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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12

Sep 24, 2011, 6:00 PM EST

Gang tackle Pitt

The recipe for disaster was there. Eight penalties for 85 yards. Another lost turnover battle, 2-0. Drive killing mistakes. But Saturday turned out differently, with Notre Dame beating Pittsburgh 15-12 thanks to a great fourth quarter drive by Tommy Rees, who up until that point was held captive by a blitzing Panthers defense.

It was the ugliest win of the Brian Kelly era, and a victory that wasn’t official until Kelly made a gutsy call on 4th and 1 at the Pitt 35, opting to put the proverbial dagger in the Panthers instead of putting Ben Turk on the field to punt. The gamble paid off, Rees got the first down by half a football, and the Irish escaped Pittsburgh with a 2-2 record.

“Any time you’re on the road, you need to find a way to get the win,” Kelly said walking off the field.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Irish escaped disaster and did it with another solid defensive performance, limiting Pitt to under 300 yards on the afternoon and getting a great pass rush from the front seven. With their offensive bravado blown but their postseason hopes still in tact, let’s find out what we learned in the Irish’s ugly 15-12 win over Pitt.

The Irish were one drive away from an ugly quarterback situation.

Even if you watched the game alone, you probably heard the grumbling about Tommy Rees on Saturday afternoon. Rees turned the ball over twice on Saturday, losing a fumble on a sack and throwing late to Tyler Eifert after evading the Pitt rush, turning an open receiver into another interception deep in the opponent’s territory.

At Notre Dame, the back-up quarterback is always among the most popular players on the team, and with Dayne Crist, the sentiment is understandable. Crist only got one half of football as starting quarterback before Kelly pulled him for Rees, and Crist passes every conceivable eyeball test known to man.

Yet Kelly’s patience with Rees says all we need to know. He still believes that the sophomore quarterback with a weaker arm, slower legs and a troubling turnover habit is the guy that gives the Irish the best chance to win. And Rees proved his head coach right once again with a clutch drive to win the game, going eight for eight as he drove the Irish from their own 15 yard line, connecting with Eifert five times, including the go-ahead touchdown and two-point conversion.

You can say it 100 times, but it doesn’t make Irish fans feel any better. Young quarterbacks make mistakes. Brady Quinn did it, Jimmy Clausen did it, and Heisman Trophy winners like Carson Palmer did it. It’s not just happening at Notre Dame. (Check out BYU’s Jake Heaps, the No. 1 recruited quarterback in Rees’ class. He’s thrown five interceptions against just three touchdowns.)

Against a defense that was hellbent on taking away Michael Floyd, Rees struggled to find his rhythm, made a few dangerous throws, and showed why he’s not a perfect fit in Brian Kelly’s offense. But he also marched coolly down the field with the game on the line and pulled out the win.

That’s why he’s the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.

Even with Darius Fleming answering the bell, the Irish are struggling with their linebacker personnel.

Darius Fleming played maybe the best game of his career, answering his critics and coming up with two sacks, three tackles-for-loss and a great play at the goal line to stop Pitt. But Fleming’s production doesn’t hide the personnel imbalance that the Irish are fighing with, specifically at the Dog linebacker position, where Prince Shembo is struggling with the intricacies of playing the field-side linebacker position.

Shembo is on the field because he’s the best option the Irish have, especially with Danny Spond battling a hamstring injury. But the sophomore linebacker, recruited to Notre Dame as a defensive end and used last year as a designated pass rusher, doesn’t look all that comfortable in space, and Pitt consistently picked on Shembo in coverage, gaining easy yardage in front of him when they chose to roll the pocket and throw to the big side of the field. Troy Niklas, a talented but raw freshman, got some time in place of Shembo, but the Irish will need to get Spond healthy to see what he can do if they want to play better pass defense. With Spond available on passing downs, Shembo can do what he did when he played well this afternoon, filling the box score with six tackles and a sack.

Once again, Manti Te’o led the Irish in tackles, making ten total with eight solo stops, also chipping in a sack on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. But neither Carlo Calabrese nor Dan Fox have stepped up and seized the position next to him, and both guys had some ugly missed tackles this afternoon.

It’s hard to be too tough on the Irish defense after a nice day at the office, which included hold Pitt to a net of 103 yards on 38 carries. But with four games in the books, opposing offenses are seeing ways to pick on the Irish defense, and Pitt provided more tape this afternoon.

Battling back from adversity, Jonas Gray is making himself a valuable part of the Irish offense.

When Jonas Gray fumbled the ball inside South Florida’s one yard-line, more than a few people wondered if Gray would ever get into the endzone. But the senior running back bounced back from that early season failure, played solid football the past two weeks, and broke loose this afternoon, his 79-yard touchdown run supplying the game’s biggest play, and a highlight reel first touchdown of the senior’s career.

