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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

Oct 9, 2010, 7:58 PM EDT

It seemed a little too easy going into halftime for the Irish. Maybe that explains why Notre Dame seemed to backpedal their way to the finish, holding on for a six-point victory over Pitt 23-17 on a beautiful afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

Welcome to the life of those that care about Notre Dame football, Coach Kelly. The past dozen years have been an exercise in inconsistency, with the Irish looking like world beaters in some instances and a sinking ship in others, often on the same afternoon. That was the case Saturday for the Irish, who managed to win a football game they were outgained in by playing excellent special teams and winning the turnover battle.

In the end, only the “W” is important, as the Irish get back to .500 after losing three of their first four games. With games against Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a much needed week off, the Irish have a chance to put together a run before their November 13th date with Utah.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned:

1. Notre Dame won that football game thanks to excellent special teams.

If there was any question about Mike Elston’s troops, it was answered this afternoon with a resounding performance in special teams leading the Irish to victory.

“We flipped the field position today,” Kelly said. “Ben Turk was outstanding punting the football. They’re dangerous, one of the best S.T. teams we’ll see this year was Pittsburgh. Well coached.”

Punter Ben Turk rebounded from a terrible start to the season by launching punts all afternoon. He averaged over 46 yards per punt and pinned the Panthers inside their 20 three times in the fourth quarter as Pitt tried unsuccessfully to rally. That field position was critical as the Irish offense sputtered down the stretch, falling to turn drives into touchdowns.

The Irish also benefited from some unlikely miscues by Pitt. Once again, Brian Kelly benefited from the miscue of Pitt holder Andrew Janocko, as the backup quarterback muffed a hold on a short field goal attempt that took three points off the board for the Panthers. It was Janocko that couldn’t handle a snap late in last season’s Pitt-Cincinnati game that ended up creating the one point difference in the Bearcat’s 45-44 victory. Janocko’s struggles weren’t the only ones in the kicking game, as kicker Dan Hutchins missed his first field goal attempt shorter than 30 yards in his career, keeping Pitt off the scoreboard in the second quarter.

More importantly, fifth-year senior Barry Gallup came up with a great individual effort, thwarting Pitt’s fake punt attempt by making a shoe-string tackle when he was the last man to beat. After giving up the fake field goal to Michigan State in overtime, it’s great for morale to successfully stop a fake, especially one that was as well-designed as the play Pitt ran.

2. David Ruffer is the next walk-on Notre Dame hero.

In the line of Rudy Ruettiger, Reggie Ho, and Mike Anello, David Ruffer’s walk-on story shouldn’t take a backseat to anyone. A scatch high school golfer, Ruffer never played football until he joined the team at William & Mary during his freshman year, a school he attended after he failed to get into Notre Dame. Ruffer worked hard on his grades as a freshman, successfully transferred into Notre Dame, and was plucked off the interhall squad of Siegfried Hall during the bye week of the 2008 season. Ruffer made it into a game that year, missing his only kick of the year, an extra-point attempt against Washington.

Since then, Ruffer has been nearly perfect, connecting on every field goal he’s attempted since filling in for Nick Tausch when he went down with a leg injury last season. Winning the kicking job outright at the start of the year, Ruffer’s done nothing to let go of it, entering today’s game one field goal shy of tying Tausch’s all-time record for consecutive kicks made at 14. Ruffer knocked through his first attempt today — a 32-yard chip shot to tie Tausch, but stared down a 50-yard field goal attempt to grab Notre Dame history to himself. Even though the snap was low, Ruffer absolutely drilled the kick, splitting the uprights with almost 10 yards to spare, and putting his name into the record books with an exclamation point.

“He kicked that thing into the net. I had to look twice that it was 50 yards,” Kelly said. “Ruffer is doing things that obviously many people, including myself, thought he couldn’t do. Nobody would have thought 50 yards was like automatic.”

Ruffer has a year of eligibility remaining if Kelly and company want to bring him back (they should), it’ll have to be on scholarship, a worthy reward for a true student-athlete and a success story.

3. Kyle Rudolph is far from full strength and needs to sit a week out.

As much as Dayne Crist needs his safety valve, Kyle Rudolph is far from healthy. The tight end is battling a nagging hamstring injury, and it’s robbed one of Notre Dame’s best offensive weapons of his explosiveness.

“It’s probably at the point where you have to make a decision to shut him down for a week or keep playing through it,” Kelly said, without mentioning that the Irish play Western Michigan next week. “But you can’t tell Kyle Rudolph you’re shutting him down. He wants to play and he wants to compete. At the end of the day he played pretty good for us. He’s a pretty good tight end at 75 percent right now. So that’s one that we’ll have to continue to have a conversation about.”

