Secondary looks to stifle Boilermakers
By KATHLEEN O'BRIEN
With any luck of the Irish and a little help from the Notre Dame secondary, the breeze will not be blowing in Purdue's favor this Saturday.
The Purdue Boilermakers head into their contest against the Irish behind the strong arm of junior quarterback Drew Brees. The Boilermakers averaged nearly double the yards in passing in 1998 that the Irish did, with 323.7 yards per game compared to Notre Dame's 169.9 yards.
But Notre Dame senior A'Jani Sanders and the rest of the defensive backfield plan to put the clamp down on Purdue's aerial strike. The Irish are experienced in the secondary, with three seniors in Sanders, Deveron Harper and Deke Cooper, who are joined by sophomore Clifford Jefferson.
"I feel pretty confident," said Sanders. "I just need to get some interceptions to go along with my hits."
Sanders, a strong safety, leads the Irish in tackles on the season with 17 in two games against Kansas and Michigan. Sanders also topped the Irish in interceptions last season with three. Both of these marks give him confidence heading into a game against No. 21 Purdue and a quarterback who holds numerous Big Ten and NCAA records.
Harper, a cornerback, is the most experienced returning defensive back for the Irish, with 19 career starts and appearances in 33 games. He sparked Notre Dame in its 48-13 victory over Kansas, returning an interception 22 yards for an Irish touchdown. Harper is also ranked 13th among cornerbacks this year by Lindy's.
"This is an opportunity, a game you like to play and try to win," said Harper.
Cooper, a free safety, is the top returning Irish tackler, and forced three fumbles by opponents last season. One of those fumbles came against Purdue in a 31-30 Irish victory. Cooper is a highly touted player, named honorable mention All-American by Street and Smith's and Walter Camp Football Foundation.
Cornerback Clifford Jefferson is a quickly-rising player, with 16 tackles in his first two college starts Ñ one behind Sanders for the team lead. He replaced Brock Williams in the starting lineup after Williams was suspended for the season. Jefferson seeks to become a big-play athlete this season.
"It's going to be a pretty hard game going against someone who throws the ball 60 or 70 times a game," said Jefferson. "But it is also a secondary's dream because of the opportunity to get interceptions and run them back. My main goal is to get at least two interceptions."
Despite its confident outlook, No. 16 Notre Dame knows the challenge which Purdue poses, especially as the Irish come off of a bitter last-minute loss to the Wolverines.
"I think we made some mistakes that had we not made, we would have played a better game," said Notre Dame secondary coach Lou West. "Our whole thing right now is to improve and not make the same mistakes [against Purdue]."
West is in his first season as a coach for the Irish, after spending the past four years as the defensive backfield coach at Virginia Tech. During his four years there, Virginia Tech made four bowl appearances. Last season, it was ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense and 11th in pass efficiency defense. West seeks to bring the same tough defense to the Irish secondary this season.
Brees holds Big Ten single-season records for touchdowns in a season with 39, total yards with 4,176, passing yards, pass completions and pass attempts. In addition, he holds the NCAA record for pass completions and pass attempts in a game.
The Irish secondary will have to contain Brees's passing attack if it hopes to come home victorious Saturday.
In Purdue's season opener last week against Central Florida, Brees tallied five passing touchdowns, went 27-for-45 in passing, and had 277 yards.
"Drew Brees has a nice arm. It seems like he can put it right on the money," said Jefferson. "It is going to be hard to break up passes.
"He is really dangerous when he scrambles outside the pocket," added Jefferson. "He can scramble and find wide receivers wide open. He can really hurt is if we let that happen."
His top targets are Chris Daniels, who had eight receptions for 125 yards and one touchdown, Randall Lane and Tim Stratton.
This is the highest Purdue has been ranked when playing the Irish since 1980, when a No. 11 Irish squad defeated the No. 9 Boilermakers 31-10 at Notre Dame Stadium.
All Sports Stories for Thursday, September 9, 1999