Gang tackle Pitt

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12


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.

Five things we learned: Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 3: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is sacked during the game against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)

Notre Dame walked into Memorial Stadium saying they weren’t worried about Hurricane Joaquin. But they sure should have been more worried about the Clemson Tigers.

The Irish may have lost when DeShone Kizer’s version of student-body right failed to convert a two-point conversion that would’ve forced overtime. But Notre Dame was beat in the game’s opening minutes, knocked woozy by two quick Clemson scores and a shocking lack of poise by all phases of the game.

In more than difficult conditions, the Irish struggled on offense, defense, and special teams, each digging a hole that turned out to be insurmountable. While the Irish never stopped fighting, Kizer’s failed two-point attempt was a fitting finish to an evening not soon forgotten in upstate South Carolina.

The Irish had their shot to steal back this victory. But instead, it was another devastating road loss that breaks an unbeaten season. With monsoon-like rains falling and the Death Valley crowd rocking, the Tigers suffocated the Irish for three quarters, but had to hold on for dear life as the Irish mounted a furious comeback, made even more miraculous considering the mistakes Notre Dame made.

As the Irish try to find a way home to South Bend amidst a tropical storm, Notre Dame leaves as a 4-1 team, battered and bruised. While they should be proud of the fight they put up at the end, they’ll likely spend the next few days wondering how a veteran and confident team failed to answer the opening bell.

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss to Clemson.


Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out after a completely horrific start. 

You can draw up the perfect start to a football game. Or you can take that game-plan, rip it to pieces, douse it with lighter fluid and set it on fire. Unfortunately, Notre Dame chose Option B on Saturday night.

For the first four games of the season, the Irish have gotten off to fast starts and followed a winning script. They’ve outscored opponents 47-6, giving up just one score, a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter against UMass.

But Saturday evening, the Irish dug themselves a deep hole from the start. They gave up a nice kickoff return to open the game. Deshaun Watson caught the Irish defense out of alignment on a run that went for 38 yards. A Cole Luke missed tackle allowed the Tigers to convert a 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. Three plays later, Clemson was winning 7-0.

Offensively, the Irish started miserably. Two predictable runs went backwards, the front five blown off the line en route to a three-and-out. A shanked punt by Tyler Newsome set up the Tigers on a short field and four plays later Clemson had a 14-point lead.

Brian Kelly said multiple times that his team needed to start quickly, not giving the Death Valley crowd any reason to make things even more difficult for the Irish. Well Notre Dame did the opposite and those early 14 points sure proved critical considering the Tigers only scored 10 more the rest of the night.



The Irish tried to put the game on the backs of their offensive line. It didn’t work. 

For the first four games of the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line was the engine that powered the Irish attack. With Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston out of the starting lineup, the Irish offense didn’t miss a beat, with Harry Hiestand’s gang creating huge running lanes for C.J. Prosise and plenty of time to throw for DeShone Kizer.

But it didn’t take long to see that things were very different on Saturday evening, with Clemson turning the Irish one-dimensional as an offense and completely shutting down the ground game. Prosise was held to just three rushing yards in the first half. The rebuilt Clemson front-four was swarming, collecting nine TFLs against the Irish, with defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd combining for a ridiculous seven stops behind the line of scrimmage.

While the Irish offense rallied, mostly via the pass and checking down to underneath crossing routes, Notre Dame just couldn’t win the battle at the line of scrimmage. And after the game, when head coach Brian Kelly discussed the controversial two-point play call, he said there were both run and pass options in the call.

Kizer thought he had numbers in his favor up front, and he counted on his offensive line to get a push and help him bring the game into overtime. Instead the Tigers shut down another run and Notre Dame’s comeback was finished.


Notre Dame’s wide receivers came into the game talking a big game. They left it with some questions to answer. 

Clemson’s team made a mountain from a molehill this week, turning tweets by Chris Brown and Will Fuller into a rallying cry. So whether or not you understand what’s so inflammatory about tweeting #savage, it was up to Brown and Fuller—not to mention the entire receiving corps—to back up their words.

They didn’t.

On one of the wettest nights you’ll ever see a game played, only one team was plagued by the drops. Will Fuller let a huge gain slide through his hands, a critical first-half drop. Torii Hunter Jr., too.

Corey Robinson could’ve reeled in a game-changing touchdown catch late in the first half, but he dropped it when he hit the ground. And after causing DeShone Kizer to waste a much-needed second half timeout when he wasn’t on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, Robinson could bring in Kizer’s high throw, either. Another pass, just sliding through an Irish receivers’ hands.

