Five things we learned: Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21

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After looking like a program that had gotten past the maddening inconsistencies of years gone by, Notre Dame’s 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh awoke all the wrong kinds of echoes on Saturday night. Done in by red zone mishaps and maddening inconsistency, the disappointing loss erased any hope for a BCS bid and ripped at scar tissue that had healed for much of the past two seasons. 

On a windy November evening in Pittsburgh, the Irish took a huge step backwards, playing down to their competition, making critical mistakes on both sides of the ball, and forcing Notre Dame into an off week with a horrible taste in their mouth.

“All losses are disappointing losses,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that was especially disappointing in the way that we played and coached.”

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Pitt’s 28-21 upset of Notre Dame.

After playing steady football for most of the season, two horrible passes by Tommy Rees doomed the Irish. 

For most of the season, Tommy Rees has played solid football, putting together stats that sat bizarrely high on national leaderboards for a player so loathed by a fairly vocal sector of Irish fans. But on Saturday night, Rees made two catastrophic fourth quarter mistakes, throwing an end zone interception on 2nd and Goal before floating a pass high over Troy Niklas’ head on his very next passing attempt.

The first pass took points off the board for the Irish. The second all but put them up for Pitt, with Ray Vinopal returning his second straight interception to the Irish 5-yard line. 

“My fault. Bad decision. Bad throws,” Rees said after the game. “You’ve got to be smarter than that and you’ve got to get us out of a play. Those are on me.”

The maddening inconsistencies that Rees seemed to have eliminated lately came back at the worst time for the Irish, especially after starting the second half seven of ten, including a perfect strike on an 80-yard touchdown pass to TJ Jones.

Rees’s accuracy was an issue for much of the night, completing just 18 of 38 passes on the night. While he racked up 318 yards and hit on a handful of long completions, Rees missed receivers all night, throwing some balls late and into coverages that the senior has avoided this season.

Lined up inside the Pitt 5-yard line, you could question the decision to roll Rees to his right, turning an already congested area into a half-field read. But Rees has played too much football to loft a pass to the back of the end zone, a mistake he owned up to in a difficult postgame interview session with reporters.

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A week after starring against Navy, freshman Tarean Folston got lost in the shuffle. 

Tarean Folston scorched Navy for 140 yards last week. He disappeared against Pitt, getting just four carries on Saturday night. The Irish failed to get in any rhythm offensively against Pitt, piecemealing together a running game that featured long runs by George Atkinson and TJ Jones, but was otherwise mediocre against Pitt’s undersized front seven.

Brian Kelly talked about the game plan for running the football, a perimeter driven attack as the Irish tried to stay away from Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and why he chose to give carries to Atkinson instead of Folston.

“There were a couple of times where we felt like George gave us a better opportunity in there because of the kind of runs,” Kelly explained. “We were trying to get the ball on the perimeter. George is a guy that we like when the game is a perimeter game, it fits George’s skill-set, so that’s why you saw him in the game more.”

Atkinson ran for 57 yards on just six carries, breaking a big run around the edge on a quick pitch. But Notre Dame gave nine carries to Cam McDaniel as well, who was completely ineffective with just 22 yards. For those hoping that Folston’s breakout game would rid the Irish from a committee-based approach, it didn’t. Now the Irish head into an off-week trying to answer some tough questions about a ground game that averaged over five yards a carry, but had no identity whatsoever.

For those looking to point fingers at playcalling, especially in the second half, the Irish only ran the ball six times in the game’s final two quarters, gaining a whopping ten yards.

***

With a defense already gutted by injuries, the ejection of Stephon Tuitt was a death-blow to the front seven. 

So much for having the starting trio of Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day back together. The group barely lasted a quarter, with the Irish losing Tuitt to ejection after the junior defensive end was flagged for targeting after a helmet-to-helmet collision with Pitt quarterback Tom Savage.

The call was a difficult one to understand, considering Savage dropped the crown of his own helmet as he tried to scramble for a first down. (So was the subsequent replay review, which confirmed the ejection.) But the result was more playing time for unproven reserves like Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones, and Isaac Rochell, and a Pitt offense that wore out the Irish defense, possessing the ball for over 36 minutes.

The loss of Tuitt forced the Irish into some emergency plans. Linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Romeo Okwara at one point played on the interior of the defensive line in some pass rush looks. But Kelly didn’t lean on the ejection — or the questionable pass interference call against Bennett Jackson (both penalties extended drives that ended in touchdowns) — after the game. 

“Stephon Tuitt not playing in the game, that’s not why we lost this football game,” Kelly said. “That is not why we lost this football game. It had nothing to do with this loss tonight.”

***

After peaking each season in November, the Irish’s self-inflicted collapse is all the more confusing. 

Brian Kelly has gotten a lot out of his teams in the month of November. Perhaps that’s what makes this loss so difficult to comprehend, with the mediocre play of the Irish coming out of nowhere.

Many will put this loss on the shoulders of Tommy Rees, but the reality is that there’s plenty of blame to spread around. TJ Jones coughed up a football inside the Pitt 10-yard line. Devin Street got loose in the Irish secondary. And after Prince Shembo strip-sacked Tom Savage, multiple Irish defenders watched a football bounce free and fail to capitalize on a game-changing play sitting right in front of them.

Those are mistakes that just haven’t happened in Kelly’s four seasons in South Bend.

“This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense,” Kelly said. “Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired. That’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight. I’m responsible for that. That didn’t happen tonight.”

With a week off before Senior Day against BYU, it’ll be interesting to see what tactics Kelly uses with his team. The scenario of fighting their way into the BCS is gone. Injuries have taken this defense to a critical place. And young players should be given every opportunity to challenge underperforming veterans with little but pride on the line.

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Irish BCS dreams may have fallen dead with a thud tonight, but this senior class will be defined by how they finish the season. 

In the ultimate jinx, I wrote about the potential for the Irish to get to eight wins against Pitt, making it four consecutive seasons reaching that threshold, not accomplished since 1993. That eighth win looks a lot more elusive now, with BYU likely challenging a weakened Irish front and Stanford again looking like one of the elite teams in college football.

The Irish bowl options are a mess. They’ll likely need to wait and see how the dust settles, hoping that either the Big Ten or Big 12 leave some vacancies, or else it could be Christmas in Detroit. Add into the scheduling factor final exams, not scheduled to end until December 20. That could provide another wild card in bowl scheduling, Jack Swarbrick hinted to the South Bend Tribune.

(Another wrinkle in all of this is how the early bowl game effects Everett Golson’s return. A January date would’ve given Golson more time with the team after his return, a date rumored to be sometime in early-to-mid-December.)

But bowl discussions can wait. There are still two very important games left for this team, including an emotional final home game for a senior class that’s been through a lot at Notre Dame. After the game, Tommy Rees talked about the importance of turning the page after a bitter loss and preparing for BYU.

“I don’t know how else to say it, it’s a tough feeling,” Rees said after the game. “We’ve got to regroup, we’ve got to come back as a team, and come back for each other.

“We play for each other. We play for our pride. As seniors, we’ve only got a couple games left here. We play for one another, we play for the university, our coaches. We really just rally as a group and get ready to play.” 

A BCS bid is no longer an option. But beating BYU and taking a shot at Stanford in Palo Alto should be enough to keep this team together. Unfortunately that’s all that’s left right now, consolation prizes after a disappointing and shocking defeat.