Maybe Saturday’s Irish stress should have always been expected. And yes, this comes from a space that predicted Notre Dame would beat Pittsburgh with no trouble, 49-10. Making expected blowouts competitive is what the Panthers do and what they did in falling 19-14 to the Irish on Saturday.
They beat No. 3 Clemson in 2016 and No. 2 Miami last season. The latter of those, a 24-14 upset, stands out. The Hurricanes rushed for just 61 yards on 19 carries (sacks adjusted), averaging 3.2 yards per rush, and were sacked four times. Pittsburgh controlled the ball for 36:30 and led for 45:17.
Notre Dame rushed for 112 yards on 35 carries, a 3.2 average, and was sacked three times. The Panthers controlled the ball for 33:27 and led for 40:43.
Pittsburgh even used the same game plan. As Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested in last week’s “And In That Corner” …
“Last season’s Miami upset was essentially the recipe for this team and program to win big showdowns. Get a suffocating and opportunistic performance from your defense and use the running game to lighten the load on (quarterback) Kenny Pickett, who can manage the offense and occasionally bust out a splash play with his legs. One constant with [Pittsburgh head coach Pat] Narduzzi’s defenses over the years is they’re going to be aggressive, for better or for worse, and that’s a sword that Pitt often dies by but, once in a blue moon, can be the difference against a superior squad on paper.”
Aside from the thought of Pickett hurting the Irish with his legs, those concepts came to be realities rather accurately. Narduzzi and first-year defensive coordinator Randy Bates schemed their way into two interceptions and essentially removed Notre Dame’s running game, the backbone of its offense.
“Pitt’s plan was to exert a lot of pressure on the running game, and they left themselves vulnerable in the passing game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “Any time you throw it for 80 percent completion, you just have to put more points on the board. That’s where we fell short.
“It wasn’t that we fell short in the running game. We took advantage of their aggressiveness in the running game by, again, hitting 80 percent of our passes and having chances to turn some quick game into some big plays.”
Like Batko expected, Pitt lived by selling out against the run, and then lost when Notre Dame finally took the lead on a 35-yard pass from junior quarterback Ian Book to senior receiver Miles Boykin. Earlier on that same drive, Book had nearly connected with junior receiver Chase Claypool for an 80-yard touchdown, only broken up by a wise decision by Panthers junior cornerback Dane Jackson to interfere.
To be clear, Kelly chalks this up to Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme. He is not worried about the long run — pun intended.
“Nobody in this building, including myself, is concerned about the lack of a running game,” he said. “There are some players that we wish executed better, but they way [the Panthers] were configured and the way they wanted to play this game, it was going to make it difficult to have a sustained running game in this game.”
And perhaps that calm should be remembered. With some time to reflect, Notre Dame’s victory wasn’t that concerning, was it?
Kelly did not hold off much in criticizing sophomore kickoff specialist Jonathan Doerer. Pittsburgh’s Maurice Ffrench’s 99-yard kickoff return touchdown surely could have been stopped with an athletic arm tackle from Irish freshman linebacker Bo Bauer, but it would have been a reach, and, more pertinently, it should never have come to that.
“It’s really kicking the football,” Kelly said. “Our placement has been not where it needs to be. We’re not putting the ball where it needs to be. We’re kicking it down the middle of the field.
“We certainly have to be better in our lane distribution and tackling, but it starts with consistency in kicking.”
Kelly expects Doerer to be sending those kickoffs out the back of the end zone. As long as he isn’t, it keeps alive the possibility of senior Justin Yoon adding kickoffs to his placekicking duties. In 2016, serving both masters wore out Yoon. With only five games remaining this year, perhaps Yoon can manage both.
“He’ll get some rest, and then we’ll evaluate whether giving him both duties is in our best interest,” Kelly said. “We were very hesitant to use him in this game because of potential fatigue.”
SPEAKING OF STRUGGLES AND BENCHINGS
It was hard to miss junior cornerback Donte Vaughn taking to the sideline and freshman TaRiq Bracy making seven tackles in his place, one of which is pictured at the top. It was Vaughn’s inability to tackle, more than his actual pass coverage, that led to the switch.
