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September 17, 2013

Quick six points

Notre Dame struggled to get off to a good start for the second week in a row, but perhaps the more worrisome repeated issue was not the slow start, but the inability to catch the football. That's where we start this week:

1) Against Michigan, junior running back George Atkinson proved incapable of catching a pass. Perhaps it was infectious. Against Michigan State, it was everyone else suffering from a case of the "drops." Junior tight end Troy Niklas dropped two passes, junior running back Amir Carlisle added two more, and to round things off for the junior class, receiver DaVaris Daniels muffed a screen pass.

All five drops played a part in killing Notre Dame drives. Niklas's first came on a 2nd-and-10 on Notre Dame's first drive. Senior quarterback Tommy Rees was sacked on the following play. Both of Carlisle's drops came on third downs when he was open in space. Perhaps he would have needed to make a move to get a first down, but failing to catch the ball renders that point moot.

Niklas's second drop came on a third down on the second play of the second quarter, immediately preceded by Daniels dropping a screen pass that hit him in the hands. If Daniels wants to establish himself as a big-play threat, and he certainly showed why he is on Saturday, he must concentrate on the passes most tailgaters can catch--even after the tailgate.

All five dropped passes hit the receivers in the hands. All five dropped passes reached the receiver at least a step before any defender.

Rees went 20-of-33 for 309 yards. If those five passes were caught and the receiver immediately tackled, those numbers become 25-of-33 for a minimum of 340 yards. More importantly, all five passes had the potential of keeping a Notre Dame drive alive, especially important in the first half, when all five drops occurred.

2) Notice Atkinson did not drop a pass against Purdue. The statisticians generously credited him with one reception for 11 yards, but in reality the "pass" was more akin to a pitch. On Saturday's second play, Irish head coach Brian Kelly removed much of the risk of throwing to Atkinson by returning to a play used effectively last season, a shovel pass of sorts to the speedster as he sweeps out of the backfield.

The same play led to a 31-yard gain last season against Miami. The "shovel pass sweep" not only gets Atkinson in space, but with good receiver blocking, it also creates natural seams for the heralded sprinter. Used three times against Purdue, 29 of Atkinson's 38 total yards came on this adjustment.

3) The five first-half drops played a large role in Notre Dame's slow start in West Lafayette, but one particular third down hindered the Irish on the defensive side of the ball. Purdue faced a 3rd-and-1 on Notre Dame's 38-yard line. A stop for the Irish would have forced Purdue to debate between a 55-yard field goal, a fourth-down attempt or a pooch punt.

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco showed blitz, with safety Austin Collinsworth and linebackers Ben Councell and Ishaq Williams set to rush at the snap of the ball. Freshman Isaac Rochell joined Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke on the line.

Just before the snap, junior linebacker Jarrett Grace tried to adjust Rochell's positioning a step or two further inside. Rochell did not move as Grace wanted, and as Grace tried in vain to position his defense, Purdue quarterback Rob Henry took the snap. Now himself out of position, Grace never stood a chance covering the tight end's five-yard out route that turned into a 14-yard gain and a first down en route to Purdue's first touchdown.

On Sunday, Kelly said defensive communication has been an issue but is rapidly improving.

"Our guys are talking," Kelly said. "The two big leaders on our defense are the safety and the Mike linebacker. They are no longer here. Those are new communication positions. That's evolving. Last night we saw with a lot of shifts a lot of changes in the offensive set. We saw great communication last night."

There may have been great communication most of the night, but it was a lacking on that particular play.

4) While it was indeed a great mistake for TJ Jones to fair catch a punt at the four-yard line, at least he knew his mistake before he even tossed the ball to the referee. His shoulders sagged as he turned to jog off the field, and he seemed to mutter something to himself. It is worrisome to make a mistake; it is panic-inducing when the player does not know of the mistake.

Even more frightening was Jones's attempt to touch a rolling punt surrounded by Boilermakers in the third quarter. The senior captain considered the bold move of grabbing the bouncing ball among three Boilermakers and heading upfield, but if he had mishandled the ball at all, it likely would have resulted in a turnover, so thankfully he opted to stay away.

Don't forget, this is only Jones's third game returning punts. The mistakes will dwindle as he gains more experience in the role.

5) Notre Dame's penalties have decreased--both in number and in yardage--each of the last two weeks. After being flagged nine times for 63 yards against Temple, the Irish cut that number down to four for 33 yards against Michigan and only three for 23 yards against Purdue.

6) A week ago, Carlisle looked to be the top choice at running back, and getting the start against Michigan emphasized that. Then junior Cam McDaniel took the final 11 carries of the game to ice Notre Dame's victory, and suddenly he appears to be Kelly's go-to back.

Perhaps more indicative of Kelly's McDaniel preference was the sequence leading up to Notre Dame's field goal just before halftime. On 2nd-and-goal from the four, McDaniel ran up the middle for one yard and lost his helmet. Instead of running the 3rd-and-goal play with another back, Kelly used a timeout to get McDaniel back on the field, helmet intact.

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