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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. Danno27 - Oct 9, 2010 at 10:01 PM

    Re Rudolph: even his 95 yarder looked like he was hurt. Let’s give him a break, good call Keith.

  2. gregizzo - Oct 9, 2010 at 10:17 PM

    Special teams won the game?! What about keeping the Pitt running game in check? If Pitt runs the ball well with the two wide outs Pitt has ND gets beat by 20 at least. Up tempo offense was what Kelly said the Irish offense was suppose to be all year!!! Can we stop with such mundane observations my 2 year old could write a better article. KEITH WATCH THE GAMES!!!

  3. Mark - Oct 9, 2010 at 10:32 PM

    Who really cares about ND anyway?

  4. Dayton - Oct 9, 2010 at 10:59 PM

    Obviously you do. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have clicked on several links just to find this Notre Dame blog entry. It’s that or you have Keith Arnold’s blog bookmarked for easy access. Either way, if you’re a fan of Notre Dame or if you hate Notre Dame, you still care about Notre Dame. That’s why you’re here. If you didn’t care, you would have seen the score for the ND-Pitt game scrolling across your TV screen on ESPN and forgotten about it immediately. Instead, here you are. Also, gregizzo, your comment is ridiculous. How can Keith have a live, play-by-play game blog and not watch the game? The only way that Keith can do this blog is by watching the games and getting the latest Irish updates. In my opinion, he is doing a fantastic job. Moreover, I think Keith has the best Notre Dame blog on the internet. If you want to refute that statement, then go ahead. By the way, I seriously doubt that your two-year-old child could write a better article because I’m guessing his keyboarding skills aren’t up to par. However, your two-year-old child might do a better job than you because he might remember that the word “two-year-old” has hyphens in it and the word “two” is spelled out. Just a little food for thought.

  5. Steve - Oct 9, 2010 at 11:05 PM

    Evidently you do since you are reading this and commenting. And so do I.

  6. gregizzo - Oct 10, 2010 at 12:11 AM

    Giving live updates or even being in the box giving commentary doesn’t mean anything. Commentators often say ridiculous things during a game plus he could be paying more attention to his blog then the game. My two year old is a smart kid I wouldn’t doubt him, plus what do you care if I rip Keith Arnold you dating him??

  7. Keith Arnold - Oct 10, 2010 at 12:18 AM

    Hi Greg — If the column were 6 or 7 things we learned, I’d definitely give credit to the ND defense keeping the running game in check. That said, Lewis and Graham ran 21 times for 107 yards. Not exactly shut down, but good work by the Irish D, no doubt.
    As for that two-year-old of yours… Must be a smart kid.

  8. dom - Oct 10, 2010 at 12:20 AM

    I don’t know if it is just me but I felt like the crowd noise at the stadium was non existent. After the ND game I turned it to the Florida-LSU game and what a difference. The swamp was rockin with every fan cheering. I really do think that the team, especially the defense would benefit from a little energy from the fans.

  9. Dayton - Oct 10, 2010 at 12:29 AM

    I’m not doubting your two-year-old child. I would never say anything bad about a two-year-old child. I’m sure he or she is quite intelligent. All I’m saying is that I don’t know what else Keith could do, given the circumstances. The Irish play a very up-tempo offense. It’s hard to get in posts/updates when the offense wastes only ten seconds between plays. Plus, he has to respond to the people who are posting on his blog. No, I’m not dating the guy, but I do think that he’s doing a decent job. Besides, without this blog, where would we congregate and complain about our favorite football team?

  10. Richard - Oct 10, 2010 at 2:20 AM

    You do, no doubt. Otherwise you wouldn’t be so prissy and dismissive.

  11. Richard - Oct 10, 2010 at 2:21 AM

    You do, no doubt. Otherwise you wouldn’t be so prissy and dismissive.