“They went after him a little bit, trying to mix things up,” Kelly said. “… Bracy is a little bit better guy to work the field than Donte. Donte is much more of a physical player against the run, and so that’s why we made that change.”
Vaughn’s greatest asset is his length, and in the wide half of the field that is less of an advantage as the offensive players have more space to evade him. Bracy’s greatest strength at this point is in man-to-man coverage, and that showed against the Panthers.
Moving forward, Bracy likely remains in the rotation, but the return of junior Troy Pride from a sprained ankle will fill up the field issue, meaning Vaughn can once again simply back up Love on the boundary.
ONE THING ON ONE POSSESSIONS
This weekend was the fourth one-possession victory of the season for the Irish. Eastern Michigan (3-4) laughs at that. The Eagles led 28-3 against Toledo this weekend. Final score? 28-26. That is Eastern Michigan’s sixth consecutive one-possession result and 15th in 18 games.
At least the Eagles keep things interesting.
A CALL FOR AN IDLE WEEK MAILBAG
Notre Dame is 7-0. You didn’t expect that. You have an extra week to think about it. Already have a wondering about the undefeated season? What could come next? What should have already happened? Why the penny is accepted in tool booths in Illinois?
Send it in to email@example.com
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
— No. 5 Notre Dame wins ugly, but ‘a win’s a win’
— Four-star CB Isaiah Rutherford chooses Notre Dame over Pac-12 possibilities
— Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense saves Irish from Pitt-induced lack of ground game
— Pat Narduzzi explains baffling fake punt in Pitt’s loss at Notre Dame
— If these four teams keep winning, they’ll make the College Football Playoff
— Niumatalolo says QB is not the problem with Navy offense
— USC loses LB Porter Gustin to broken ankle
— Ranking college football’s week 7 games by surprising-ness
— On this Alabama team, Tua Tagovailoa isn’t the MVP
— Five of eight undefeated teams play on the road in week 8
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Sam Mustipher said it was not satisfaction. Notre Dame was not exactly content following its 19-14 victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Reaching 7-0 and eventually No. 4 in the polls did not have the Irish inherently pleased.
The mood postgame was something less optimistic, approaching understanding, even knowing. There had not yet been time to assess the nationwide carnage that felled four top-10 teams and three of the remaining Power-Five undefeateds. That scoreboard knowledge would add heft to the rote “It’s hard to win” utterances offered by fifth-year center and captain Mustipher, fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill, and junior quarterback Ian Book.
“I knew what was going to happen,” Mustipher said. “Every time Notre Dame plays Pittsburgh, we’re going to be played tough.”
Following similarly-close wins against Ball State and Vanderbilt in September, the Irish sounded like they had lost. To pull from senior linebacker Te’von Coney after the first of those two instances, Notre Dame had fallen short of its standard.
“We have to be grateful,” Coney said Sept. 8.
The Irish did not feel they had escaped with one this weekend. There was no thanking Pittsburgh, only relief the Panthers were in the past.
“They hung in there and found a way to win,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “It’s college football, hard to win each and every week, and you’re going to have some of these games. They found a way to win.”
That may be the difference. In September’s close calls, the Irish were holding on for victory, both in leading the whole game and in overall approach. On Saturday, Notre Dame came from behind to find a way to win. After trialing for just two-plus minutes in the first six games combined, the Irish lagged for more than 40 this weekend. For the second consecutive week, they managed to stay unbeaten in a way they would not have in most years.
Even if Kelly is now 5-1 against Pittsburgh, this would have fit right in line with the 2013 loss. Instead, it falls below 2012 in the category of close — but oh-so-needed — triumphs.