Rudolph caught five ball for 38 yards, but it was the ones that he didn’t catch that helped you recognize he was hobbled. On a wheel route in the second half, Crist laid a ball out that looked perfect for Kyle, but Rudolph was unable to catch up to the throw and it fell incomplete. Rudolph also dropped a first down throw late in the game, fighting a ball high above his head as he struggled to get liftoff.

The decision would be a lot easier if backup Mike Ragone would’ve held onto a pass that should have iced the football game late in the fourth quarter. But if the Irish are going to run the table, they’ll need a healthy Rudolph. And with Western Michigan coming to South Bend, expect to see No. 9 in street clothes.

4. The Irish beat the Pitt pass rush with a high-tempo offense.

With Taylor Dever unable to go, the Irish were forced to shift Zack Martin to right tackle and slide senior Matt Romine into the starting lineup at left tackle. Even without standout Greg Romeus, Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar recognized that the Pitt pass rush would be the Irish’s biggest obstacle offensively. So Kelly decided to use the Irish’s conditioning and pace of play to wear out the defensive front.

“We were a little concerned that the math-up could be an issue, so we definitely wanted to try and tire out that front four of Pittsburgh,” Kelly said. “So we decided to move Romine and flip Zack Martin over and I thought tempo would be the best way to slow down that pass rush.”

It seems like the strategy worked, with Pitt getting two sacks early and struggling to get much of a pass rush for most of the second half. In turning up the pressure, for the first time this season, we caught a glimpse of what Kelly’s hurry-up offense can do, breaking off large chunks of yardage quickly. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt admitted after the game that the speed and tempo took the Panthers by surprise.

“We changed a few things, but the biggest adjustment was getting used to the tempo and getting into their type of fast rhythm,” Wannstedt said after the game.

If you’re looking for a sign of what this offense can be, consider what it almost was today. Crist’s 24 of 39
passing for 242 yards looks
rather pedestrian, but consider that two gigantic plays worth over 100 yards of passing where taken off the board by penalties. (Not to mention two poor throws by Crist in the red zone.) And while the box score shows Jonathan Baldwin getting the better of the match-up between he and Michael Floyd, Floyd lost over a 100 yards and two touchdowns on self-inflicted errors, with an assist to an iffy call by a Big East officiating crew. And questions out there about Floyd’s willingness to play hard and play for Kelly should’ve been silenced today. 

Kelly admits that while they’re making progress, he’s still holding back the offense, unwilling to unleash the true fast-paced attack he’d like to run.

“It’s hold on and try to get it down the field,” Kelly said when describing the current offense. “We’re really micro-managing in a sense the offense until we can let it go. We can’t turn it over yet and just let it go because we’d make too many mistakes. We’re trying to manage it, until we get to the point where we can rip it and let it go.”

The next three games are critical for offensive development. Expect the Irish to push the tempo on the next three Saturdays and to overwhelm inferior opponents.

5. Losing in the box score but winning on the scoreboard a good thing for the Irish.

Looking for a reason to believe in the new direction of the Irish football program? Try this: Notre Dame won the football game while being outgained by over 50 yards. Pitt’s 382 yards versus Notre Dame’s 329 yards weren’t enough to swing the balance of the game, a credit to the coaching staff and the small battles won that often mean the difference between victory and defeat.

During the Charlie Weis era, the Irish only won three games where they were outgained by more than 50 yards, and two of those games came when the opposition absolutely imploded. In Notre Dame’s win over Michigan in 2008, the Wolverines turned the ball over six times. In Notre Dame’s victory over UCLA in 2007, the Bruins played even worse — coughing it up seven times to the Irish. If you’re looking for the last game that Notre Dame lost the yardage margin by over 50 yards, and played a team that turned the ball over two times or less, it was against Chad Henne’s 2005 Michigan squad, Charlie Weis’ second game at Notre Dame.

This isn’t a referendum against Weis, merely pointing out that while the Irish are a work in progress, they have the makings of a better overall team, doing things that help win games instead of making mistakes that make you lose them. The Irish made plenty of errors today — broken coverage on Jonathan Baldwin and Mike Ragone’s crucial drop come immediately to mind — but they’ve also started doing the things that let you steal a victory.

To Kelly’s credit, he understands this is all part of the development of a football team.

“They have a belief that they’re going to win football games,” Kelly said. “I just told them, ‘Enjoy the win.’ We’ll micro-manage this and talk about what we could have done and should have done on Monday. Enjoy the victory. It’s a good win.”

