Kizer learning quickly about life in the spotlight

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Getting the chance to play in Philadelphia, scoring touchdowns in the home stadium of his favorite team was supposed to be a dream come true. Yet sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has amazed fans and media members not just as a quick study on the field but with his polished approach off of it, ran afoul with his head coach—and the dastardly judge, jury and executioners on social media—with his touchdown celebration.

Kizer’s arm flapping was supposed to be an homage to the Eagles. Instead, it was viewed as some type of disrespect to Temple, whose Owl mascot also happens to be a proud feathered bird.

Can a wide receiver get away with such a stunt? Maybe. But the starting quarterback at Notre Dame? Brian Kelly made that abundantly clear this week when asked about it.

“Totally unacceptable. It’s not what we’re about. It’s not who we are,” Kelly said, before explaining the origins of the celebration. “DeShone understands that… But it’s not who we are as a team or as a program. It won’t happen again.”

That’s life in the spotlight. Run for a 79-yard touchdown and one of the most exciting plays a quarterback has ever made at Notre Dame and get hammered for your celebration afterwards. So as Kizer figures out the transition from largely anonymous college football player to starting quarterback on the No. 5 team in the nation, it’s all a process—even figuring out how best to act like you’ve been there before when you really haven’t.

“At the end of the day, it’s immature by me to do anything in the end zone. That reflects on myself and my team. I apologize for that,” Kizer said this Wednesday. “Moving forward, guys understand the slightest movement out there can be taken in any way. I need to make sure I think out my decisions before I make them on the field.”

Distracting celebrations aside, Kizer’s focus should be on another challenge road game. A week after the offense sputtered when it got into the scoring areas and Kizer turned the football over twice, the young quarterback knows Pat Narduzzi, one of the most aggressive and brilliant defensive minds working in college football, is likely coming right for him.

“Coach Narduzzi, he’s had a lot of success at Michigan State running the defense that he has. Pitt is buying in,” Kizer said. “They have all the talent in the world over there. They have fast guys. They have strong guys. They have guys that have been there and done it a couple times… They’re buying into what he is laying out for them.”

As the No. 5 team in the country, Notre Dame is technically the “next team in” when it comes to the four coveted playoff spots. But with a challenging schedule that’ll see the Irish play three of four games away from Notre Dame, it’s imperative that the Irish find a way to eliminate any doubt that they’re good enough to get the nod over other one (and no)-loss teams. That’ll likely be dictated by the play of Notre Dame’s accidental starting quarterback.

It’s a challenge that Kizer’s clearly ready for.

“It makes us put in our mind that we’re right there in the top. But we just understand there’s only one we’re going to end up accomplishing that goal, and that’s to win out and take care of business on our end of the things,” Kizer said. “I think that’s the mindset we’ve had all season, it’s going to continue go forward. As long as we go 1-0 each week, we’ll see where we end up at the end.”

Opening at No. 5 a huge deal, but work just beginning for the Irish

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Whatever Brian Kelly might be saying, it’s clear that his team is guilty of scoreboard watching.

Take one look at social media from yesterday around 7:00 p.m. Eastern, and you’ll see tweet after tweet from excited Notre Dame football players, maybe surprised themselves by the amount of respect the Irish earned in the first poll released by the College Football Playoff committee.

Ranked fifth with two teams ahead of them facing off this weekend, and it doesn’t take a math major to assume that the Irish could ascend into one of four coveted playoff spots come this time next week. Of course (and sticking with the theme), it doesn’t take a history major to look back at last year and realize how little Week One playoff rankings mean.

It was almost fashionable yesterday to bash the importance of the initial rankings. A year after ESPN debuted a weekly 30-minute ranking show that was essentially a hot-take, college football troll session by committee chair Jeff Long and ESPN, the Playoff pushed back their initial ranking to the first week of November, if only to retain the sanity of their passionate audience and not overly expose the fact that the system wasn’t designed to make sense week to week, but rather only once at the end, when all the dust settled.

That’s supremely important for Notre Dame to grasp, and if there’s any worry the Irish might be resting on their top-five laurels, they’ll fall to thud rather quickly when Pitt gets their first opportunity to hit them in the mouth. With 11 unbeaten teams in consideration (now 10, thanks to a Toledo loss) any jockeying for position makes little sense—we’re in the middle of a beauty pageant that still hasn’t gotten to the talent portion.

So while the backlash to the open rankings is understandable, overlooking the initial snapshot is taking things a step too far. Notre Dame being ranked fifth is huge news, and essentially puts the Irish in charge of their own destiny, something many thought washed away in Hurricane Joaquin.