The rarity of the victory extends past its difficulty and the particular opponent. Notre Dame won without a running game. In Kelly’s eight-plus years, the Irish have run for fewer than these 80 netted yards a total of 12 other times, winning just three of them: 20-17 against Purdue in 2012; 17-13 vs. Michigan State in 2013; and 31-0 over Michigan in 2014. Raise the bar to 100 rushing yards and Kelly is now 7-13 at Notre Dame. (To give some context to that Wolverines outlier, four Michigan turnovers aided the Irish cause in overcoming a paltry 1.7 yards per rush.)
Such a total lack of running game is unlikely to rear its head again this season. It was the lowest ground total since last season’s early loss to Georgia and, excluding hurricane-related events, only the third game under 100 for Notre Dame in the last 47 games. Yet, less rushing success may become a theme. As prolifically efficient as Book has been in his four starts, now leading the country with a completion rate north of 75 percent, the Irish passing game is still seen as the less dynamic weapon to deal with. The Panthers kept seven defenders in the box, only not reaching eight because Notre Dame often had three receivers and senior tight end Alizé Mack on the field.
“I think [offensive coordinator Chip] Long always has confidence in our run,” Mustipher said. “But when you’re playing a defense like that who likes to fill up all the gaps and put seven guys in the box, why would you try to run it?”
When your fifth-year captain and potential All-American center, not to mention to-the-point and borderline gruff, is asking that, you know the defense wholeheartedly sold out to stop the run.
Book played well enough to beat Pittsburgh’s one-dimensional defense, but it was far from a sure thing. That difficulty will only increase with opposing defenses focusing on the Irish offensive line.
Excluding Notre Dame’s final two drives (trying to run out the clock, and then kneeling to do so), it had nine possessions Saturday. Five gained more than 40 yards. What happened on the other four? After all, Book completed 26 of his 32 passes and averaged 8.25 yards per attempt. If forced to pass, it is not like the Irish were not gaining yards in doing so.
“We felt like we were moving,” senior receiver Miles Boykin said. “It was just one or two plays here or there that were stopping us.”
Those four possessions and their crippling factor, in order: A 16-yard sack, an interception, four consecutive rushes combining for four yards, and a rush losing two yards on first down. Book’s second interception, ending a drive of 51 yards, also came as a direct result of not controlling the line of scrimmage, a pass rusher hitting his arm as he released the ball.
Losing fifth-year left guard and captain Alex Bars was always going to matter. It may more than realized. Senior Trevor Ruhland has played well in Bars’ stead, and to a lesser extent, both in quality and in quantity, so has sophomore Aaron Banks. It is not that the drop-off individually is glaring. It is that any extra considerations up front now must first go toward that position rather than toward an extra defender in the box.
But in the end, the stubbornness of the opponent did not matter, the vacuum in the running game did not hold lasting effect, and a surprisingly-impotent offense got an off week reprieve, all because of the same luxury that bailed out the Irish back when senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was struggling to put points on the board.
This Notre Dame defense is next-level good.
The Panthers averaged four yards per play, scored seven offensive points and even running back Qadree Ollison’s best efforts amounted to just 50 yards on 16 rushes. Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea has his unit humming in all directions, thus raising the floor of the season to a level comparable to the two teams directly ahead of Notre Dame in the polls.
During a season in which one recruiting class worth of defensive backs is leading the best Notre Dame secondary in recent history, the No. 5 Irish are setting themselves up for a similar phenomenon a few years down the road. With the Saturday evening commitment of consensus four-star cornerback Isaiah Rutherford (Jesuit High School; Carmichael, Calif.), Notre Dame now has four defensive backs as part of the recruiting class of 2019, with two of them four-star prospects.
A visit for Notre Dame’s season-opening win against Michigan led to Rutherford, the No. 9 cornerback in the country, the No. 14 prospect in California and No. 83 in the country overall per rivals.com, picking the Irish over Oregon and Cal. He also held offers from the likes of Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and USC.
“It was unbelievable,” Rutherford told Blue & Gold Illustrated after his September visit. “It gave me chills a little bit because I’m not used to being around those big crowds. I was really impressed by the whole thing.
