Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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On an Irish schedule that’s seen its share of change these past two years, not many people on the Notre Dame side of the tracks view the game against Pitt as a rivalry. But that’s not to say it isn’t a unique game. Nor can you say that there’s a lack of familiarity between these two programs.

This will be meeting No. 70 between the two programs, a matchup that dates back to 1909. So before stainless steel, the Titanic, and even the Oreo cookie, there was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh doing battle on the football field.

Pitt understands the gravity of this matchup. And with a natural rivalry against Penn State nonexistent, the Panthers always circle the Irish on the schedule, relishing the fact that the feeling isn’t always reciprocated.

Saturday’s game has the opportunity for another maximum impact matchup. The Panthers are still alive in the Coastal division race of the ACC, a two-loss season already feeling like a success for first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 5 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff poll, their inclusion in the Big Dance in the crosshairs. With the Irish already in the Steel City readying for an early start, they can expect a Panthers team that isn’t just playing gate-crasher, they’re still looking to make their mark and play for a conference title.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. On a weekend that always seems to fly below the radar, there’s a high likelihood we are in for another interesting Saturday.

 

Forget about what the point spread says—history tells us this will be close. 

The last time Notre Dame won easily against Pitt, we still weren’t really sure how to pronounce Jeff Samardzija’s name. It was the coming-out party for Charlie Weis’s 2005 football team, when the Irish offense blitzed Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers and cruised to a 42-21 victory.

But since then, this game has been a nail-biter. The next six games have all been close. It’s a series that’s split the past eight contests and stayed within one score in nine of the past ten matchups, including multiple overtime battles in 2008 (Pitt won) and 2012 (the Irish escaped).

So much has changed inside the Pitt program since that meeting in 2005. Wannstedt was replaced briefly by Mike Haywood, who never coached a game before being replaced by Todd Graham. Graham didn’t make it a calendar year before he bolted for Tempe and was replaced by Paul Chryst, who left to coach Wisconsin last offseason, clearing the way for Narduzzi.

But even amidst the coaching turmoil and changes on the roster, this game has been a close one. So even with the Irish favored by nearly double-digits and the Panthers coming off a disappointing loss to North Carolina, expect a tight football game.

One possible solution for the close-game blues? Call Ara Parseghian. The former Irish coach beat Pitt all 11 times he played them, winning on average by a score of 42-9.

 

 

Tyler Boyd needs 49 yards to become Pitt’s all-time receiving leader. Notre Dame needs to make sure he doesn’t get them all in one play.

Brian Kelly deemed Tyler Boyd the latest “game-wrecker” that the Irish will have to face this season. And the veteran Pittsburgh receiver has earned that title, one of the best receivers in college football, even as the Pitt passing game still sorts itself out.

Boyd’s consistency and game-breaking ability have him ready to pass Antonio Bryant as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, needing just 49 yards to do it. And as the only big-play threat in the Pitt offense with James Connor’s season erased in week one, expect to see the achievement happen Saturday, even if he’s locked up in battle with KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame needs to make sure it doesn’t happen on one play. We’re in for an interesting battle on Saturday—a Pitt offense that struggles to make an explosive play and a Notre Dame defense that can’t seem to stop allowing them.

So while Boyd’s yards per catch is down to just 9.3 per touch, he’s the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver, nearly quadrupling the next closest pass catcher with 63 receptions on the season. An explosive player in space and also on special teams, Notre Dame needs to tackle cleanly and make sure they limit the damage Boyd does after the ball gets in his hands.

 

On the road and starting early. How the Irish adjust will be critical to success. 

Notre Dame hasn’t had a game start this early in the regular season since the Irish traveled to Pitt in 2011, winning an ugly slugfest 15-12. So to help adjust for the early start time, Kelly and the Irish brass decided to get out of town early, flying out Thursday night to help acclimate for the new schedule by going through a dress rehearsal on Friday.

Kelly talked about the decision to leave Thursday, and the thought process behind it.

“This will be the first time that we’ve used this type of schedule. We want to be able to duplicate Saturday’s schedule,” Kelly explained. “We took out some of our periods from practice today and we’ll include those tomorrow… to again get them used to a duplicate schedule on Friday and Saturday.”

UND.com’s Curt Rallo wrote about the logistics behind the decision, and some of the challenges that came along with it. Finding the hotel rooms was the first big one—Notre Dame needed 100 rooms for Thursday night. Then came booking the plane.

Now comes playing a dominant, mistake-free football game away from Notre Dame Stadium. That’s easier said than done.

 

Narduzzi’s defense will want to stuff the run. Whether they can do it is another story. 