There are still too many permutations to worry about. What if Clemson loses to Florida State and the Seminoles beat Florida? What does the committee think of an undefeated Big 12 champ? Can two SEC teams steal a bid, and will Ohio State continue to receive the benefit of the doubt for playing good football an entire calendar year ago? And what to make of the Pac-12?

It’s all noise out there, existing only to trip up 18-to-21-year old football players who spend a majority of their life connected to the internet, the absolute worst place to help prepare you for a grueling November slate. So with Pitt, Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford remaining, Kelly’s message shouldn’t be any different than it was before the polls went live.

“Each and every week is a playoff game for us,” Kelly said.

The next playoff game is Saturday at noon and the rankings are all subject to change, with a rollercoaster worth of twists and turns ahead of us. But starting at No. 5 is a huge development. Because there’s a very real shot that winning out will be enough for Notre Dame to punch their ticket to the playoff.

And that’s all you could ever ask for.

 

High noon showdown coming up for Russell and Boyd

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: KeiVarae Russell #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts a pass intended for John Christopher #7 of the Temple Owls in the fourth quarter on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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If you were wondering when Notre Dame’s nearly annual battle with Pitt would kick into high gear, it might have happened Wednesday afternoon. That’s when Panthers standout receiver Tyler Boyd talked to the local media, and made it clear that he wanted a victory against Notre Dame.

Badly.

“When you see Notre Dame on your schedule, that’s the only team you really want to beat for sure, even if you’re 1-11,” Boyd said.

And just like that, Boyd put into perspective what this game means to Pitt, heading into a weekend that feels a little different than most, courtesy of the early noon kickoff.

Boyd’s stats are down, but he’s still been the catalyst of a still-developing passing game this season. Entering the year as part of a 1-2 punch with running back James Connor, Boyd sat out one game after an offseason DUI, making headlines for the wrong reason while Connor’s season ending as quickly as it got started with an ACL tear.

Still, Irish head coach Brian Kelly knows that Boyd is the weapon in the Pitt’s offensive attack, a unit that’s struggled to make big plays going against a defense that hasn’t been able to contain them.

“He is dynamic,” Kelly said of Boyd. “He can run the ball as well on offense. They’re using him at the running back position, wide receiver. He’s a game wrecker. We’re aware of him in special teams as well as an offensive player.”

Boyd will likely be matching up with cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who has made game-changing plays to help seal wins against USC and Temple. Russell, a player with no shortage of confidence, will be going against a receiver who seems to share a similar personality trait.

“I’m definitely looking forward to going against him,” Boyd told the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner on Wednesday. “He plays the field corner and I usually go out to the field…Every time I get a chance to go up against him, I want to make sure the ball’s coming my way. I want to let the world know I’m still a great receiver. The stats really aren’t what they’re supposed to be, but I’m still the player that I have been since the first couple of years.”

While we haven’t heard from Russell this week, there’s no doubt he’s circled this matchup. On Media Day in August, he was talking about Boyd, and was confident that he’d be following him around the field, whether he was lined up outside, in the slot or anywhere else.

Last weekend, we saw Russell get beat a few times in man coverage, but recover to make the game-clinching interception. As the Irish secondary tries to play the first half without Elijah Shumate, one of the games inside the game will be the comfort and confidence Pitt has in quarterback Nate Peterman, and if they’ll take some risks downfield with him.

Taking chances down the field hasn’t been the M.O. of head coach Pat Narduzzi or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in their first season at Pitt. But going up against an Irish offense that’ll move the ball and a Notre Dame secondary with a ton of question marks, there certainly are worse strategies.

Plus, if you give one listen to Boyd or Russell, you can’t help but hope we see these two battle early and often.

 

Greg Bryant will continue football career at UAB in 2017

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant will return to D-I football in 2017 at a program that’s also making a major comeback. Spending the 2015 season playing junior college football at ASA in Miami, the former five-star recruit has decided to finish his college career at University of Alabama-Birmingham, where football is coming back after the program shut down last year.

Bryant made the announcement on his Instagram page:

“Never in my life would I be thinking I would go here,” Bryant posted. “But, the next move has to be the best move. I’m officially committed to the University of Alabama Birmingham! Strictly a business decision. ‪Minor set back for a major comeback.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was open to the idea of Bryant returning to South Bend if he wanted to earn his degree. But that return always seemed highly unlikely since Bryant left the university after being declared academically ineligible, even as Bryant had hinted at it via social media a few times this season. Bryant was already suspended four games for an undisclosed rules violation before his summer semester grades came up just short.

