September 12, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Notre Dame has stood up to the body blows.

Cornerback KeiVarae Russell and end Ishaq Williams, the projected pillars of Brian Kelly's rebuilt defense, are out because of an academic fraud investigation and safety Austin Collinsworth, a captain, is out with a sprained knee.

Yet instead of getting knocked down, the Fighting Irish have lived up to their nickname and rallied. A week ago, the short-handed defense handed Michigan its first shutout in nearly 30 years, and with another rival, Purdue, looming on Saturday, coach Brian Kelly and his coaches believe Notre Dame can become even stouter.

''They saw the film and can see a shutout and know that there is a lot there that they need to clean up,'' Kelly said. ''Look, you can't get a better teaching environment than that. You've shut out an opponent, and there are all these errors that need to get cleaned up.''

Yes, it's been a better start than most people anticipated when the punishments came down four weeks ago.

Russell, Williams and backup linebacker Kendall Moore represented three of the four players banned from participating in practice or games until the investigation concluded. Two weeks after that, backup safety Eilar Hardy became the fifth player.

Of course, there have been a few stumbles along the way.

Rice exploited communication problems in the secondary for a touchdown in the season opener, and Kelly said the coaches found 34 defensive mental errors on tape from last weekend's victory.

But that's hardly cause for major concern.

A win Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium would give Notre Dame a 3-0 start for the second time in three years -- something that hasn't happened since the Irish did it four straight times from 1987-90.

And against the reeling Boilermakers (1-1), Notre Dame has a real chance to get better.

Purdue coach Darrell Hazell hasn't said who will start at quarterback -- Danny Etling, the incumbent, or Austin Appleby, who replaced Etling in the fourth quarter of last week's disastrous loss to Central Michigan.

''Both of those guys need to get a lot better based off the film. They know that and we know that,'' Hazell said earlier this week.

Kelly said the Irish have prepared to see both.

But the real focus this week is simply getting that revamped defense to play a little bit closer to perfection.

''We're ahead of where maybe you think we would be,'' Kelly said of his message to the team. ''But here is really where we're at, so let's just focus on where we're at and what we need to do. Regardless of what the number tells you, here's where we're at.''

Here are some other things to watch Saturday night.

CRADLE OF QUESTIONS: Last week, Etling and Appleby combined to go 24 of 49 for 204 yards. Etling also threw two interceptions and each quarterback was sacked once. Those are not numbers fans expect from a school dubbed the Cradle of Quarterbacks. If the Boilermakers are to have any chance of being competitive, both need to make major improvements.

FAMILY FEUD: Notre Dame receiver Amir Carlisle caught two TD passes last week and is becoming a regular playmaker for the Irish. Carlisle's emergence couldn't come at a better time for his father, Duane, who follows his son's successes but rarely gets to see him in person because he's Purdue's director of sports performance.

TACKLING PROBLEMS: Hazell made it clear this week Purdue's tackling needs to get better, too. He pointed out the myriad problems Purdue had stopping the run, but it just as bad last weekend in the secondary as evidenced by the 65-yard TD pass Central Michigan threw, coming after receiver Anthony Rice bounced off two would-be tacklers in the first quarter. If things don't change, this could be a runaway.

TOUGH, TOUGH, TOUGH: On paper, the Purdue-Notre Dame series may look like a mismatch. Not so fast. The Boilermakers have won more games against the Irish than any school other than Southern California (35) and Michigan State (28). Even recently, the Boilers have played well against the Irish. Last season, Notre Dame couldn't take the lead until the fourth quarter against a Purdue team that won just one game. The rivalry will go on a five-year hiatus after Saturday.

INDY RETURN: Notre Dame travels all around the country to give its fans a chance to see them play. Strangely, though, the Irish have only played one game in Indy since 1923. Notre Dame beat Purdue 23-21 on Sept. 8, 1984, in the Hoosier Dome.

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