WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Notre Dame fans expected their Fighting Irish to push Purdue around Saturday night at Ross-Aide Stadium, but that was not how things went. The Irish ultimately prevailed 31-24, but the outcome was a far cry from the bullying of the Boilermakers they were supposed to deliver.
"(I am) really proud of the way our kids battled tonight," head coach Brian Kelly said after the game outside a raucous Irish locker room. "Purdue played very well, but really it got down to we made some plays tonight that we didn't make last week when we needed them."
"Specifically, the game ball for us went to Tommy Rees in the second half. We thought he really settled down and ran our offense. (He) managed it extremely well. "
Rees was 12-of-16 for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the second half after going 8-of-17 for 94 yards in the first half. Rees is a constant whipping boy of fans and media alike, but Kelly had the senior's back after the game.
"I really don't care what you guys think about Tommy Rees," said Kelly. "Really, this is about our football team and Tommy Rees - you guys can have your own opinions about him."
"He's one of our players," Kelly said when asked what he thinks is Rees' legacy. "The guys love him. He's a college student. He goes to class, you know what I mean. He's got pimples."
Noting the Comeback
The Irish trailed 17-10 entering the fourth quarter, but outscored the Boilermakers 21-7 in the game's final 15 minutes. Notre Dame won three games last year (Stanford, Pittsburgh and BYU) when trailing entering the fourth quarter last season. Saturday's comeback marked the first time since 2011 at Pittsburgh that the Irish won on the road going into the fourth quarter.
Smarter and More Disciplined?
Kelly's mantra over the last week has been that he wanted to see a "smarter and more disciplined" team this week against Purdue than the one that lost last week to Michigan. He was asked afterward if his team reached his expectations.
"We got better," said Kelly. "Look, to win on the road against a team that played very well tonight - you've gotta have some of those things. To win you've gotta do some things well late in the game and in the second half we outscored our opponent 28-14. I think a lesser team wilts under the way they started. We didn't start very well, but we hung in there and kept playing and kept fighting."
"We're still kind of defining who we are," Kelly continued. "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."
Cam McDaniel churned out 42 yards on eight carries to help Notre Dame chew-up the final 7:22 of the game. He led the Irish with 56 yards on 16 carries on the night.
"He definitely impacted the game, no question," Kelly said of McDaniel. "You saw how hard he ran. He had to come out one drive. He got four stitches at halftime, went back in and really was a huge part of what we did tonight."
"He was the guy that we had decided that was going to run the football at the end of the game," Kelly continued. He was the hot hand at that time."
Junior receiver DaVaris Daniels came into the game with nine receptions for 132 yards through Notre Dame's first two games, but he exploded for a career night against Purdue. Daniels finished with eight catches for a career-best 167 yards and two touchdowns - one of which was an 82-yarder that amounted to Notre Dame's entire second drive of the second half.
"He stepped-up his game big time in the second half," Kelly said of Daniels. "He played more physical. The first touchdown was really a ball that he had to take away from the defender (cornerback Ricardo Allen) and then the run after the catch was just phenomenal."
Daniels had 31 receptions for 490 yards with no touchdowns all of last season, but he now has 17 catches for 299 yards and four TDs through three games in 2013.
Defense Not Done
The Fighting Irish defense has been far from perfect so far in 2013, but it made a couple crucial plays when it had to in the second half. The biggest defensive play of the night came when Bennett Jackson jumped a short Rob Henry pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. The pick six put the Irish up 24-17 for their first lead of the night.
Notre Dame has caused just two turnovers this year - both interceptions - and both have been returned for touchdowns. The last time the Irish returned interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games was against BYU and Tennessee in 2005.
"We've got some things we've gotta clean-up in the red zone, but there's some things coming together defensively," said Kelly.
The other big defensive play came after Purdue scored a touchdown and then Amir Carlisle fumbled on Notre Dame's first play of the ensuing possession. Purdue had the ball at the Irish 41 after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Boilermakers, but the Irish defense forced a punt to give McDaniel and the offense a chance to grind out the remainder of the game.
Inside linebacker Jarrett Grace finished with a career-best and game-high 10 tackles for the Irish. Purdue's 38 net rushing yards is the fifth-lowest opponent rushing total of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.