Quick start, strong defense make Notre Dame too much for Michigan

35 Comments

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A year ago, a last-minute strip-sack sealed Notre Dame’s first loss of the season. This time, the No. 12 Irish benefited from such dramatics to clinch a 24-17 victory over No. 14 Michigan.

Junior defensive end Khalid Kareem’s first sack came late in the first quarter. From that point on, it was inevitable he would be a part of another one, based on what he learned on that 16-yard loss. He had timed the Wolverines’ snap count. With less than a minute left in the game, Kareem recognized the count once more, timed his release accordingly, and looped around senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s intial pressure. Kareem beat his blocker and forced Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson up into the awaiting Tillery, who knocked the ball loose; senior linebacker Te’von Coney recovered to effectively end the game.

“I was getting a rhythm with their snap count,” Kareem said, describing it as two claps from Patterson to alert center Cesar Ruiz to start the count, a drop of the head by Ruiz, a brief pause and then the snap. “… I got a good jump on the ball, beat the tackle, made the play.”

As much as the Irish offense set the tone early with two touchdowns in the first eight minutes, it was defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit that controlled Saturday night. In his first game calling the shots, Lea’s defense allowed only 90 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on an even 3.0 yards per rush. Through three quarters, the Wolverines had managed 178 total yards and converted just 3-of-9 third downs. It took desperate measures for Michigan’s offense to finally find traction in the fourth quarter, with Patterson completing 6-of-8 passes for 80 yards in the final frame.

“We have to have that kind of (defensive) depth,” Kelly said. “We’re not generally going to get that one singular star player, but we can develop depth in our group and have that kind of defensive structure where we roll out a lot of really good football players.”

The Wolverines needed to take to the air because Notre Dame started so strongly. In his first career start, sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong took his second career carry 13 yards to the end zone fewer than 90 seconds after the opening kickoff.

On the next Irish possession, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush connected with senior receiver Chris Finke for a 43-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Another Armstrong touchdown in the second quarter made it 21-3 before Michigan’s Ambry Thomas returned the subsequent kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. The Wolverines would not score again until barely two minutes remained. An Irish three-and-out to follow seemed to offer hope for the maize-and-blue, until Kareem, Tillery and Coney counted otherwise.

“When you feel really good about the physicality of your football team, the offensive line and defensive line,” Kelly said, “your quarterback is a spark, and on the perimeter we won some 50/50 battles, that’s a pretty good football team.

“So I think we’ve got a pretty good football team.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan began the second half with anything resembling efficiency. Wimbush overthrew junior receiver Chase Claypool and instead found Wolverines cornerback Brandon Watson’s breadbasket.  The next Irish drive was the truest of three-and-outs, gaining no yards before a punt. Michigan, meanwhile, twice turned the ball over on downs before at least pondering field position with a punt after its own three-and-out.

Combined, the two bumbling offenses turned the first 19 offensive snaps of the third quarter into all of 59 yards. Then, Wolverines linebacker Devin Bush sacked Wimbush for a 10-yard loss to bring up third-and-18. The offensive ineptitude seemed primed to persist. Instead, the sack seemed to refocus Wimbush.

“I didn’t think we had enough energy coming out of halftime,” he said. “Somebody needed to change that.”

When Notre Dame needed a big play Saturday night against Michigan’s highly-considered defense, it was usually Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush providing the spark. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Wimbush took that third-down snap and immediately took it up the middle on a designed quarterback draw for 22 yards. Two plays later, he avoided two potential sacks, wheeled into some open space and found a wide open Claypool along the sideline for 19 yards. Two rushes from junior Tony Jones later, Wimbush appeared to throw an over-the-shoulder touchdown to senior receiver Miles Boykin, only for a penalty to wipe out the highlight-reel score. That led to a 48-yard field goal from senior Justin Yoon.

“I just felt we were backed up a little bit too often,” Wimbush said. “That was on my mind, but every time you get into a third-and-long situation, you have to be smart. Obviously, you want to make a great play. I think the offensive line, on the quarterback draw, did a great job of opening it up.”

