- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Cam McDaniel began his night behind a true freshman who had two career carries. He ended it talking about the guys up front, the five men who make up what he believes is "the best offensive line in the nation."
His first play was a reception that netted a 3-yard loss. Seven plays later, he took a pop that cost him his helmet and earned him four stitches in the head.
His name was called 10 times on his team's final 11 plays of consequence. With everyone in Ross-Ade Stadium aware of what was coming, he picked up two crucial first downs, helping Notre Dame avoid an early season crisis and escape here with a 31-24 victory over Purdue.
"It's always a great opportunity to really get in the game and just be able to let loose, so just praise God for the opportunity," McDaniel said, "and once again, we've got the best offensive line in the nation, so it makes it really fun."
Yes, McDaniel even says all the right things, too.
But little about Saturday night's game was fun for the Irish, who fell behind by 10, entered the fourth quarter trailing by seven and came up with several big plays in the final frame to avoid a two-game losing streak.
There was Tommy Rees-to-DaVaris Daniels twice -- first a third-and-goal play from the 9 to tie the game, then an 82-yard strike on their very next snap to take the lead. There was Bennett Jackson's 34-yard pick-six three plays later that caused a deep exhale among most watching the primetime affair, as it gave the Irish a 31-17 lead.
Daniels' eight-catch, 167-yard effort was another encouraging sign for the third-year player beginning to look like Notre Dame's next great wideout, though for 30 minutes the Irish offense was outplayed by every statistical measure. The defense's play up until Jackson's pick -- and even in the drive after it, when it surrendered a 75-yard touchdown drive to an offense that reached the end zone just once last week against FCS Indiana State -- left a lot to be desired.
Still, on a night when Brian Kelly said the Irish are in the process of defining who they are and that they are still trying to find themselves, their surest thing was McDaniel, the junior the coach turned to with seven minutes, 22 seconds separating his team from its second win of the season.
"We were trying to run out the game," Kelly said. "We were in our four-minute offense and he was the guy that we had decided was going to run the football at the end of the game. He was the hot hand at that time."
By that point McDaniel's Q rating was already booming, at least among the social media landscape. The Texan who had won over Notre Dame fans last month by running into the wrong side of the practice gauntlet -- at Coach's order, of course -- played himself even further into everyone's hearts as a receiver, runner and tackler. His one catch, for negative-3 yards? That was more like a takeaway from Purdue corner Antoine Lewis, who had jumped the route and probably had pick-six on his mind before McDaniel won the tug-of-war battle in the second quarter. His four consecutive runs later on the drive -- including the lost-helmet carry -- helped set the Irish up for their first three points of the game. His one tackle, in the third quarter, stopped Purdue's B.J. Knauf on a 39-yard kickoff return, which, of course, came immediately after his 1-yard touchdown run had tied the game at 10.
McDaniel's final line was 16 carries, 56 yards, one touchdown. And that one catch, for negative-3 yards. He was the fourth Irish back to receive a carry on the night, after Amir Carlisle, George Atkinson III and freshman Greg Bryant.
He saw action on all but three plays on the drive -- an early third-down Daniels catch and two Rees kneels to make this one official. He tallied 42 yards during the possession, despite failing to gain on three different plays. But he became Notre Dame's most reliable backfield option down the stretch, stepping in after a Carlisle fumble one possession earlier had provided Purdue a chance to tie the game late.
"I think we've got five guys that are very capable of making plays at any point in the game, so that's just a blessing to just be one of the guys," McDaniel said. "I think any one of us is able to finish it out strong, and we're all competitors. We just want to win."
He said all of this while mostly looking up at the faces and cameras staring in his direction. McDaniel is listed at 5-foot-10. The author of this story is 5-10. Cam McDaniel is not 5-10.
And his interview session would not be complete without one more quote that would make any coach smile.
"You've got to give Purdue a lot of credit," he said. "They always play us tough every time. This is a rivalry game."