Notre Dame’s running back position has been thin this season, especially after losing Bryant this summer and Tarean Folston three carries into the 2015 season. But C.J. Prosise has carried the load for Notre Dame and freshman Josh Adams has done well in a reserve role.

Bryant has two seasons of eligibility remaining, earning a medical redshirt in 2013 as a freshman. His final Notre Dame stats include 57 carries for 303 yards and three touchdowns, good for 5.3 yards per carry.

 

And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 17:  Tyler Boyd #23 of the Pittsburgh Panthers rushes against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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While it’s difficult to call Notre Dame’s rivalry with Pitt—well, a rivalry—there’s certainly a long history between the two football programs. The Irish and the Panthers started playing in 1909. They’ve rarely taken a break longer than two years. And over the past decade, Pitt has routinely been a thorn in the side of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s last visit to the Steel City ended the Irish’s BCS hopes, with the Irish losing a disappointing 28-21 game in early November. The Panthers most likely felt like they were getting even from the year before, when Notre Dame kept their undefeated season alive thanks to some late-game heroics by Everett Golson, a missed 33-yard field goal and a triple-OT escape.

In 2011, the Irish won ugly against Todd Graham. In 2010, Kelly beat Dave Wannstedt. It feels like an eternity since Wannstedt roamed the sidelines, and nearly a half-dozen head coaches later, the Irish will face former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi as he heads down the home stretch of his debut season atop the program.

Joining us to talk Pitt football is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. While we’ll let him get away with being a Taylor Swift apologist, he’s a Notre Dame grad and an Observer Sports alum who covered the Irish for the student newspaper.

Sam works the Panthers beat and runs the Post-Gazette’s Pitt football blog, The Redshirt Diaries.  So he has a better handle than most on the “rivalry” between Notre Dame and Pitt, and also had Narduzzi threaten to ban him from practice this week for his alma mater, which would’ve been kinda nice from a workload perspective, I’m guessing.

Hope you enjoy this Q&A, and special thanks to Sam for joining us on a busy week.
* The Panthers had been flying nicely below the radar, ranked until their loss to UNC last week. Taking a step back, can you give us an assessment of Pat Narduzzi as a head coach, considering it took longer than most expected for him to get a chance at leading a program?

I think it’s hard to be anything but optimistic about Narduzzi’s future potential as a head coach. I really do think he was sort of biding his time at Michigan State until the right job came along. That job happened to be Pitt, just about an hour away from where he grew up in Youngstown.

One of the benefits of that patience is that he really got a good look at what exactly it takes to build a program the way Mark Dantonio did in East Lansing. It was sort of clear for the last few years that he was going to get a head job eventually, and Dantonio did his best to prepare Narduzzi for when he got there.

Now, there are still some hiccups, as there would be with any first-time head coaches. Things like clock management, when to go for it on fourth down are parts of the job that you can never prepare for until you get there, so Narduzzi has had some growing pains in those areas.

From a big picture sense, though, he seems to have a very clear and detailed vision about what he expects this football team to be and what it takes to get there. He’s a stickler for every single little detail, and that’s usually a good quality in a head coach.

 

* Like Notre Dame, Pitt’s season got started with a terrible injury, losing the ACC player of the year just eight carries into his season when James Conner tore his ACL. But Qadree Ollison has filled in nicely, the freshman averaging 5.4 yards a carry and scoring eight touchdowns.

Has the power-running identity of the Panthers had to change because of the injury to Conner? Is Ollison the main weapon you expect Pitt to challenge the Irish with?

I wouldn’t say Pitt’s identity as a power-running team has changed without Conner, I would just say it’s not as good. Ollison has been effective in spots this year, but has also ceded time to sophomore Chris James and true freshman Darrin Hall at various points in the year, so he hasn’t exactly been the workhorse back that Conner would have (though, to be fair to Ollison, it’d be ridiculous to expect him to step in and replicate what James Conner did). I also get the sense that Ollison is a bit of a liability in pass protection, which has probably cost him playing time in certain situations, too.

Ollison will probably be the main back Pitt uses against Notre Dame, but I would expect to see James and Hall, too. Whichever one of them looks best early will probably be the guy in the second half. The way Pitt will get into trouble is if none look good early on and they have to play musical chairs at running back all the way through the game.

 

* Defensively, Narduzzi was well known as one of the best defensive coaches in the country. Statistically, it looks like a minor uptick is just about every category since taking over. But what’s the major difference you’ve seen in the Xs and Os this season?

