After an up and down performance against Florida State, the Notre Dame defense experienced much of the same against Toledo, giving up 442 total yards of offense against the Seminoles and 353 against the Rockets.
The Irish have been able to get the stops they’ve needed late in games, but still aren’t playing to the high level that has come to be expected of them. Here are the most important matchups for Notre Dame’s defense heading into the in-state rivalry game against Purdue.
DC Marcus Freeman vs. Head Coach Jeff Brohm
The first two games to Marcus Freeman’s career as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator have been less than ideal. Though the Irish have been able to force multiple turnovers and get crucial stops in the red zone and at the end of games, the unit has had a problem giving up big plays and closing teams out in the fourth quarter.
Both Florida State and Toledo scored double-digit fourth quarter points against the Irish, and Notre Dame has given up more 60-yard plays in two games under Freeman than they did in the previous three years under Clark Lea. It certainly hasn’t all been bad, but Notre Dame needs more from its new coordinator if the team is going to compete as the schedule continues to get more difficult.
Freeman will be tasked with defending a high-powered Purdue offense that is directed by head coach Jeff Brohm, who is known for his play-calling prowess. On Monday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted, “The thing about it is that Coach Brohm is a really good play caller. He’s going to utilize every different misdirection, play action, trick play, he’s got great creativity on the offensive side of the ball.”
In 2020, Brohm’s offense led the Big Ten with 309 passing yards per game, and this year they return two of their top receivers from last season and their quarterback. After subpar performances against Florida State and Toledo, this is a statement game for Freeman, but it won’t come easy against a coach like Brohm who has weapons all over the field.
#5 CB Cam Hart, #6 CB Clarence Lewis vs. #3 WR David Bell
Purdue’s best player on offense is junior wide receiver David Bell. In just two games Bell leads the Boilermakers with 14 catches for 255 yards and three touchdowns. That’s 18.2 yards per catch with double-digit catches made, a rather ridiculous statistic. In 2020, the Indianapolis native was named First-team All-Big Ten after leading Purdue with 53 receptions, 625 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in just six games. Bell was also named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and an Associated Press First-team Freshman All-American in 2019 after tying for the Big Ten lead with 86 receptions and accumulating 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns.
It’s not a stretch to say that Bell may be the best receiver Notre Dame faces all season. Therefore, though Notre Dame cornerbacks Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis and TaRiq Bracy have played solid so far this season, they haven’t seen a player like Bell yet. Furthermore, Purdue junior quarterback Jack Plummer is the best throwing quarterback the Irish secondary will have faced come Saturday. With 61 throwing attempts made in two games, Plummer is completing a whopping 73.8-percent of his passes and has six touchdown passes without throwing a pick.
With a talent at receiver like Bell and an accurate thrower under center in Plummer, it’s no surprise Purdue likes to throw the ball, a lot. Considering Notre Dame gave up multiple big plays in the passing game last week against Toledo, this matchup is particularly important for Notre Dame.
#14 S Kyle Hamilton, #3 S Houston Griffith vs. #87 TE Payne Durham
Other than Bell, junior tight end Payne Durham is Plummer’s favorite target. In the team’s first two games this season, Durham has made 11 catches for 174 yards and three scores. Durham is coming off of a 2020 season in which he earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after making 16 catches for 166 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-5, 255-pounder out of Suwanee, Georgia is one of Purdue’s biggest assets on offense, both in the Boilermakers pass-heavy attack and the run game as well. As such, Notre Dame safeties Kyle Hamilton and Houston Griffith should have their hands full on Saturday.
Though Hamilton and Griffith have both made 11 tackles individually through the team’s first two games, they both struggled in coverage containing the Toledo offense last week. Hamilton was late on several assignments against Toledo and Griffith got beat for a long touchdown against Florida State. Purdue has a much more potent passing attack than Toledo, meaning Hamilton and Griffith are going to need to play better in coverage, especially against the talented Durham, if Notre Dame is going to succeed defensively.
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