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Things We Learned: No. 5 Notre Dame’s best yet to be seen

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BLACKSBURG, Va. — Notre Dame was here a year ago. The last time the Irish beat ranked opponents in back-to-back weeks? 12 months ago. The last time Notre Dame won three consecutive games by three possessions? Again, 12 months ago. The last time the Irish controlled their own path to the College Football Playoff? You get the idea.

There is something different this time around, though, and it is more than not having two top-20 teams yet on the calendar. (Of course, that helps, and barring a USC charge, there are unlikely to be any remaining ranked opponents.) This year, No. 6 (now No. 5) Notre Dame has not yet reached its peak. More than anything else, that was clear during Saturday’s 45-23 victory at No. 24 Virginia Tech.

The Irish (6-0) let the Hokies (3-2) hang around throughout the first half, missing on big plays and instead gifting the home team field position. Notre Dame was fortunate to reach halftime leading 17-16 rather than trailing by 11, yet the Irish also left points on the board, a 17-3 first-quarter lead one overthrown pass away from becoming reality.

“We were a little uneven in the first half,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “… We got outside our boundaries a little bit, trying to do a little bit too much.”

As well as the Irish played overall — and they did — no one phase of the game was particularly dominant. Virginia Tech actually outgained Notre Dame by three yards and converted a respectable 10-of-21 third downs. The 441 yards allowed were a season-high for Irish coordinator Clark Lea’s defense.

Yet, Notre Dame won by three possessions on the road against a ranked opponent. To combine these two sentiments: A flawed Irish performance was still good enough for a statement-making road win.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin has put up career numbers this year, and if the Irish passing game can develop a deep threat, those stats should only spike further. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

How much better could Notre Dame be? That starts with junior quarterback Ian Book. Even if he has been the catalyst to the offensive revival that has averaged 46.3 points per game the last three weeks, the room for improvement is obvious. In Book’s mind, the 45 points scored against Bud Foster’s defense were not nearly as many as they could have been. He floated the idea of 70.

“They’re still a great defense,” Book clarified. “Not banging on them at all. Just saying we had so many opportunities that I didn’t hit.”

He started the day methodically and precisely, completing his first eight passes for 114 yards, highlighted by hitting seemingly-uncovered senior receiver Chris Finke for 56 yards. That was the last deep ball Book would hit, missing a yet again inexplicably-uncovered Finke on the next drive for what would have been a rarely-seen first-quarter backbreaker. Both senior Miles Boykin and junior Chase Claypool also lost out on deep touchdowns due to Book overthrows.

As a good teammate should, Boykin took ownership for at least part of the issue — “Our timing is a little bit off, because we’re open.” — but when all three starting receivers are overthrown in one game, the adjustment needs to be made by the quarterback.

“He was a little flat with throws,” Kelly said. “He missed some of the big ones down the field. When the ball comes out flat, he’s a little excited. Those throws he’ll hit.”

If/when Book does hit them, the Irish offense will have all facets clicking at once for the first time since 2015.

The naked eye’s first glance could see Book with a bounce in his feet as he attempted those deep throws. Rather than his usual clean and quick release, there was obvious concern in those moments. What needed to be lofted passes toward the physical presences of Boykin and Claypool were instead akin to flair singles, well out of their reaches. Perhaps that was nerves, maybe some was compensation for a lack of a truly strong arm, or the answer could be as simple as Boykin’s timing.

“I was being a little skittish,” Book said. “I wasn’t giving my guys a chance, which you can’t do. I put that all on me.”

To point out an offensive shortcoming after scoring 45 against a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator speaks to just how high the Irish ceiling may be.

Irish senior running back Dexter Williams had made his mark with his speed throughout the first three years of his career. He has added an ability to run through contact this season. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The running game has certainly shown up, and any remaining concerns about senior Dexter Williams’ durability can be shelved. As of two weeks ago, he had never taken more than eight carries in a single game. He now has 38 total in the last two, and his final two runs may have been the most impressive.

Notre Dame was not looking to score again with fewer than five minutes remaining and a 15-point lead. Virginia Tech had resorted to an onside kick. Recovering that usually indicates the game is over but for running out the clock. All that was genuinely expected from Williams was staying in bounds.

Instead he broke multiple tackles on two runs, still running hard, covering 44 yards on his own for his third touchdown of the day.

The phrase “running angry” is usually meaningless, but it may be the best way to describe Williams at that point. He had nothing left to prove — 15 rushes for 134 yards and two touchdowns would have been a stellar stat line on its own. The Irish did not desperately need more. Nonetheless, Williams powered through first contact with a determination and certitude not seen in his first three seasons.

Returning to Lea’s defense, in giving up its most yards of the season, it actually showed the quality of its depth up front. Junior defensive end Daelin Hayes did not make the trip due to a stinger suffered last week against Stanford. Classmate Julian Okwara missed the second half due to a targeting call, perhaps the easiest such call in the history of the rule.

That meant Notre Dame was without half its pass rush. Hardly anything seemed lost. Freshman defensive tackle Justin Ademilola is expected to contribute these days, and his three tackles spoke to that. Twin brother and end Jayson Ademilola is not inherently thought of in that role this soon, but he added a tackle of his own.

Junior end Ade Ogundjei flipped sides of the line and made two tackles once Okwara was sent to the locker room. More importantly, the weak side of the line did not become an actual weakness with Ogundeji, remaining a simple alignment description. Junior Jamir Jones made two tackles in his first significant action, playing a supporting role to both Ogundeji and junior strongside end Khalid Kareem.

“He got after it,” fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill said of Jones. This innocuous quote warrants inclusion because it was noteworthy Jones played enough to even merit a post-game thought, let alone played well.

“Those guys are huge,” Tranquill said of the line reserves as a whole. “They work their butts off. A lot of the bigger names get praise, but … to have two or three deep at each position, that’s huge for us, and it’s going to be huge for us accomplishing our goals.”

Freshman linebacker Shayne Simon notched three tackles, his first coming on what is believed to have been his first defensive snap of his collegaite career, entering on a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line and joining senior linebacker Te’von Coney to make a tackle for a four-yard loss. Freshman cornerback TaRiq Bracy continues to contribute, making one tackle on special teams and one on defense.

This defensive depth had not been seen to date. It could be the difference between yet another November swoon and a truly special season.

The Irish are through half the season undefeated. The remaining schedule looks less than challenging. The offense has not found its ceiling. The defense has found some depth.

Notre Dame may yet improve, which is not something oft-said about a 6-0 team.

Refreshing Notre Dame’s Playoff possibilities

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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?

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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

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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

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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.