role.
Although Everett Golson was ruled ineligible over the offseason, Notre Dame still had a reliable leader to steer the ship in senior quarterback Tommy Rees. In the Irish's loss to Michigan, the 6-foot-1 passer completed 29-of-51 attempts for 314 yards with two touchdowns and the same number of interceptions.
"There were a number of them," said Rees after the loss. "I have to take accountability for some of those missed opportunities, and there are plays you want to have back; but I have to be better and give our team a better chance to win a game. I take full accountability for that."
Despite his two turnovers, Rees is producing more yardage than ever this season. He has surpassed the 300-yard mark through the air in both of Notre Dame's contests after never reaching that number in back-to-back games before in his career.
Rees has a great chemistry with senior wideout T.J. Jones, who has racked up 232 yards and a touchdown on 15 receptions already. Troy Niklas and DaVaris Daniels are second and third on the team in receiving yards with 142 and 132, respectively. Both have a pair of touchdown catches to their credit.
Notre Dame had moderate success rushing the ball against Michigan with an average of 5.1 yards per carry, but it rushed just 19 times in the contest including a sack on Rees. USC transfer Amir Carlisle paced the rushing attack with 64 yards on 12 attempts after he piled up 68 yards on seven attempts in week one versus Temple. The 220-pound junior George Atkinson III is a more effective option in short-yardage situations for Kelly.
The Irish's defense had no answer for Michigan's scrambling quarterback Devin Gardner and surrendered 460 yards of total offense to the Wolverines. Other than Gardner, who gained 82 yards on 13 carries, Michigan had very little success running the ball.
Notre Dame's defense brought it within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter when junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt made a diving interception in the opponent's end zone. Senior linebacker Dan Fox anchored the unit with 10 total stops. He has registered a team-best 20 total stops through two games. Notre Dame has recorded just two sacks on the year after averaging 2.8 per contest in 2012.
The Irish will hope to apply more pressure this week against Purdue's senior signal caller Rob Henry, who once again regained the starting job after falling to third on the depth chart behind Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush last year. Henry started seven games in 2011 and became the first Purdue quarterback to lead the team in both rushing and passing, but he missed all of 2011 with a knee injury he experienced just before the season opener.
Henry has been shaky so far in 2013, completing 33-of-59 attempts for 311 yards with two interceptions. The offense has been inefficient as a whole, averaging only 255 yards and 13.5 points per outing.
Junior tailback Akeem Hunt has had trouble finding running room this season. After averaging 8.0 yards per carry in 2012, Hunt has averaged just 3.6 yards per rush as the full-time back. Hunt did manage to provide a huge play on special teams in the win over Indiana State as he returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for six points.
"He's a special player, and we have to make sure he gets all the touches he needs, and we'll do that as we move through the season," said Hazell on his starting halfback. "But he's really gifted. The more he plays, the better he gets. We need to make sure we get him involved pretty quickly."
Hunt will need to contribute out of the backfield more with so few viable options in the passing attack. Senior tight end Gabe Holmes is leading the Boilermakers with nine receptions and 69 receiving yards.
Purdue showed improvement on the defensive side of the ball from week one and held ISU to only 39 rushing yards on 22 carries. The Bearcats amassed 221 yards on the ground on 47 carries against the Boilermakers the previous week. Senior defensive tackle Bruce Gaston is a key player for the group. He has tallied team-highs of 12 total tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss along with two sacks.