WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - One loss at Notre Dame is tragic; a second loss in as many weeks borders on the end of the world.
The world will still be rotating on its axis - at least for another week - as the No. 21-ranked Irish scored 28 second-half points, including 21 in the fourth quarter, to claim a 31-24 victory over the scrappy Purdue Boilermakers (1-2).
“We’ve got some things we need to continue to work on. We’re not a finished product. We know that,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“But to go on the road after a tough game last week against a Big Ten opponent, it’s a really good win for our football team.”
It was a win - on the heels of a 41-30 loss at Michigan -- that looked in doubt throughout most of the game. The Irish (2-1) trailed 10-0 early in the second quarter before finally pulling even early in the second half, only to fall behind once again, 17-10.
But DaVaris Daniels caught two touchdown passes within a 2:07 span, including an 82-yarder from Tommy Rees, and Bennett Jackson’s pick six from 34 yards out gave the Irish a 31-17 lead with 11:18 remaining.
Notre Dame scored 21 points in a 3:29 span that turned a 17-10 deficit into a 31-17 lead.
Yet just when it looked as if the Irish would seal the victory, an Amir Carlisle fumble left the door open for Purdue again before the Notre Dame defense and Cam McDaniel on the ground put a wrap on it.
“To win on the road against a team that played very well tonight, you’ve got to do some things well late in the game, and in the second half, we out-scored our opponent, 28-14,” Kelly said. “I think a lesser team wilts under the way (Purdue) started. We didn’t start very well. But we hung in there, kept playing, kept fighting?
“I told our team we’re still kind of defining who we are. We’re still trying to find ourselves. And here’s what we did: we played hard for four quarters and we fought our butts off, and then we found a way to make some plays. I feel really good about our kids and the way they played.”
The victory was Notre Dame’s sixth straight over Purdue, three of which have been by three, three and seven points.
Kelly said he gave a game ball to Rees for his second-half performance. After completing 8-of-17 for 94 yards and no touchdowns in the first half, Rees was 12-of-16 for 215 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
“I really don’t care what you guys think about Tommy Rees,” interrupted Kelly amidst a reporter’s question. “This is about our football team, and Tommy Rees?you guys can have your own opinions about him.
“He’s one of our players. The guys love him. He’s a college student. He goes to class. You know what I mean? He’s got pimples. You know what I mean? He’s a college kid. I’m really proud of the way he settled down in the second half and helped our football team win.”
Rees’ 309 yards passing marked his third straight game over the 300-yard mark while improving his touchdown-to-interception ratio on the season to 7-to-2. His three 300-yard passing games is two more than he had in his first 18 starts in an Irish uniform from 2010-12.
“That was obviously a huge turn in the game,” said Rees of Notre Dame’s three touchdowns in a 3:29 span. “We knew we needed to make big plays offensively and defensively, and we answered the bell.”
Daniels finished with eight catches for 167 yards and two scores, including the 82-yarder that gave the Irish their first lead of the game (24-17) with 12:40 left.
“We knew they were playing cover two mostly the whole game,” said Daniels, who now has four touchdowns in three games after failing to get into the end zone in 2012. “Coach (Chuck) Martin called up the play and said the ball was coming to me.”
While the Irish struggled running the football until the final drive when McDaniel - who finished with a game-high 56 yards on 16 carries - salted the game away with a 10 carries in 11 plays, the Notre Dame defense was even stingier against the run, limiting the Boilermakers to just 38 yards rushing on 21 carries.
But Purdue seized momentum from the outset of the game and kept it throughout the first half by holding the Irish to a field goal with 44 seconds left in the half for a 10-3 Boiler lead at the intermission.
The Boilermakers marched down the field on the opening drive, covering 75 yards on 12 plays as the Irish allowed three straight third-down conversions en route to a 7-0 deficit.
Quarterback Rob Henry - who finished 25-of-40 for 256 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception -- overcame a fumbled snap on second down from the Irish 12 by finding running back Akeem Hunt for a 15-yard touchdown pass.
The Irish didn’t reach Purdue territory until the second quarter, starting all three first-quarter drives inside their own 20.
After Purdue kicker Paul Griggs booted a 47-yard field goal for a 10-0 Boilermaker lead, the Irish finally put together a drive, only to fail on back-to-back throws on third and fourth down.
Notre Dame finally got on the board with an 11-play, 80-yard drive late in the second quarter. But two runs and an incomplete pass resulted in yet another failure to score a touchdown from the red zone.
The Irish came up big in the second half, not only scoring three offensive touchdowns and one on the defensive side, but limiting the Boilermakers to 2-of-7 on third down over the final 30 minutes while keeping them under 300 yards total offense (294) - a first this season after doing it eight times in ’12.
“We have been really trying to get our hands around this thing,” said Kelly, allowing himself a bit of a smile and laugh. “We know we’ve got good player and we’ve got good personnel. We’re trying to figure out the parts and the pieces, and I really like the way they fought.”