Defense was the topic du jour on Sunday when Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly held his day after Purdue media teleconference. After surrendering more than 20 points in a regular season game just once last season (a 29-26 3 OT win over Pittsburgh) the Fighting Irish have yielded 30 and 24 points to Michigan and Purdue, respectively, in back-to-back weeks.
"We played much more physical," Kelly said of Saturday's performance in the 31-24 comeback win over the Boilermakers. "I was very pleased with that. Obviously stopping the run - (Purdue's offense) is built to run the football and that's what they wanted to do (but) they weren't able to do that."
Purdue had just 38 rushing yards in Saturday's game. Communication is another area Kelly pointed to where he saw defensive improvement. The middle linebacker and safety positions are, as Kelly pointed out, the two biggest communication positions on the field defensively, but both of those positions have turned over this year.
"We saw great communication last night," Kelly said while pointing out several Purdue shifts in offensive sets. "We never really were in a bad situation relative to communication. Some of the basic tenets that we're looking for defensively are starting to come together."
Jarrett Grace saw more playing time against Purdue than he did in either of the Temple or Michigan games. Grace ended-up with a game-high 10 tackles, while the next seven Irish defenders had four tackles apiece.
"He's getting more reps," Kelly said of the inside linebacker. "(He is) playing better and better at that position. That's a three-man rotation and you earn your playing time. He's gotten more playing time at that position based upon plays that he's making. That position continues to evolve."
Fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are the two linebackers sharing time at ILB with Grace. They each had four tackles Saturday night. Fox leads the team with 24 tackles this season, Grace is now right behind him with 20 total tackles and Calabrese has 18.
Stephon Tuitt reaped a lot of praise coming into the season, but statistically he is yet to make his mark through three games. The 320 pound defensive end has four tackles, a sack and an interception through three games. His one tackle was his only mark on the stat sheet against Purdue, but Kelly was more than pleased with his game Saturday night.
"This was probably his best game of the year in terms of just being on every play," said Kelly. "Just physically at the point of attack, two-gapping, doing the things that we want him to do (and) effort level (I) really liked his play."
Kelly praised Tuitt, Louis Nix, Sheldon Day and Prince Shembo for their play up front against the Boilermakers. He pointed to Bennett Jackson's fourth quarter pick six and the defense stopping Purdue after an Irish fumble as key bright spots.
"We're still evolving," Kelly said of the defense. "It takes time even if you've got guys that are veterans we've got some key positions that have some new players in (them). They're coming together. Again, we're playing great competition, we're getting tested and we're making progress. I like to make progress through winning."
Inside linebacker Kendall Moore and safety Eilar Hardy, both reserves, were left off of Saturday's travel roster after an undisclosed violation of team rules.
"They'll be back," was Kelly's only response when asked about the two. The same may or may not be the case for freshman Malik Zaire. The third-string quarterback was on the travel roster Saturday after battling mono for a few weeks. He Tweeted and then deleted an announcement on Sunday that he has been fully cleared physically.
"He might be suspended for violating the rules relative to information," Kelly said without a hint of joking in his voice. "So, we'll have to get back to you on that."
Kelly had an even shorter reply when asked if Zaire will be a full-go this week.
"I don't know, we'll have to talk to the doctors first," he replied.
Defensive end Sheldon Day was photographed wearing a walking boot on his right leg at the end of Saturday's game. However, Kelly says the Irish have no players who would be "questionable" or "doubtful" heading into practice this week.
Kelly on the Offense...
"We're going to be who we are based upon our personnel," Kelly said of an offense that totaled 400 yards Saturday night. "We've got, we feel like, a very, very deep group of wide receivers, we've got a number of running backs and we've got a quarterback who's a very smart kid. That offense is going to evolve around what he can do."
Rees' 309 yards against Purdue gave him his third consecutive 300-plus yard passing game to start the season. He has passed for 969 yards and seven touchdowns with just two interceptions so far.
Kelly on Getting On DaVaris Daniels at Halftime vs. Purdue...
"Once in a while DD's a guy that you can get after a little bit and he responds," Kelly said of Daniels. "All we were saying to DD is that he's going to have to make some big plays for us. So, it wasn't that he was sleepy-eyed or wasn't into the game, he's just one of those guys that you can go up to and coach him and say 'hey we need you to step-up, it's time'. "
"We told him 'hey, the ball's going to come to you and you're going to need to make some big plays' and he responded in kind."
Daniels had a career night against Purdue with eight receptions for 167 yards and two touchdowns. He had just two catches for 37 yards at halftime. His career-best 82-yard TD reception from Rees just moments into the fourth quarter gave Notre Dame its first lead of the night at 24-17.