By the numbers: Is there hope for the Irish against Purdue?

When the o-4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish arrive in West Lafayette to face the 4-0 Purdue Boilermakers, they’ll have their work cut out for them. Purdue is ranked #25 in the nation in the coaches’ poll, and is just one spot out of the top 25 according to the AP. They also rank seventh in the nation in scoring offense with 48.5 points per game, and eighth in total offense with 527 yards per game.

Nor is Purdue the kind of pass-first, pass-second, pass-third, run rarely team that some might take them to be: the Boilermakers are averaging almost 203 yards per game on the ground, good for 29th in the nation, to go with their twelfth-ranked passing offense (324 yards/game). While ND head coach Charlie Weis said in his press conference yesterday that Purdue is still “a passing team first,” one that runs the ball “to keep you honest,” it’s clear that this has worked well so far for them in both categories: they average almost six yards per rush, and have given up only three sacks in their first four games.

None of this bodes well for an Irish defense that, while it ranks 52nd in the nation in yardage against at 352 yards per game, is 91st in scoring defense (as BGS noted earlier this week, the chief reason for this disparity rests in field position: Irish opponents have had to go 45 yards or less on eleven of their 23 scoring drives). ND’s defense looks good statistically against the pass, giving up only 120 yards per game (good for 55th in the nation), but this is largely a factor of the “blowout” quality of their losses: teams have run for an average of 232.8 yards per game against the Irish, leaving ND’s rushing defense with a national ranking of 111th.

All of this adds up to a point spread that favors the Boilermakers by more than three touchdowns, and a general sense that Notre Dame’s first-ever 0-5 start is all but inevitable.

But is it? Sticking just with the numbers once again, I think Irish fans can find a few reasons for hope:

  • The first lies in the extremely low quality of opponents that Purdue has played thus far. The Boilermakers blew out 1-3 Toledo, 2-2 Eastern Illinois, 1-3 Central Michigan, and 1-3 Minnesota in the first four weeks of the season: hardly a gauntlet of the sort that the Irish have faced. (For what it’s worth, Toledo, Central Michigan, and Minnesota are ranked 86th, 107th, and 100th in the nation by SI, and Eastern Illinois is a I-AA team. Compare this to ND’s opponents: both Penn State and MSU are either ranked or just outside the top 25 in both polls, while Michigan ranks 30th and Georgia Tech 44th.)
  • The second lies in the generally low quality of the defenses that Purdue has had to face. Toledo ranks 106th in the nation in total defense, giving up 476 yards per game, while Eastern Illinois (386 yds/game) ranks 99th, Central Michigan (509.8 yds/game) 115th, and Minnesota (543.3 yds/game) 119th. It sounds strange to say it, but the Fighting Irish will be the BEST defensive team that Purdue has faced so far this year.
  • The third point relates to the overall quality of Purdue’s defense: while the Boilermakers rank 15th in pass efficiency defense at 97.3 yards per game, they’ve given up 147 yards per game on the ground, good for 61st in the nation, and last week’s game saw Minnesota rush for 232 yards against them. This bodes well for an Irish running game that started to get rolling last week, with their three underclassmen tailbacks totaling 150 yards between them against a Michigan State team that ranks 26th in the nation in rushing defense. If the Irish can run the ball effectively once again and keep Purdue off the field, they’ll have a shot.

In sum: this is going to be a tough one for the Irish, but the fact is that they’ve squared up against four quality opponents so far this season while Purdue has been able to cakewalk. Will the Irish win? I have my doubts. But look for them to put a scare into the West Lafayette crowd come Saturday.

(Team statistics courtesy of NCAA.org.)

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