That may seem to be an anti-climatic conclusion, a field goal to raise the lead to 24-10. In many ways, it was. But Wimbush’s response to Bush’s sack led Notre Dame down the field for the only time in the second half. Of the 69 Irish yards after halftime, 41 came on that drive. If not using the sack to draw from his stats, Wimbush accounted for 43 yards, missing out on 26 more due to that ineligible man downfield flag.

“He played with an edge to him,” Kelly said. “A confidence. He got the game ball tonight. He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s roster lists senior receiver Chris Finke at 5-foot-9 ½ and 180 pounds. Michigan’s puts sophomore defensive back Brad Hawkins at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds. There is no situation in which Finke should be able to jump over Hawkins and take what appears to be a sure interception and turn it into a touchdown. Yet, he did.

It would have been a tough snag by Hawkins, needing to read both Finke’s route and Wimbush’s throw perfectly and make a catch in traffic. It was an even more impressive score from the former walk-on.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Armstrong deserves mention. His debut was inarguably solid. Kareem’s day stands out even more, though. It is only amplified when briefly wondering if the entire defensive line warranted this nominal honor. Consider: Of the line’s 15 tackles, Kareem made eight. Of the line’s 3.5 tackles for loss, Kareem made 1.5 of them, and he combined with Tillery to force that fitting coda of a fumble.

Michigan’s offense spun its wheels for 54 minutes. Patterson was pressured six times total. The Wolverines gained 10 yards on a run just once. Kareem’s development against the run helped set that edge, becoming more of a complete player in the last nine months, knowing that role was awaiting him.

“As long as I go out there and do my job, I feel like I can be the best in the country,” Kareem said in what was actually a modest tone.

STAT OF THE GAME
Wimbush completed 12-of-22 passes for 170 yards with both a touchdown and an interception. Adjusting for sacks, he ran for 77 yards on 17 carries, an average of 4.53 yards per rush. It was not an inherently-explosive performance, but it included big plays both through the air (that Finke touchdown) and on the ground (the third-and-18 conversion). Seven of his 12 completions went for first downs. He rushed for five more.

Counting Armstrong’s four-yard score, the Irish had 22 first downs. Wimbush accounted for 12 of them.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Brian Kelly: “Our last two games that we’ve played, we’ve beaten really good defenses and really good personnel in close games, and winning close games against really good football teams, that usually lends itself to you’ve probably got a pretty good football program and keep building it and keep recruiting and keep a healthy culture and organization.

“You should be having the kind of atmosphere we had tonight. Wasn’t that cool? That was as good as I can remember.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
13:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 13-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 75 yards, 1:25)
7:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 43-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 96 yards, 3:07)

Second Quarter
11:32 — Michigan field goal. Quinn Nordin 28 yards. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 3. (11 plays, 31 yards, 4:30)
3:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Armstrong 4-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 3.
3:41 — Michigan touchdown. Ambry Thomas 99-yard kickoff return. Nordin PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 10.

Third Quarter
3:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 48 yards. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 10.

Fourth Quarter
2:18 — Michigan touchdown. Karan Higdon 3-yard run. Quinn PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 17. (7 plays, 80 yards, 2:49)

Refreshing Notre Dame’s Playoff possibilities

12 Comments

For an old drinking buddy, Curtis missed the implied message when his first two texts went without response for nearly two hours. The delayed two-word reply somehow convinced him to send seven more in rapid succession.

“So what is the best loss Notre Dame could have knock it out of the Playoff and avoid getting embarrassed by Bama?”

I had not even read that text when my phone buzzed again.

“I hate that it’s probably USC. … To get that close and lose it would hurt, even if it’s the logical move to have an actually satisfying ending to the season.”

He soon pondered a loss to Syracuse, then to Northwestern, and finally to Navy, all in the span of seven minutes. Willie Taggart does not garner enough respect to even consider Florida State in a moment of what had to have been Monday-induced optimistic cynicism..