I know it’s sort of a coaching change cliche, but everything really does seem to be much simpler than it was last year. Players have said that, last season, the Panthers would change up the gameplan just about every week to match up with their given opponent, whereas this year it’s just about executing their scheme to the best of their ability and daring opponents to beat them. Defensive lineman Mark Scarpinato, a grad transfer who played for Narduzzi at Michigan State, said that one of the trademarks of those defenses was that the offenses knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop them.

Now, Pitt isn’t quite there yet. There was a lot of optimism early on as the Panthers raced out to lead the ACC in sacks after four games, but that has sort of tempered over the last three games (one total sack). If this defense isn’t getting to the quarterback, that puts a lot of pressure on the corners (generally in single coverage) to stay with their man for a long time, and that can have some bad results for a defense.

 

* Notre Dame’s ground game has been prolific this season, but the two best defenses Notre Dame has faced — Clemson and Temple — have done a good job shutting down C.J. Prosise. How do you expect the Panthers to fair in the trenches?

That’s the question that will, I think, ultimately decide whether Pitt stays in this game or not. While the Panthers was very stout against the run early on in the season, they seem to have taken a step back in recent weeks against Syracuse and North Carolina (they also REALLY struggled stopping the run against Georgia Tech, but I’ll throw that one out).

The interior of the defensive line is pretty solid, with a defensive tackle rotation that goes four deep. The ends have been a bit more of a concern, though, and that seems to be where teams have had success running against Pitt, either on the edge or off tackle. If there’s a good sign for Pitt, though, it’s that the rushing numbers in recent weeks have been slightly skewed by a few big plays. Obviously that’s not good that they’re giving up long runs, but it’s not like they’re getting gashed consistently for eight yards a carry.

I think Pitt will try and do whatever it can to stop the run. I’ve had multiple conversations with Narduzzi about his defense, and that is always his No. 1 priority with everything else a distant second. Even after last year’s Cotton Bowl, when his defense gave up 41 points and 583 yards to Baylor, Narduzzi was quick to point out that the Bears had -20 rushing yards, and that’s a success in his book. At his press conference this morning, he said, “We should be able to stop the run better than we have. That’s the frustrating thing. They throw a 71-yard pass, I’m okay with that. But you better stop the run. That’ll be a major focus this week.”

 

* Pitt is starting Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman for the majority of the season. Early in the year he was sharing time with Chad Voytik, but it appears he’s emerged as the man for the Panthers offense. For Notre Dame fans, can you give us a scouting report? the Irish have struggled getting to the quarterback, and also had some problems in the secondary. Can Peterman exploit those issues? And does he have a true weapon other than Tyler Boyd?

Peterman has been really solid for Pitt after beating out Chad Voytik a few games into the season. He’s been really accurate and hasn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 19 against Iowa. I think Peterman’s biggest strength would be that he really doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, if that makes any sense. He has a solid arm, doesn’t make mistakes, and can run well enough to take advantage if a defense gives him room. The one ding would be that he has a tendency to take too many sacks, but that can sometimes be just as much on the offensive line and receivers as the quarterback.

One dimension Pitt’s offense hasn’t shown yet, though, is the ability to beat teams down the field. Peterman’s longest pass this year is a 41-yarder against Georgia Tech, and the Panthers have generally kept things super, super conservative on offense. I guess there’s a chance things could open up against Notre Dame, but if it didn’t happen against lesser teams, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Panthers’ downfield passing game suddenly coming to life this week.

As for Peterman’s weapons, Dontez Ford and the tight ends (J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff) have emerged as viable options, but Boyd is still the Panthers’ only real threat to make an explosive play on offense. The problem with that is that most of his touches have come on short screens and quick passes short to the line of scrimmage. The coaching staff obviously wants to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, but in doing so they seem to have taken the deep ball out of the equation.

 

* Notre Dame has struggled coming to Pitt for a long time. The noon start was a surprise, and could make for a more tame atmosphere. What do you expect, not just from the Panthers, but from the crowd that’s supporting them?

Yeah, I think it’ll definitely be less raucous than if it was a primetime kickoff. I remember that 2011 game at Heinz Field was a noon kickoff that ended 15-12 and should never be spoken of again. I also expect (as usual) that there will be a healthy Notre Dame presence at Heinz Field. The crowds have gotten a bit better this year as the athletic department has made creating a better atmosphere part of its focus, but Heinz Field still just isn’t a very intimidating college football venue.

If anything, the noon start should help Pitt just because the Panthers are much, much more used to playing at that hour than the Irish are. Pitt has had five of its eight games start at noon, 12:30 or 1, while Notre Dame hasn’t played a noon game (I believe) since the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl. Pitt has been prone to slow starts the last few weeks, but if they can catch Notre Dame sleepwalking a little bit, that’s a good way to hang around in this game.