Kelly’s continued faith in Gray has given a huge boost to the offense and adds a second legitimate runner to the Irish backfield, with Cierre Wood going over 90 yards for the fourth straight Saturday. While most reporters will look back at a summer-time conversation Gray had with former Irish running back Jerome Bettis, Kelly’s preseason goals for Gray have actually been what the Irish needed most out of the senior from Michigan: Simply be a faster Robert Hughes.

Gray has done that plus more, utilizing his speed to notch the Irish’s longest run since Terrence Howard‘s 80-yard touchdown against West Virginia back in 2000.  At 6.7 yards-per carry this season, Gray is doing more than just complement Wood, who’s averaging over 99 yards an afternoon at five yards per carry, he’s making an argument to get more touches, something that’ll come in handy as the season wears on.

After a rough opening drive to the season, Gray’s turned around his season.

The Irish played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.

The Irish’s defensive line didn’t get the double-digit sack numbers that Aaron Lynch hoped, but they did come up with six sacks, the most in the Kelly era, and their eight tackles-for-loss was the team’s most prolific day behind the line of scrimmage since the Irish’s 2008 bowl victory in Hawaii.

Darius Fleming paced the Irish effort behind the line of scrimmage, getting two sacks of Sunseri and making another play behind the line of scrimmage, continuing a trend of good play Kelly hoped to see from his senior linebacker. More impressively, the Irish’s pass rush took over the game when it was needed, with Lynch and Shembo getting two drive-killing sacks on Sunseri on Pitt’s last possession of the game.

Their play is likely getting lost behind all the turnovers and Irish miscues, but the Notre Dame defense has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in seven of their last nine games. (And the Miami touchdowns came in mop-up time.) More impressively, the Irish defense is a place where runningbacks go to die, and Graham’s 89 yards on 21 carries — largely buoyed by his 42-yard scamper after Rees’ interception — was one of the best days an opposing running back has had against Notre Dame in the Kelly era. You have to go all the way back to last September to find a 100-yard rushing running back, when both Stepfan Taylor of Stanford and Le’Veon Bell had 100 yard days against the the Irish. That’s an impressive run by Bob Diaco’s troops, and part of why the Irish don’t seem too worried when they give up short completions.

Brian Kelly doesn’t lack belief.

If you were looking for another reason to doubt Brian Kelly, he gave you a very large one with less than a minute left in the ballgame, choosing to go for it on fourth and one at the Pitt 35, putting the game on the back of his offensive line instead of on a defense that had played rock solid football.

How difficult was the decision? Consider that Urban Meyer flip-flopped on it, and he was in the press box.

Kelly’s decision to sneak Rees essentially ended the football game, and shows that the head coach has plenty of confidence in his football team, and certainly a lot more than the members of ND Nation have, many of whom were apoplectic when Rees and the offense stayed on the field after the Irish called a timeout, not to mention throughout a football game where not a lot went right for the Irish. But the decision showed Kelly’s belief in his team, and more importantly, gave the Irish a huge positive to take away on an afternoon that wasn’t filled with them.

“I like the way our guys battled,” Kelly said after the game. “I’m really pleased with our resilience and toughness. We’re playing the kind of football I want our teams to play. It’s not going to be an instant classic, but it certainly is from a football standpoint — games that you have to win on the road. You’re going to be presented with some of these kinds of closely fought, last drive, come up with a big stop or a big conversion, and that’s what we saw today.”

By every account, this was an ugly win for Notre Dame. And while the flaws that cost the Irish their first two games of the season still popped up more times than anyone would like. While the team is trending in the right direction, it feels like they’re running uphill in quicksand while they do it.

At 2-2 with Purdue and Air Force on the horizon, the Irish have a chance to be 4-2 going into bye week and a home date with Southern Cal. Kelly’s squad has proven incapable of looking past any opponent, but if the Irish want to put together a good run, they’re well positioned to do so.

It might not have looked good, but it bears repeating that substance outweighs style every day of the week, especially on Saturday. A solid defensive performance and a gutsy drive by Tommy Rees proved it this afternoon.

  1. yaketyyacc - Sep 26, 2011 at 8:01 AM

    the team loses, out come the critics and crying towels, the team wins, out come the critics and the crying towels
    FACT: last year at this point:0-4. ths year: 2-2. first two games, five turnovers each. against Pitt, three, and no dumb fouls. Rees, two interceptions, sophomore in college. Tom Brady, four intercedptions, winner of two super bowls. think belichick is goiing to bench him?
    in my 1958 yearbook, the title for football read:FROM ROCKNE TO ROCK BOTTOM. we still showed up for every game and have for the last fifty years, amd will for the next fifty even if we lose every damn one them, or if we win every damn one.

  2. goirish68 - Sep 29, 2011 at 5:37 PM

    Last year the pre season concensus was 7 wins. This year it was 10 and a bowl berth. Michagan was one of those questionable games. We still may have 10 wins. I’m bettin we have at least 9 and a bowl win. That would be a successful BK 2nd season. BTW Dayne stunk it up against SF. Did you notice his eyes. He was quite rattled. BK had to yank him. The SF game was a omen for the dome future…Skip can win the big game also. That guy has poise.

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