Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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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.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends