Notre Dame’s offense made it clear very quickly that it meant business on Saturday afternoon. With most wondering how playing early on the road would impact a team that hasn’t been the same outside of South Bend (and hasn’t had to set an alarm clock to play football in years), DeShone Kizer and company needed just three well-executed plays to announce their intentions.
Two nice gains by C.J. Prosise set the table for Will Fuller to get behind the Pitt secondary. From there, the offense was off and running, Kizer orchestrating the Irish attack like a savvy veteran as Notre Dame dominated Pitt and coasted to the finish for an easier-than-it-sounds 42-30 victory.
There were bumps along the way, most notably on defense. Brian VanGorder’s unit struggled after halftime and gave up big plays to an offense that usually can’t make them. But Kizer and Company bailed them out—continuing to score touchdowns against a Pitt defense that doesn’t usually give them up when opponents get in their red zone.
Garbage time once again hurt the Irish, with Max Redfield mentally checking out and freshman Brandon Wimbush gift-wrapping six points to the Panthers. But in a series where the favorite rarely plays like it, Notre Dame came out crisp and efficiency, looking very much like a dominant football team at a time of year where everybody—especially the College Football Playoff committee—is watching.
Let’s find out what else we learned.
Everybody else knew it, but Pat Narduzzi shouldn’t try to single-cover Will Fuller.
Everybody in the stadium knew about Will Fuller’s big-play ability. But that didn’t stop Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi from playing aggressive, putting his cornerbacks on an island against Fuller early and often as he did his best to turn the Irish one-dimensional.
It didn’t work.
Fuller abused Pitt’s secondary early and often, catching three touchdowns among his seven receptions for 152 yards. He got behind Pitt’s covermen from the beginning, with sophomore Avonte Maddox and senior Lafayette Pitts unable to run with one of college football’s most difficult covers.
Fuller could’ve had an even bigger game. Kizer missed the junior receiver on two throws that also could’ve gone the distance, overthrowing a receiver that not many thought could be missed long. But with the Irish ground game ripping off yardage and Pitt searching for answers, Narduzzi’s gamble blew up, and even after making a few tweaks, he still wasn’t able to find the right formula.
After the game, Narduzzi all but threw up his arms.
“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said, when asked about his scheme to stop Notre Dame’s best receiver. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”
With C.J. Prosise down, Josh Adams stepped up.
Notre Dame awaits word on an injury to running back C.J. Prosise, who left the game near the end of the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Kelly wasn’t quite sure how to classify it when speaking postgame, though he told ESPN’s Todd McShay that the senior is day-to-day.
“It’s one where he’s going to continue to be evaluated,” Kelly said in his postgame comments, according to Nick Ironside of Irish 247. “Shoulder, neck, upper body… He’s doing pretty good right now, but we’ll evaluate and he’ll be a day-to-day situation.”
Prosise is also undergoing concussion protocol. Knocked out of the game after hitting the turf hard, the baton was passed to freshman Josh Adams and he delivered. Adams ran tough, putting together 147 well-earned yards on the afternoon, averaging 7.4 yards per carry on his 20 attempts. He also cashed in a score on a jet sweep—statistically considered a pass—but blocked and run to perfection by Notre Dame.
That effort was enough to earn the rookie the game ball, stepping in for the Irish’s most valuable player and not missing a beat.
“Anytime anyone gets a game ball that means we did well as a team. That’s what’s most important,” Adams said after the game.
A week after Notre Dame’s ground game was stuck in neutral, the Irish took advantage of a Pittsburgh front that showed vulnerability the past few weeks. And Adams’ physical running style deserves a lot of the credit, the freshman getting up field and reading his blocks well. Just another example of “Next Man In” for Brian Kelly.
“We had to call on our depth again today, and he stepped up for us,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame’s red zone offense was wonderful.
Brian Kelly answered a ton of questions about Notre Dame’s red zone struggles during this week’s media availability. But nothing he said in front of a podium spoke as loud as his team’s performance inside Pittsburgh’s 20-yard line.
The Irish were flawless in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on every opportunity they had against a Pitt defense among the stingiest in the country. After spending additional time in practice and taking a big picture approach to the consistency needed by all 11 players on the field, the Irish cashed in by executing perfectly when they needed to do so.
A perfect strike thrown by Kizer to Torii Hunter Jr. was helped by a great playaction fake, a new wrinkle in the playcalling that might as well have been borrowed from Kelly’s friend Bill Belichick. Another perfect strike from Kizer on 3rd-and-9 to Fuller answered Pitt’s score to open the second half.
The ground game had it going, too. It was credited as a touchdown pass, but great blocking allowed Adams to walk in around the right side on an outside sweep. And Kizer’s zone-keeper let him walk into the end zone for the Irish’s final score, the only impact the quarterback made in the ground game a week after carrying the load against Temple.
The Irish went cold for a time in the first half on offense, three straight three-and-outs bogging down the offensive attack. But Notre Dame scored 42 points even while being held to 437 yards, and they have their efficiency to thank.
With Torii Hunter entering the secondary, Brian VanGorder might have found a solution for his nickel defense.
Notre Dame knows it can’t make it through the season without a nickel defense. So Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder called on receiver Torii Hunter to cross-train on defense, with the Irish’s two-sport athlete showing two-way skills on the gridiron as well.
Hunter came into the game in the first half, allowing the Irish to get another athlete on the field in the backend of the defense. He very nearly got involved on a sack as well, blitzing off the edge on a critical third-down stop.
Kelly revealed after the game that the decision to move Hunter had been three weeks in the making. Freshman Nick Coleman also saw some time. With some mental mistakes once again plaguing the Irish on the backend, this group is still in flux. But with three weeks to go, and the Irish needing Romeo Okwara rushing the passer, not dropping into coverage, Hunter looked like a possible solution, one brought on by necessity.
“We couldn’t trade for a nickel,” Kelly cracked after the game.
In control from the beginning, it was just another big Saturday for DeShone Kizer.
It’s not supposed to look this easy. Against one of college football’s best defensive schemers, DeShone Kizer seemed to have every answer.
Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback continues to look like a savvy veteran, not a guy starting his seventh game. Kizer completed 19 of 26 passes, throwing for 262 yards and five touchdowns. That’s the most of any Irish quarterback outside the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, and Kizer very likely could’ve gone for more had he not turned over the keys to freshman Brandon Wimbush with the Irish comfortably ahead 42-17.
It was far from a solo effort. The irish had the ground game rolling and perfect protection from the offensive line. Able to beat Pitt with both the run and the pass, Notre Dame didn’t need Kizer to go out and win the game for them—they need him to facilitate an attack with weapons at every position and up and down the depth chart.
“We needed to be very efficient on offense and we were,” Kelly said. “I think that was the difference today, big plays on offense. Will Fuller, DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams stepping in for us today. I think that was the best performance of our offensive line to date this year. Probably the most consistent performance for four quarters and I think that was the difference today.”
That consistency can only come when the quarterback is operating at a high level. And that’s where Kizer is, just two months of game experience into his college career.
Earlier in the week, Kelly was asked about Kizer’s ability to step in and lead. He said Kizer reminded him of his backup at Cincinnati, Zach Collaros. In 2009, Collaros was called into action after starter Tony Pike went down. The offense didn’t miss a beat, with the then sophomore throwing 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions while Pike was on the mend as the Bearcats rolled to an undefeated regular season.
Notre Dame is three games away from doing something just as special, potentially taking a spot in the College Football Playoff, even after they lost starter Malik Zaire in week two and incumbent Everett Golson after spring practice.
And they’re able to be there thanks to the rapid success of Kizer.