And while it wasn’t pretty, the Irish stop Pitt’s winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium and pull to 3-3 on the year. With the first lopsided match-up of the year coming with Western Michigan coming to town, the Irish are in a great position to start the run Kelly hinted at after losing to Stanford.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said then. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8 or 9-3.”

  1. ND422 - Oct 10, 2010 at 8:26 PM

    Some of you on here need to relax. ND won. Be happy. They are improving so be happy with that as well. Some of you on here complain when we lose and complain when we win. I can understand the desire to play flawless football or to see more consistency. I can also agree there are weaknesses but if you’re watching week in and week out you can see they are a team becoming more efficient and more disciplined in all aspects of the game. But, there is still room for much improvement. Remember they are a young team with most players having two plus years of eligibiliy. But I also see confidence building in this team that I haven’t seen in recent years.
    And Aaron, I just noticed your point 5. Running the clock out is smart football at times. And ND throwing the ball with 3 minutes left in the game is not running the clock out. What the heck were you watching? A big reason ND has lost alot of games in recent years, in addition to other reasons, is because they tend to give the ball up by passing and stopping the clock leaving plenty of time for the opponent to go down the field and score. If they had a dominant defense in years past or now I don’t see it being as big a deal but they don’t have a dominant defense yet. Even with a good defense, smart football is to keep the clock running when you have the ball with 3 minutes left in the game. That is my only criticism of Kelly so far.
    Last point: ND’s offense is showing signs of very good things to come and so is the defense. As stated previously, the lines on both sides of the ball are still the biggest weakness in my opinion and the area of biggest concern and need for improvement.
    Go Irish!

  2. MaL - Oct 10, 2010 at 11:57 PM

    You do enough to post here. :)

  3. Art Vandelay - Oct 11, 2010 at 2:19 AM

    Nice win by the Irish this week and things are trending toward the positive. They managed to be able not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as we had seen so much of lately. Kelly has this thing on the right track and we need to continue to improve. Let’s also remember that his recruiting has been stellar so far. To those that bemoan the O line and the D line, relax help is on the way. We should be a serious contender in the next 2-3 years. Also, I do agree with the above poster who noted that the crowd needs to be a little more vocal. We saw Manti imploring the crowd for some noise on a critical 3rd down for Pitt late in the game and they didn’t seem to respond. I wasn’t there, only watching on TV, but they didn’t seem that into it at that point in the game. Lastly, keep up the good work KA. Not only do you watch every play, analyze every play and blog about it all live, but you do all that while trying to read all the posts that we bombard you with. Its nothing short of amazing, really. And for the record I am not dating Keith either.

  4. CoachZ - Oct 11, 2010 at 2:41 AM

    The win is great. Still need to be able to:
    1)RUN on 3rd and short,
    2)Throw the ballDOWN THE FIELD (stop wasting Floyd & Co.) and
    3)PRESSURE THE QB.
    Those recruits can’t get here soon enough!
    Let’s start a streak!!!

  5. joe sophy - Oct 11, 2010 at 9:04 AM

    Irish are improving but team still saddled by 3/4 yr starters that have either regressed or are same player over time period. Ethan Johnson & Brian Smith & H. Smith continue to be average, at best, defenders, while Filer, Eifert & Watt cannot see time despite glowing praise from Kelly. Team found a way to win, finally won the line of scrimmage and are poised to string W’s, hold on to recruits, find as spot for B. Jackson, stay healthy & FINALLY, varsity football will return.

  6. NDisGR8 - Oct 11, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    First time blogger here. I have been reading these blogs for several years and never posted.
    One of the biggest complaints I saw in last year’s blogs was Weiss
    s inability to develop players as they went through the program. I think that is what is holding this team back the most. Seniors playing at a sophomore level. I think Kelly and his staff need more time with these athletes. Look at what they’ve done with Riddick. Look at the switch at the line before the game. D-line appears to be stronger.
    Progress is slow and sometimes painful to watch, but progress is being made here.
    The central theme here is, and I agree, these guys are about 4 or 5 plays away from being a very good football team. Every game this year has come down to about that many plays that separate them from the rest of the pack.
    Agree, Crist needs to throw the deep ball earlier or farther. The 95 yarder to Rudolph was led very well – he had to stretch to get it. Floyd has to slow or come back too often. But Crist seems to be making better decisions. Look how often Clausen tried to squeeze the ball into too many bad situations his first couple of years. I think Crist has gotten away from that. The Defense is much better than last year, heck the last 3 years. Special teams are much better than the last 3 years.
    The Irish need to win out and really create some buzz. The verbal commits have them ranked in the top 5 for recruiting classes. We will see a turnaround. I was patient with Holtz his first year – I think we all were.