To be honest, I am still not clear on Curtis’ concept of a “best loss,” but he is not the first Irish fan I have heard take the pragmatic view of finding a fate that allows No. 4 Notre Dame to avoid Alabama in the postseason. This may be the best the Irish have looked in decades, but the same can be said about the Tide, and the latter of those two thoughts is a far more powerful statement. How “satisfying” would it be to lose to Alabama 42-14 again? Those overreactions would write themselves.

If I had offered Curtis more than two words in replies — “Define best” — they would have gone something like this …

“This isn’t the usual Navy. Something has gone wrong this year, and I haven’t done the deep dive yet on what. Could an eight-possessions apiece game get flukey? Sure, but that may require a three-interception day from Ian Book AND a special teams score for the Midshipmen.”

“There is some requisite respect for Florida State’s raw talent — 67 percent Blue-Chip Ratio this season, fifth-highest in the country — but that offensive line is such a sieve.”

“Northwestern cannot run the ball. At all. Which means Notre Dame will trot out its dime package pass rush — when Khalid Kareem moves inside and Daelin Hayes joins Julian Okwara on the ends — to notch a Brian Kelly-era record of seven sacks.”

And then the tone would have shifted. It still remains more likely than not Notre Dame loses a game this season. Going by ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Irish have a 64.51 percent chance of winning their next three, but only a 51.02 percent chance of beating both Syracuse and USC. S&P+ numbers set those odds at 63.23 percent and 48.36 percent, respectively.

Curtis, if Notre Dame is going to lose this season, it will likely be in mid-November. As an Irish fan seemingly content with that result — again, if forced to choose between a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma or an Orange Bowl humiliation at the hands of Alabama, your logic merits consideration — the question you have to ask yourself is, would you rather spend your offseason griping about the unnecessary travel to face Syracuse or ruing the thought of two or three more years of JT Daniels connecting with Amon-Ra St. Brown?

For context on those two games:
FPI: Notre Dame has a 77.9 percent chance against Syracuse, 65.5 percent at USC.
S&P+: The Irish have a 78 percent chance against the Orange, 62 percent facing the Trojans. The Yankee Stadium contest currently has a projected margin of 13.6 points, while the Coliseum would see a game within 5.1 points, per S&P+.

Now let’s revisit the viable College Football Playoff scenarios after a weekend in which three Power-Five undefeateds lost, four top-10 teams fell and the maximum number of Power Fives to end the year unbeaten dropped to four …

THE OBVIOUS: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame all finish the year undefeated. The only possible aggrieved party would be Central Florida if it finishes a second consecutive season unblemished. While the Knights would deserve to push whatever narrative they want, they still would not make the College Football Playoff.

THE SEC STRESS: Tide sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is dealing with a sprained knee of some magnitude. If, hypothetically, that sidelined him against LSU or Georgia and Alabama lost, the selection committee has already granted entry to a team with that kind of an asterisk on its résumé, Clemson in 2016. Both Alabama and LSU or Georgia would be in position to make the Playoff, and that conversation would focus on leaving out either Clemson or Notre Dame.

It would remain untenable for the first excluded undefeated Power Five team to be the only one that does not require a conference to be considered “Power Five,” but that debate would at least be had.

WHAT ABOUT WITH A LOSS? Someone may yet come out of the Big 12 with just one misstep, be it Texas, Oklahoma or West Virginia. That team would have faced a notably more difficult schedule than the Irish, and would likely get in ahead of Notre Dame. The aforementioned SEC possibility would also come at the expense of the Irish at 11-1, if it came to that.

THE UNSATISFYING ONE-LOSS NIGHTMARE: Let’s keep calm across the country except in one specific tri-state area. If the season ended with a controversial Michigan victory at Ohio State and Notre Dame lost a tight game at USC, then the effects of time could put the 12-1 Wolverines into the Playoff ahead of the 11-1 Irish, all while the Buckeyes stage protests over the blown call that cost them the game.