  12. sos - Oct 10, 2010 at 8:05 AM

    I always appreciate these wrap-ups. The Ruffer story is great.
    One thing I would add: these last two victories are the “signs” that a new sheriff is in town, even if the team isn’t quite where we want them to be. There’s *no way* we win these last two, semi-promising, semi-ugly games under Charlie. Once this team figures out how to make the KO punch, we’ll be rather dangerous. How many opportunities did we miss yesterday? The drive that ended in the field goal to make it 23-10…? come on, boys, you’ve gotta stomp in a TD right there and end the game. There were similar moments with MSU and even Michigan. Go Irish!

  13. FightinMad35 - Oct 10, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    I was impressed with the defense today. They finally held a team with a chance to go in for the win on the final drive. ND over the past 2 seasons has found a way to let teams beat us on the final drive. For the first time in a long time I felt like we would hold and we did. I see growth there. Dayne is still very inconsistent but does enough to pad a lead early. A win is a win is a win. I see a 4 or 5 game stretch of wins coming with a decent bowl game in the future provided the d keeps growing and Dayne gets more consistent.

  14. Danno27 - Oct 10, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    Greg, I disagree with your basic argument, putting aside the annoying way in which you put it. Let’s look at it:
    ND scores three field goals, including a 50-yarder. Pitt misses two, including a muffed hold. That’s a 15 point differential right there. Next, our punt return team stopped a fake punt which could have been a touchdown. make that 22 points (possibly) by the special teams. We won by 6. That’s not even to mention the pretty darn good punting and kickoff coverage we had. How can you argue that special teams weren’t crucial in a game where they were clearly the difference-maker?

  15. irishfanintx - Oct 10, 2010 at 9:41 AM

    The conclusions I came to watching this game:
    1. The article is correct-Rudolph needs time to heal
    2. Crist is going to be an outstanding QB but needs work on the long passes and leading his receivers
    3. Defense,though they were better today, need to develop more of a pass rush
    4. Ruffer is one great walk on to date
    5. ND still lacks the instinct to put an opponent away once they have them on the ropes.
    I believe that we will see marked improvement in all areas by the end of the season.

  16. 11timechamps - Oct 10, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    Hey Greg…you sir, are an idiot…..How about you get a little education yourself before you go attacking my boy Keith….Keith DOES watch the games. In fact he’s seen quite a few of them from the student section. He was an athlete at ND btw……This bashing is just all typical of ND haters…Couldn’t get the grades, couldn’t afford the tuition, bad athlete, no date for the prom because a stud football player was having fun with his date in the parking lot.Now you probably work for that guy….
    I understand how hard it is to watch the same team year after year, hoping they might win something…anything…It’s hard when you know that if ND’s program clicks you might have to watch us all celebrate. It’s ok, it’s not to late to repent and come over to the good side of the force….

  17. SpankMonkey - Oct 10, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    I wish we would have beat a better team
    Really wish we would have a tougher schedule
    I don’t think Pitt was all that good
    Sorry but thats how i feel
    Hollow win i think
    Sure we played well
    Unless you look at the opponent
    Can’t get too excited about this
    Keep your heads up

  18. sharkey - Oct 10, 2010 at 11:27 AM

    As Kelly seems to have the team believing theyr’e going to win, he apparently does not have the fans confidence. Which of us didn’t get nervous when Pitt pulled within six? I, for one, am glad to see the team stay steady instead of giving up the game in the last seconds. That’s progress.