“[Defensive coordinator] Clark Lea had them flying around. The cornerbacks, the safeties and everyone was looking really good. I was really impressed by it all.”
The 19th commitment in the class, Rutherford joins rivals.com four-star safety Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.), rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) and consensus four-star safety Kyle Hamilton (Marist; Atlanta).
The quartet will have to match the standard set by Notre Dame’s current juniors, with cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride and safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman setting the tone for a defense that has allowed only 19.5 points per game this season. Pride’s impact, in particular, may have been underscored during the 19-14 Irish victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday in the hours before Rutherford’s commitment. With Pride sidelined by an ankle sprain, Notre Dame’s reserve cornerbacks struggled for significant portions of the afternoon.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Whatever could go wrong for No. 5 Notre Dame largely did Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh. A Panthers kickoff return for a touchdown? Check. An interception created primarily by a Pittsburgh defensive lineman hitting the quarterback as he threw? Check. Two trips to the red zone yielding only field goals? Check.
What went right for the Irish? They won, 19-14.
“We faced adversity today,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “There were a lot of things that didn’t go our way and the team responded. We came out of here with a win. It’s hard to win week to week in college football.
“Pitt has taken a lot of people down over the time I’ve been playing football at Notre Dame.”
Indeed, the Panthers (3-4) have taken down a top-five opponent in each of the last two seasons, and they looked ripe to do it again Saturday using a tried-and-true recipe. They controlled the ball — eating up nearly 10 minutes of first-quarter game clock in marching to their first touchdown — and playing an aggressive defense that stopped the Irish run game in its tracks. Notre Dame (7-0) finished with only 112 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on 35 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per attempt.
“[Pittsburgh] played exactly the way they needed to play to keep this game in the manner that they did,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We still found a way — giving up a kickoff return, throwing two picks and not scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
“If you told me all those things are going to happen and we still found a way to win the football game, I’d be pretty excited.”
Part of Notre Dame’s reduced rushing attack came from hardly having the ball; the Irish had just 10 possessions if not counting the three snaps in victory formation to end the game.
All that meant Notre Dame needed its passing game to bail it out and remain undefeated, reaching 7-0 for the second time under Kelly. Junior quarterback Ian Book completed 26 of his 32 passes for 264 yard and two touchdowns, matched by two interceptions. Somehow, despite completing 81.25 percent of his passes for 8.25 yards per attempt, it felt like a pedestrian day for Book, which speaks to just how well he has played through four starts this season. His two touchdowns in the final 18 minutes — including one with fewer than six minutes remaining to take the lead for the first time of the afternoon — turned an average showing into one that was good enough.
“[Book’s] pocket awareness was not great in the first half,” Kelly said. “Had a nice conversation with him in the second half. He settled down nicely, but I think this is just maturation.”
Whatever it was, it led to a win, a win to keep the Irish without blemish entering their idle week, a win the Panthers had deprived national title contenders of in recent years.
“A win’s a win and these football games happen,” Book said. “There’s no point in freaking out when you have some time on the clock, and we’ve been there before, so we didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
It stood out not only for its game-changing realities, giving Notre Dame its first lead with only 5:43 remaining, but also for how much it differed from Book’s long offerings just a week ago. At Virginia Tech, he routinely, even only, overthrew receivers on deep routes. With the game on the line Saturday, Book connected with senior receiver Miles Boykin for a 35-yard score, the pass itself traveling 40 yards through the air and hitting Boykin in stride hardly a step before the goal line.
“[Boykin is] really rangy, so just got to put it up there and give him a chance,” Book said. “That’s something I was focusing on all week was giving our guys a chance, not overthrowing.”
Book also showed off his arm earlier with a deep crossing route to senior Chris Finke, hitting Finke a couple feet before the sideline and out of reach of a trailing defender for a 26-yard gain, the sole chunk play of Finke’s six catches for 62 yards.