Pat Narduzzi built his reputation playing an aggressive brand of defense, dominating at the line of scrimmage and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. The first-year head coach has done a nice job implementing that style at Pittsburgh, even as he builds the necessary personnel to do it.

Expect Narduzzi to sellout to stuff the run, unwilling to let C.J. Prosise beat the Panthers from the backfield. But unlike the job Clemson and Temple did, whether or not Pitt is able to do so remains to be seen.

Pitt is a respectable 36th in the country against the run. But the past two weeks have shown cracks in the foundation, with Syracuse and North Carolina both able to be productive on the ground.

In Pitt’s 23-20 comeback win over the Orange, two big runs allowed Syracuse to average 5.9 yards per carry. North Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry in their 26-19 win, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before riding former Notre Dame commitment Elijah Hood in the second half.

Notre Dame’s ability to run the football comes down to the play of the offensive line. Last week, the Irish struggled with missed assignments—and a stacked box—and couldn’t get the ground game off the runway. This week, it’ll be a challenge, but Kelly believes that the offensive line can find success against Narduzzi’s defense, but only if they play more consistent football.

“What we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Eliminating penalties. And that one missed assignment seems to always come at the most inopportune time. If those two things, if we can eradicate those on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line to having a big day.”

Pitt’s pass rush has struggled to get to the quarterback the past few weeks, leaving the secondary susceptible as Narduzzi sends blitzers. That’s a chance to make big plays on both the ground and through the air if the offensive line can hold up.

 

Jaylon Smith has played great football. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff is challenging him to elevate everybody else’s play, too. 

One of the more fascinating exchanges on this week’s “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime was the interactions between defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s leading tackler and junior captain was challenged by his coach to elevate his teammates’ play—something VanGorder hasn’t necessarily seen out of the star linebacker.

That’s an interesting piece of Smith’s development. Not just as a leader, where Smith acknowledged he wasn’t necessarily comfortable acting like someone he wasn’t, but as a football player, making sure all boats rise with him, to borrow (or butcher) a metaphor Kelly has used in the past.

Smith might be playing his final four regular season games as a college football player, a decision you couldn’t fault if he’ll be a first-round draft pick and one of the first linebackers selected in the NFL Draft. But Kelly talked about the challenge to Smith and how he expects him to respond to it, regardless of the future.

“Leadership for Jaylon has been one where he has led by example and we don’t think that’s enough to be a great leader,” Kelly explained. “We think that you have to be somebody that is interactive if you will. He has to be teaching and communicating. It has to be more than just actions. We know about his actions, they’re phenomenal. You just watch him play, that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys and I think that’s the point that we wanted to make with him. And he took it to heart.”

Smith’s “communication” doesn’t necessarily have to be in the former of mentorship, like we saw with freshman linebacker Te’von Coney on Showtime. It needs to be demanding more accountability from his teammates on the field, whether that be the situational contributors or fellow captain Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s quiet leadership style isn’t too far off from what Sheldon Day was last year, and we’ve seen the senior evolve into a more vocal leader as his play also took a huge leap forward this season. If this November is the one the Irish expect to have, Smith needs to demand better from a defense that can’t seem to shake their inconsistency.

 

Red Zone efficiency is key. 

If you’re looking for one thing to improve this week it’s Notre Dame’s red zone play on offense. The Irish have a unit averaging 495 yards a game, the best of the Kelly era. And while the 36.5 points a game is also the best of Kelly’s time in South Bend, that number could be so much better if Notre Dame did a better job finishing drives.

Notre Dame is 100th in the country converting red zone opportunities, scoring on just 79 precent of their chances. They’re only slightly better getting touchdowns, 85th in the country with a 58 percent rate.

The good news? Pitt’s red zone defense is the worst in the country statistically. The Panthers have yet to stop an opponent once they get inside the 20-yard-line, No. 128 out of 128.

But that stat is incredibly misleading. The Panthers have been much better at not giving up touchdowns—they jump to No. 22 in the country when you look at their ability to hold teams to a field goal, basically the inverse of an Irish defense that’s 27th in red zone scoring but 93rd in giving up touchdowns.

Kelly talked earlier this week about the importance of the red zone, not just from quarterback DeShone Kizer eliminating the mistakes that plagued the offense against Pittsburgh, but the need for everybody to do their jobs when they get in the scoring areas.

“Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

“We’ll take some extra time this week. We’ve done some more self-scouting in terms of play calling, what we’re doing down there. But I think at the end of the day execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

That extra time came on Thursday, with the Irish working short yardage running and their playcalling inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Now they need to take a step forward, cashing in when they have the chance to beat a team, opportunities they missed against Virginia, USC and Temple.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.