Even Curtis would not handle that outcry well.

IT’S NOTRE DAME’S OFF WEEK …
And yours truly is strongly considering answering every question that shows up in the inbox at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Maybe they aren’t quite as bad as thought?

Getty Images
5 Comments

Recency bias works both ways. Just two weeks ago, looking at Notre Dame’s schedule was largely accompanied by some chuckling. Continued winning from Michigan, a rebound from Virginia Tech and quick 2-0 stretches from both Northwestern and USC now make the Irish calendar appear a bit more formidable than not at all.

That is, of course, in part an immediate response to the Wolverines topping No. 15 Wisconsin, the Wildcats upsetting then-No. 20 Michigan State a week ago and USC ending the unbeaten streak of No. 19 Colorado.

Michigan (6-1): The Wolverines rose to No. 6 in the AP poll thanks to a 38-13 rout of the Badgers. Considering one Wisconsin touchdown came in garbage time and Michigan never trailed, even that score is closer than the game actually was. The Badgers managed all of 283 total yards, holding onto the ball for a mere 22:59.

These types of losses do not happen to Wisconsin often.

The Wolverines hardly get a break, though, now traveling to No. 24 Michigan State (12 ET; FOX) as touchdown favorites with a combined point total over/under of 43. Rather than rehash the stats pertaining to Michigan going on the road against ranked opponents in the last decade, let’s trot out a new one courtesy of ESPN’s Dan Murphy: Since 2009, the Wolverines have gone 45-8 before facing the Spartans, but are 25-29 after the matchup. There is some scheduling noise to that discrepancy, but it stands out, nonetheless.

Ball St. (3-4): A 36-yard field goal with 47 seconds remaining gave the Cardinals a 24-23 victory against Central Michigan. The last-minute heroics capped off a 17-3 fourth quarter for Ball State.

This weekend should feature another one-possession game for the Cardinals, but that is largely a reflection of their upcoming opponent. Eastern Michigan (3 ET; ESPN+) has played in six consecutive one-possession games and is favored by three with an over/under of 51.5. Given the Eagles’ experience in such situations, perhaps differ to them in the presumed 27-24 conclusion.

Things escalated in Vanderbilt’s loss to Florida to the extent that Commodores head coach Derek Mason (center) could barely keep his team from taking to the Gators’ sideline. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Vanderbilt (3-4): The Commodores lost 37-27 against Florida, but the story was about the coaches, not the game. Derek Mason and Dan Mullen got into a heated shouting match shortly after a Gator was ejected for targeting. The SEC opted to handle the situation behind closed doors, but it was not a good look for anyone involved and is the second time this year Mason has exchanged barbs with an opposing coach, even if his banter with Brian Kelly came days after their game.

Vanderbilt now heads to Kentucky (7:30 ET; SEC Network) to face one of the country’s top defenses — don’t laugh, it’s true; S&P+ considers the Wildcats to be the No. 2 defense in the country, behind only Michigan’s. As 11-point favorites with an over/under of 48.5, the math suggests Kentucky to give up 19 to the ‘Dores. That feels ambitious.

Wake Forest (3-3): After an idle week, the Deacons have the treat of traveling to Florida State (3:30 ET; ESPN2) as 10.5-point underdogs. With an over/under of 60, at least a 35-25 result would be entertaining.

Stanford (4-2): Stanford’s idle week sets the Cardinal up for two breaks. A Thursday trip to Arizona State (9 ET; ESPN) will make for another long week following. In order to avoid another stretch of regretting a loss, Stanford will need to make good on the bookmakers’ expectations of favoring the road team by 2.5 in a 28-26 contest.

Virginia Tech (4-2): The good news: The Hokies beat North Carolina 22-19 to become one of two teams in the ACC at 3-0 with Clemson the other.

The bad news: Virginia Tech needed a one-yard Ryan Willis touchdown pass with 19 seconds to top Larry Fedora’s debacle. The Hokies gave up 522 total yards to the Tar Heels, who average 406.6. In many ways, this victory was more confounding than Virginia Tech’s three-score loss to Notre Dame.