  7. Longhorns - Oct 11, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    What I learned from this game is that we barley won and we almost gave the game back to pitt. When you are leading 20-3 going into the second half and you have two failed attempts to score on turn overs YOU SUCK ! Notre Dame has a long way to go, and playing these cup cakes coming up isnt going to help anyone. Utah and SC win by 14 over ND, they go 7-5

  8. Irish____Awesome - Oct 11, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    OK gents, I was at the game, and I was sitting in the endzone opposite the tunnel, (Where the game ended with outstanding defense). The crowd was not in it the whole game, but when Teo and Ian Williams asked the crowd for help, I PROMISE YOU it was there, the crowd wnet nuts, I couldnt talk to my Girlfriend sitting right next to me, we were screaming at the top of our lungs and still had a hard time. Point two, Notre Dame is important to college football. (period)Everyone either hates them or loves them, listen, why else would you haters get on this site to babble. Really!!! I have never placed myself on an OSU website or Florida or Alabama, or the like……Becasue I dont care about their teams other than the scores which I tend to check on ESPN, or this website…..I expect most of you to prob. respond to the comment with an ol’ ND suks…..hahaha, but we are basically what collge football is. and we will always be the center point in it, Oh, and why is lou holtze a commentator, that would be because he brings the Notre Dame Drama to the table…..we sell football whatever faucet it might be. Yes I know that is a big word, but most ND grads would understand. lol…..Go Irish, we are back, and i know it is not a fair statement to make as we have only won three games, but we are back, look at the team and how we play, look at how the team is coached…..all we need is the defining whatever it is.. Lou holtz went on to win his national title after he had his defining moment, all it took was the players do literally bury peices of paper that had fears on them, on the practice field and then the title was won…..it usually takes a very small very non important thing like the above for good players and coachs to become the best….Go Irish and we are back…….

  9. Aaron - Oct 11, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    ND422,
    I agree with what you are saying about being good defense by running the clock out at the end of the game. My #5 point was in recent years and even this year we had the ball either in the red zone or close to it with us winning the game. We took a need instead or let the clock run out. I would like us to get back at some of these teams that have no problem “STICKING IT” to ND. I’m still mad as HELL when Michigan State came into ND Stadium and beat the IRISH. Then took their flag and planted it at center field!
    It’s been along time that ND is getting back to where it needs to be…….COMPETITIVE! I think ND finally woke up especially after last season debacle!
    Like you ND422…..GO IRISH!

  10. Matt - Oct 11, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    Long time ND fan that goes way….way back…over 50 yrs. My old experience eyes see a total work in progress. It is at time difficult to watch and it pumps up the heart but in the end we are moving in the right direction (same as our country)….but the instant ND fans want an instant return to the gorly days of old. Well, folks that will not happen ….It well be a slow and stady progress. We have the right captan steering the ship (Brian Kelly). I say we need the next two teams (W. Michigan & Navy to keep honing the offense and reinforcing the defense so we hopefully will be ready to upset Utah…. It we upset Utal we will go 8-4 and if there us upset #2 in this year’s genes and we upend USC then we will be 9-3. If we lose to any team not mentioned here then our faith will be called into question ….but a true ND fan will stick by the blue & Gold through it all. GO IRISH

  11. Bob - Oct 11, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    Chris:
    I believe all of your observations are spot-on. The only question I would add is why doesn’t Kelly mix in another 10-15 runs per game, especially later in the game when he has a lead and the opponent’s defense is showing signs of fatigue? As you pointed out, a big part of our scoring problem is Crist’s inconsistency (accuracy and touch) in throwing the ball. We have a competent offensive line and competent running backs. Running the ball more will take a lot of pressure off of Crist, and I believe, will result in more points on the board at the end of the game.

