WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For all the progress Notre Dame has made the past two games, the Fighting Irish could be back in the doldrums with another rash of mistakes Saturday at Purdue.
Notre Dame is coming off wins against Michigan State and Pittsburgh, but the Fighting Irish (2-2) might have a better record if not for their 15 turnovers. The team ranks last nationally in turnover margin.
“They are an excellent football team and loaded with talent,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said. “They have turned the ball over a lot in their first four games, and that’s probably why they are not undefeated. But they certainly have the talent and play like a top 10 football team.”
Quarterback Tommy Rees is directly responsible for nine of Notre Dame’s turnovers — six interceptions and three fumbles. More miscues could give the underdog Boilermakers (2-1) a boost under the lights at Ross-Ade Stadium.
“It’s not a secret, I need to cut down on some of the turnovers and some of the mental mistakes,” Rees said. “I think each week with different defenses, different situations, I keep growing as a player. The last two games, we’ve come out with wins, so you can’t be too upset after those. I think the more experiences, the more games that come, I can keep developing things and work on li miting some of those mistakes.”
Rees took a giant leap in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. He completed all eight passes on the go-ahead drive, including a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert with less than 7 minutes remaining in a 15-12 win.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the effort was a sign that Notre Dame is moving in the right direction.
“It was the first game that we exhibited what I consider necessary ingredients, absolutely crucial ingredients, to being a consistent winner, and that’s poise and confidence,” Kelly said.
Eifert’s development as a target is a key because teams have gone to great lengths to stop receiver Michael Floyd. He ranks second nationally among tight ends with 20 catches and 244 yards.
“He provides a mismatch for us out there,” Rees said. “He does a good job of feeling throughout the zones, making himself open. He’s a big, athletic target. He can go up and get a lot of the balls.”
Floyd still has 35 catches for 424 yards. Theo Riddick and TJ Jones have two receiving touchdowns. Running back Cierre Wood has rushed for 393 yards and four touchdowns and Jonas Gray has 232 yards on just 25 carries, giving the Irish balance.
“They have great players,” Hope said. “That’s a real challenge for our defense that we have to spread out and match up; we have to, and we have to do something to slow down the production.”
Purdue is a blocked kick in the closing seconds against Rice from being undefeated this season. The Boilermakers know what a win could do for their national profile.
“Obviously, we have to keep things in perspective,” Hope said. “The game is always circled on our schedule and on our calendar. We want it to be our night.”
Purdue will play two quarterbacks.
Caleb TerBush is the starter. He led a game-winning drive in the 27-24 win over Middle Tennessee State in the opener, then led Purdue down the field in the final minutes against Rice before Carson Wiggs’ field goal was blocked in the closing seconds of a 24-22 loss. He completed 14 of 17 passes for 143 yards in a 59-0 win over Southeast Missouri State.
Robert Marve, the backup, has played once since missing a year after ACL surgery, but the former University of Miami quarterback is familiar with big-time environments. He opened his Miami career at Florida in 2008, led the Hurricanes to a win at Texas A&M the next week and started against Florida State later in the year. After transferring, he started Purdue’s opener at Notre Dame last season and completed 31 of 42 passes for 220 yards in a 23-12 loss. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 134 yards in the second half.
“TerBush is more capable relative to running the football,” Kelly said. “Robert really has good escapability, but he’s had the two knee injuries. Accurate thrower, can really sling it around the field, very live arm. So we’ll have to be very aware of TerBush in there in terms of his ability to run, but Marve can come in and really throw the ball around very well.”
TerBush and Marve will face a defense that has been solid other than a loss at Michigan. The Irish allowed South Florida 254 yards, Michigan State 358 yards and 13 points and Pittsburgh 268 yards and 12 points.
“We’re just worrying about what we do,” Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o said. “We obviously know and understand what the different quarterbacks are capable of doing. But we just worry about ourselves. We’re worrying about doing our job, and everything will fall in its place.”
Because of the way Notre Dame started the season, Kelly is just concerned about leaving with a victory.
“I look at the first two weeks where we averaged over 500 yards in offense and we lost both games, so really for me, it’s about winning games and making certain that we do that,” he said. “I’d rather do that and be out coached and, you know, win ugly and do all those things but at the end of the day win the football game. Beauty points, style points I’m not really interested in those things.”