Brown broke loose for 83 yards, the most for any receiver in the game. But the South Carolina native fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter, jarred loose by safety Jayron Kearse (who also took offense to the tweets) with a little more than two minutes to play. While the Irish managed to get the ball back and score to have a chance to send the game to overtime, that’s the second time Brown has gotten to the shadow of the goal line and coughed it up, matching his back-breaking fumble against Northwestern last season.

Fuller’s absence was probably the most disappointing. Spending a lot of the evening going against Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Fuller only managed to catch two passes for 37 yards, his 23-yard big play coming on a screen pass. Alexander talked a big game this week and backed it up on the field.


The conditions were terrible. But big-time players make big plays in big games. And the Irish receiving corps just couldn’t do it.



After a terrible start, Notre Dame’s defense held its ground… and made enough big plays to keep the Irish in the game. 

Lost in the disappointment of the evening was a solid performance by Brian VanGorder’s defense. No, you can’t throw away the first two series of the game. But after settling in against the Tigers impressive array of skill talent, Notre Dame’s defense did everything it could to will the team back into the game, nearly pulling off the comeback.

Deshaun Watson was held to under 100 passing yards, completing just 50 percent of his passes. The Tigers ground game didn’t have a 100 yard rusher. The entire offense was limited to just 296 yards.

And after Notre Dame exited halftime and turning over the football on their first touch of the half and then followed it up by doing it again on their first play from scrimmage, it’s a credit to this defense that the Irish weren’t buried by the middle of the third quarter.

Notre Dame forced six three-and-outs tonight when Clemson only forced two. And while I wondered aloud on Twitter when the last time a VanGorder defense came up with a big, game-changing play, Cole Luke pulled in an interception in the end zone, essentially triggering Notre Dame’s rally.

Junior safety Max Redfield led the Irish with 14 tackles, including 11 solo stops. Jaylon Smith was productive while Isaac Rochell (seven stops) and Sheldon Day (two more TFLs) were disruptive in the trenches.

While there were missed opportunities and some breakdowns that’ll likely haunt this team, it’s tough to pin this loss on the defense.


There’s no such thing as a moral victory for this team. So we’ll see if the veteran leadership on this roster can stop this loss from being a season-ruiner. 

That the Irish even had a chance to pull even in the game’s final seconds is rather amazing. If you look at the root causes for losing in college football, Notre Dame’s game was littered with them.

Four turnovers, all but cementing Notre Dame’s fate. A dreadfully slow start. A run game that was stuck in neutral and a receiving corps that dropped a half-dozen easy catches.

So while the Irish managed to storm back and have a shot at victory in the end, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to take any type of glass-half-full approach in the immediate aftermath.

“We’re not here for moral victories. We’re too far along in our program,” Kelly said.

But that’s not to say the season is lost.

Last year, Notre Dame went down to Tallahassee and nearly pulled off a season-defining victory. Instead, a controversial pass interference call turned a comeback win into a gutting loss. And the Irish never recovered.

Notre Dame absolutely can’t let a loss to Clemson derail their season. And after an offseason spent hammering leadership, resilience and and fortifying the attitude of his roster, it’ll be up to Kelly and his five captains to make sure this loss doesn’t sink the season.

Navy arrives in South Bend undefeated next weekend, coming off an impressive 22-point win over Air Force. A week later, USC arrives, with memories of an Irish curb-stomping in the Coliseum still fresh in their minds last November.

The Irish have managed to fight through six season-ending injuries. After doing just as much to beat themselves Saturday night as Clemson did, it’s up to the veteran leadership of this team to make sure they’re able to rally the troops and get this season back on track.

There is still so much football to be played. And with a Top 25 that looks as jumbled as ever, all the Irish can control is their own fate.

So save the oxygen, it’s not time to debate whether or not a one-loss Notre Dame team will make the playoff. It’s time for this team to prove they can dust themselves off and get back to winning. Everything else will take care of itself.


Even with heavy rain in forecast, kickoff stays in primetime

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With rain falling and the forecast expecting much more, Notre Dame and Clemson are kicking off in primetime anyway.

College GameDay was on campus this morning, showcasing the soggy conditions and the mud-covered campus. And while some wondered whether or not the kickoff would move up to earlier in the day to take advantage of a slight lull in the conditions, kickoff is remaining at 8:22 p.m.

“We’ve been in constant communication with state and local law enforcement and have monitored weather throughout the week and today,” director of athletics Dan Radakovich said in a statement Friday night. “I’ve spoken with campus leaders, State Highway Patrol, and Governor Nikki Haley, and feel confident we can play the game as scheduled. We ask our fans to be conscientious arriving and departing from our campus as we will have some limitations due to this ongoing weather event.”

Ball security will be key this evening, and during an interview with Tom Rinaldi this morning Kelly mentioned the punting and kick game as concerns in these conditions. The Irish came to Clemson prepared for miserable conditions and if the forecast holds, they’ll get just that.