Secondary stands tall in strong `Brees'
By TIM CASEY
As Ron Israel lay in the middle of the field away from the action, an already thin secondary was depleted in a blink of the eye.
"A guy cut-blocked me," a distraught Israel said following Saturday's 28-23 loss to Purdue. "I felt it [right ankle] roll; it popped on me."
The Irish could hardly afford to lose the junior safety. In Israel's spot, head coach Bob Davie inserted a rotation of Justin Smith and Donald Dykes. The reserves combined playing time on the season previous to Israel's injury was just 35 minutes.
"We lost a big part of our dime package when Ron Israel went down," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "We had to scramble and put some replacements in. Obviously you'd like Ron in there but that's part of football. Those kids [Smith and Dykes] hung in there."
"Justin Smith came in and struggled a bit," Davie said. "Then we moved A'Jani Sanders back to safety in the dime and moved Donald Dykes up. He got picked on a little bit. But they competed."
Facing one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, the spotlight shone on the defensive backfield.
The secondary did not shut down the explosive Boilermaker offense, but its play was not the reason the Irish lost for the second straight week.
Drew Brees threw for 317 yards and a touchdown. He ran for another and completed 60 percent of his passes. His two-point conversion with six minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half was highlight material.
But that's expected from the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
"He's a great quarterback," Mattison said. "He's got the ability to scramble and to throw, and he's a great leader. I don't think there's much else you can ask from your quarterback.
"The beauty that [Brees] has when he's in the shotgun is that he sees the blitzes coming and knows where to go right away," Mattison continued. "You don't beat him by blitzing. You beat him by breaking on the ball and making plays from the secondary."
At times, the secondary responded in fine fashion.
Of the seven Irish players who recorded more than three tackles, five were from the secondary. Sanders picked off a Brees' pass in the first quarter, setting up the first Irish touchdown.
Other times, they struggled.
On second-and-four with 2:12 left in the first half, Brees pumped once — catching the secondary off-guard — then fired a 30-yard touchdown pass to Randall Lane.
"That was a zone defense," said Lee Lafayette, who covered Lane on the touchdown strike. "I actually had the flats; the safeties didn't come over. [Brees] read that and threw the pass."
In the third quarter, Brees dropped back three steps and found a streaking Chris Daniels to his left. Daniels fumbled with the ball for a second, then darted 40 yards for the first down.
After J. Crabtree was stopped for a loss of three, Brees again picked apart the backfield. His completion to Lane set up Crabtree's 1-yard touchdown run and gave the Boilermakers their first lead of the afternoon.
After Joey Hildbold's fourth-quarter punt pinned Purdue on its own 9, the Irish defense gave their teammates a chance. Smith's dropped interception attempt on third down soured the effort. But with 2:00 remaining, the Irish had the ball on their 40 and a shot at victory.
While the offense's communication problems on the subsequent series ended Irish hopes, the defense had no such troubles.
"We were getting our checks pretty clear out there," Sanders said. "The crowd quieted down for their offense so Brees could make his checks, so we were pretty much set."
A noticeably distraught Mattison lamented his defense following the game.
"To me, I've always been one of those guys that believes if you don't win, you didn't play good defense," Mattison said. "That'll always be the case. But our kids battled out there."
All Sports Stories for Monday, September 13, 1999