  19. Chris - Oct 10, 2010 at 12:39 PM

    1. Dayne Crist’s inaccuracy holds this offense back more than anything. He was better this week, but he still missed a wide open Michael Floyd for a TD, and missed Rudolph wide open (bad hammy or not, there’s no excuses for missing that one). And could he fire those screens a little harder? Sheesh, I always feel bad for the receivers trying to catch those rockets.
    2. This defense is light-years ahead of last year’s. Pitt got the ball back a couple times down 6 points, and didn’t come close to scoring. Holding their two RBs to a little over 100 yards is impressive (last year they both murdered us). Outside of the blown coverage on Baldwin, this was a pretty stellar defensive performance.
    3. Was anybody else sick to see Pitt get the ball back with about 1:47 remaining, and not having used any of their timeouts? I know Kelly had the play set up for Ragone that should have been an easy first down (drop by Ragone, but also another rocket from Crist), but in that situation you have to force Pitt to use at least one timeout. We get the ball with a chance to close out the game, and instead Pitt gets the ball back with 1:47 and both timeouts still in their pockets. That’s bad clock management.
    4. David Ruffer is amazing. Does Notre Dame have the best kicker in college football? I thought the 50-yard field goal attempt was a mistake by Kelly (I never trust a college kicker), but Ruffer drilled it. He doesn’t just make his field goals, but he splits the uprights most times.
    5. The amount of plays that Notre Dame misses that win football games is staggering. Miss a wide open Floyd for a big TD? Check. Get two big pass plays to Floyd called back? Check. Rudolph drops a pass on 3rd down that would have set up 1st and goal for the kill shot? Check. Ragone drops an easy first down to help seal the game? Check. Pitt didn’t hardly do anything in the 2nd half, and yet there they were down 6, because we couldn’t finish off drives with TDs and Jamoris Slaughter inexplicably let Baldwin run free (my vote for worst coverage of the season).
    If you watch this team regularly, there’s no secret as to why they don’t win more often. Because when the time comes to make a play that can win the game, we don’t make it. We get opportunites to extend leads, and we either settle for a field goal or don’t score at all. We blow coverages at the worst time, or miss wide open receivers. This team is talented enough to play with most teams in college football (anyone outside the top 10, I’d say). But they make enough mistakes at critical junctures that they could also let a team like Western Michigan hang around. Yesterday’s 4th quarter was textbook example of why this team loses half of its games, and it needs to stop. Just once I’d like to see us bury a team in the 3rd and then coast through the 4th. I’ve had enough nailbiters to last a lifetime.

  20. GenuineMark - Oct 10, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    The individual putting himself on as “Mark” today must have been offended by something I said in past game blogs. Never seen another “Mark” here besides me until this one got on with his useless comment. FakeMark: if you don’t care, feel free to leave.
    One more thing learned Notre Dame vs. Pitt:
    Pitt rushing offense: 110 yards. Total. All game. Previously two of the most productive backs in the country.

  21. Rockne - Oct 10, 2010 at 1:55 PM

    Obviously as fans its great to see the Irish win but there always seems to be a persistent dissatisfaction in some of your opinions. For example, Irish win but Pitt not that good shallow win. (Heck even in tough losses with UM and MSU we were quite capable pulling the W folks we are not far off the mark patience patience guys we will get there) and in the other example lets say the Irish lost yesterday there would be harry carry against Kelly so basically certain people here are just never satisfied whatever the outcome. I think the solution is obvious, get a better love life and stop taking it out here on ND and when you decide to improve your outlook about ND then stay off the blog thanks. I can’t stand people like that never satisfied until something really bad happens.As for the other ND folks here thanks for being positive should be an interesting rest of the season!

  22. chris - Oct 10, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    I have one question, In the article it said “The decision would be a lot easier if backup Mike Ragone would’ve held onto a pass …” In fall camp, BK get saying how good Tyler Eifert was – is he hurt, is he playing?

  23. B - Oct 10, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    Mark- apparently you care about ND otherwise why would you be posting on Notre Dame central? dork.

  24. SpankMonkey - Oct 10, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    yea whatever rockne … this is a discussion not a luv fest … if you don’t like what you read … don’t read

  25. Aaron - Oct 10, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    Better. Just need to keep improving each week.
    But for GOD’S Sake quit shoot ourselves in the foot!
    1.Bad penalties
    2.Dropped passes
    3.Bad time management
    4.Questionable play calling on offense
    5.Sick of seeing them run the clock out!
    6.Score more points even if you have the ball at the end of the game!
    7.Need to be more consistant!

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