“The Virginia Tech game showed [Book] in a bad light,” said Boykin, who finished with four catches for 84 yards. “Usually he doesn’t overthrow us like that. In practice he’s always on the money. I think it was one bad game, one bad instance, and today he was back on it.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Quarterback hurries are an inexact stat, one measured subjectively and inconsistently. What cannot be gauged inaccurately is the effect junior defensive end Julian Okwara had on the final minutes Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh ran 10 plays while trailing, all at the end of the fourth quarter. Okwara provided pressure on Panthers sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett on half of them, forcing rushed throws, eliminating possible reads and nearly single-handedly ending Pittsburgh’s hopes for dramatics.
“He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable,” Kelly said. “They move their feet. They change their launch point, their eyes drop. Things just make them uncomfortable.”
Unofficially, Okwara was credited with six tackles and seven quarterback hurries, though his one tackle for loss may have been most impressive. With Pittsburgh driving in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame blitzed both inside linebackers up the middle, dropping Okwara into coverage. Pickett connected with running back Darrin Hall in the flat, only to have Okwara immediately tackle him for a loss of three yards on a third down.
“His ability to drop [into] coverage and make a play like that on a running back, he’s a pretty special player,” Kelly said. “He does a lot of things that sometimes don’t show up on the stat sheet, per se, but he’s one dynamic player.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish first found the end zone with a 16-yard Book pass to junior receiver Chase Claypool late in the third quarter. That cut the Panthers lead to 14-12, and Kelly opted to go for two, rolling Book out to target Boykin in the flat. The sharp angle of the throw left little margin for error and a resulting incompletion.
The failed conversion attempt kept the pressure on Notre Dame. It also raised some eyebrows, seemingly early to be chasing those points. Why do it? The math said to.
“The analytics provided us the information that said to go for two in that situation,” Kelly said.
Similar logic led the Irish to consider going for a fourth-and-2 near midfield early in the fourth quarter. After a Pittsburgh timeout, Kelly opted to punt, and fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome sent it for a touchback. Kelly expects to hear from his numbers department about the inefficiency of his own second-quessing.
“I’ll get a note from our analytics people on Monday telling me that I was incorrect and I should have gone for it,” he said. “The sense I had in the game, however, is that they weren’t going to go 80 yards on us, so I was not going to give our defense a short field to operate. So I went against our mathematicians in that situation.”
The Panthers faced a similar decision on the ensuing drive, also opting to punt, also sending it for a touchback. The net 30-yard field position change did not stop Notre Dame from scoring to take the lead, indicating Pittsburgh would have been better served going for the fourth-and-5.
STAT OF THE GAME
Excluding sacks but including scrambles, the Irish ran 35 times Saturday, more than last week at No. 24 Virginia Tech (30) but otherwise a season-low. Kelly thought that run-pass balance should have been even more titled toward Book’s 32 pass attempts (plus three sacks).
Once Notre Dame started taking advantage of the openings in the secondary provided by the Panthers planting a seventh defender in the box, it started moving the ball a bit.
“Started hitting us on some slants,” Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Hitting [Claypool] on the seam in there. We struggled to stop that route in the last couple drives.”
How much more should the Irish have thrown the ball? Quite a bit, per Kelly.
“Maybe we were a little stubborn,” he said. “We should have thrown the ball a little bit more. This should have been maybe 45 to 50 times throwing the football. It was that stark in terms of the pressure that they were putting on the running game today.
“We want to try to stay balanced. We want to try to stay true to who we are. Today, they weren’t going to allow that to happen.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I don’t know a team that’s won the national championship that hasn’t had to come from behind at some point in the season or play in a close game. That happened to be today for us.” — Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill.
1:26 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Qadree Ollison 9-yard run. Alex Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 0. (17 plays, 88 yards, 9:43)
4:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 22 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 44 yards, 3:34)
0:05 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 41 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 6. (12 plays, 42 yards, 3:27)
14:46 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Maurice Ffrench 99-yard kickoff return. Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 6.
2:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 16-yard pass from Ian Book. 2-pt conversion failed. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 12. (8 plays, 71 yards, 2:51)
5:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 35-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 19, Pittsburgh 14. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:43)