But at least the Hokies enter their idle week with a win.

Pittsburgh (3-4): The Panthers will not have that luxury. For what it’s worth, Pittsburgh is 1-2 in the games after idle weeks under Pat Narduzzi’s watch, including a 31-34 loss to North Carolina last season when the Panthers were favored by nine points.

Navy (2-4): Things may be going from bad to worse for the Midshipmen. A 24-17 loss to Temple all but ends Navy’s hopes of going bowling this year, which will be only the second time it has missed out on postseason play since 2002. The Midshipmen were outgained 209 yards to 284 and converted only 5 of 13 third downs.

Want the real shocker? Navy attempted 11 passes, turning to senior quarterback Garrett Lewis to try and spark the offense. He took 12 carries for 56 yards and one touchdown.

The Midshipmen are now 12.5-point underdogs against Houston (3:30 ET; CBSSN). The over/under of 60.5 indicates Navy should manage 24 points.

Northwestern (3-3): The Wildcats are not playing well, yet they are 3-1 in the Big Ten, the only loss coming to Michigan after Northwestern snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This week’s 34-31 overtime win against Nebraska should never have been that close, but the Wildcats’ complete and utter lack of a run game makes the offense obtusely one-dimensional. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted 64 passes, completing 41 of them for 455 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. Meanwhile, 19 handoffs amounted to 39 yards with a long of eight.

Maybe Northwestern can find a ground game at Rutgers (12 ET; Big Ten Network), favored by 20.5 points with an over/under of 49. A 34-14 rout would go a long way toward establishing some semblance of momentum for the Wildcats.

Florida State (3-4): The Seminoles could return to .500 if they see through bookmakers’ thoughts against Wake Forest. Any ACC hopes of glory have long since passed, but this would at least be a return to respectability.

Syracuse (4-2): Who gets Larry Fedora next? The Orange do, favored by 9.5 against North Carolina (12:20 ET) with an over/under of 65. There may be many more points than that.

Trojans freshman quarterback JT Daniels went 18-of-35 for 283 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions, in a 31-20 victory against previously-unbeaten Colorado. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

USC (4-2): The Trojans gave up 14 points in competitive time and 265 total yards while forcing three turnovers. That led to a 31-20 victory against the Buffaloes and kept USC in the driver’s seat in the chaotic Pac-12 South.

That could change quickly with a loss at Utah (8 ET; Pac 12 Network), where the Trojans are 6.5-point underdogs. An over/under of 49 suggests a 28-21 dose of anarchy into the Pac-12 South Stew.

Thursday 9 p.m. ET: Stanford at Arizona State on ESPN.
Saturday 12 p.m. ET: Michigan at Michigan State on FOX; Northwestern at Rutgers on Big Ten Network.
12:20 p.m. ET: Syracuse vs. North Carolina.
3 ET: Ball State vs. Eastern Michigan.
3:30 ET: Wake Forest at Florida State on ESPN3; Navy vs. Houston on CBS SN.
7:30 ET: Vanderbilt at Kentucky on SEC Network.
8 ET: USC at Utah

Favorites: Michigan -7; Stanford -2.5; Northwestern -20.5; Florida State -10.5; Syracuse -9.5.
Underdogs: Ball State +3; Vanderbilt +11; Wake Forest +10.5; Navy +12.5; USC +6.5.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s stressful weekend was inevitable; kicking woes were not

Getty Images
24 Comments

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?

ON KICKOFFS
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 insidetheirish@gmail.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

OUTSIDE READING
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

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense saves Irish from Pitt-induced lack of ground game

43 Comments

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.”

Maybe Irish junior quarterback Ian Book should have gotten rid of the ball sooner on this third-quarter interception during Notre Dame’s 19-14 win against Pittsburgh on Saturday, but Panthers defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman breaking through the offensive line forced the interception more than anything else. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

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.