  12. jack - Oct 11, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    am i the only one that thinks the big east officials stink. we play more big ten teams why not use them. I dont think they are as anti irish

  13. Sgt. Moon - Oct 11, 2010 at 3:40 PM

    Awesome, I was at the game also and sat in the same end zone as you. I agree that when the ND players asked the crowd for some noise, the crowd obliged. I would like to see and hear the fans get up and cheer without the players having to ask them. Especially when a big 3rd down or important situation is coming up.
    (Not that every play is not important).
    Also, it was great to see ND hold on at the end for a win. The past few years it was not unusual to see the defense fade out at the end of the game, give up the lead and lose.
    This program has a lot of work to do to be nationally ranked. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  14. papadec1 - Oct 11, 2010 at 5:03 PM

    In response to Longhorns – you might want to rethink your “cupcakes” comment and prediction of ND losing by 14 to Utah & usc. Of the teams that Utah has beaten, Iowa St has the best record @ 3-3. They play @ Air Force (5-1), then TCU (6-0), the two weeks before they play ND. Of usc’s wins – Hawai’i has the best record @ 4-2. They still have to play Oregon (6-0) & Ariz St (4-1) before they play the Irish. Both Utah & usc will probably have more losses than ND, when the season ends. I’ll be happy to take those 14 points you think they’ll beat ND by. Just for bragging rights – and one of us having to admit at this website that the other was correct. GO IRISH !!!!!!!!!!

  15. BMAX - Oct 11, 2010 at 6:08 PM

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. Take the W and be happy about it. I guarantee it wasn’t a shallow loss to Pitt. It was just that – a loss. We have become a group of whining self efacing entitled knit pickers. I can read and accept honest criticism, but at the end of the day WE WON THE GAME. Be happy about that. Go Irish! Win the next one too – shallow or not.

  16. Baub - Oct 11, 2010 at 11:37 PM

    This team looks great to me from a development standpoint! No we are not playing championship caliber football, but this team is a work in progress which to me explains some of the “questionable” play calling. Like letting dayne crist continue to throw the ball at the end of the game instead of running the clock out. It’s giving him important in-game experience to work on his touch, and timing. It’s one thing to throw it in practice when you know the guy gunning for you isn’t trying to kill you! And I read several times in other post where people are criticizing crist for throwing the ball too hard on screens; you want to get the ball to the receiver as fast as possible otherwise the defenders will tee off on them before they get a chance to make a play. Let’s all be patient and look at all the little things we’re doing right! This year is the learning year, next year will be the tweaking year and 2012….look out! GO IRISH!!!

  17. George Juska - Oct 12, 2010 at 1:06 AM

    About eighty years ago some how I got a quarter for the movies. The sports news flash was one play in the Notre Dame Purdue football game. The Notre Dame player ran the length of the field to score. And then the commentator said ” And now we go back to the down field devastation “. There were five Purdue players laid out bad. I will never forget those words and I was a Notre Dame fan for life. Play like that Notre Dame.

  18. ch - Oct 12, 2010 at 6:30 AM

    was it just me or did Dave Wandsted get more close up camera time than anyone. what is it with NBC and their man crushes on any opposing teams coaches.
    they missed numerous play due to close ups on pitts sidelines or replays that took too long.

  19. Eldubb - Oct 12, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    Maybe all the close ups on Wandstet because he’ll soon not be there. His team was picked 15th in nation and supposedly with one of the best defenses in college ball. What happened? Poor coaching! No quarterback! Every year they appraise this guys recruiting prowess, but every year it does’nt show up on the feild. Against Miami, they were exposed for lack of speed. The only player to play at the same caliber of the floridians were one of their own, Sheard! ND feel good about the win, but you definetly beat a subpar team. And that’s bad, even for Big East standards! Wanny has to go!

  20. Irish Fan - Oct 12, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    What a huge win
    Very proud of the team after completely stomping Pitt.
    Pitt has some very talented players that we shut down.
    Finally starting to see real improvement on the Defensive side of the ball.
    Now, if the priests would just stop molesting all those children, we might go on a real winning streak and win an invitation to a mid-sized bowl game.
    The season is not over yet.

  21. Bill - Oct 12, 2010 at 3:11 PM

    You must, or, you wouldn’t be reading this article now would you??

  22. MacNutt - Oct 14, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    I don’t see the Irish winning by much, at least not 50. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Irish fan, but Kelly will get ahead buy 20-25 points and put in the 2nd and 3rd string for experience. The Irish really don’t run up the score unless they are USC or Michigan.

  23. !ND! - Oct 15, 2010 at 10:48 PM

    “NDisGR8″: You wrote the following in your post.: “Look how often Clausen tried to squeeze the ball into too many bad situations his first couple of years. I think Crist has gotten away from that.” The offensive line forced Claussen into that situation during his first 2 years by providing absolutely zero protection. Claussen was forced to scramble on almost every passing play because the pocket around him totally collapsed time-after-time. Crist isn’t 1/4th as talented as Claussen. However, Crist has the luxury of an outstanding offensive line; something Claussen only experienced during his 3rd year. If Claussen had come back for his 4th year, ND would likely be undefeated, despite the glaring mistakes of the ND secondary.

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