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And In That Corner … The Pittsburgh Panthers, owners of two top-5 upsets the last two seasons

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One of the least-discussed byproducts of Notre Dame’s relationship with the ACC is how much it actually diminishes the Irish interactions with Pittsburgh. The two programs have met 69 times in history, including 11 times from 2001 to 2013 — Notre Dame went 7-4 — but now have not seen each other in three years. It used to be a consistent series, just one undersold in comparison to certain Big Ten or Pac 12 relationships.

As such, an Irish fan can be forgiven for not knowing too much about the Panthers this year. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brian Batko is here to fix that.

DF: Thanks, Brian, for giving up some of your week to educate Notre Dame fans and, if being honest, myself. I haven’t updated my own version of power rankings yet this week, so let me check in on my ACC chart real quick — I projected Pittsburgh to win 4.33 games this season, with 2.67 of them coming in the first six weeks. I obviously did not think very highly of the Panthers, and by reaching this point at 3-3, they have hardly proven me wrong. Broadly speaking and thinking back to August, what did you expect out of Pat Narduzzi’s fourth season in Pittsburgh?

BB: I expected a team that would be much improved from last year’s disappointing 5-7 outfit, but did not necessarily think it would be obvious in the win-loss column. That’s because Pitt entered 2018 with a remarkably daunting schedule, one rated by ESPN as the toughest non-conference slate in the country, and for good reason. Penn State. Central Florida. Notre Dame. Albany. OK, one of those is not like the others, but in this year particularly, those first three make for an absolute meat grinder outside of ACC play. Inside the league is where the Panthers could make some hay, but losing to North Carolina in Week 4 was a bad, bad look in one of several matchups I viewed as 50-50 games in the preseason.

My preseason outlook posited, “A strong season from [sophomore quarterback Kenny] Pickett could spark a good amount of Pittsburgh hype for 2019 and 2020.” Just looking at Pickett’s stat line, he has done alright this season, but not much better than that with 886 yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions and a 61.3 percent completion rate in six games. What has held him back thus far?

And really, the stat line is deceiving. One of those touchdowns and 58 of those yards came on a garbage time flip pass to wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, who did all the work. Pickett’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Rafael Araujo-Lopes this past weekend was a bubble screen the receiver broke open. Another one went for one yard at the goal line against North Carolina. What I’m trying to say here is that even the success Pickett has had, for the most part, it hasn’t been the result of sharp throws downfield and Pitt getting vertical in the passing game. The book on him all training camp was how good of a decision-maker he’s becoming, and even that has been a work in progress, as evidenced by the picks. It’s tough to say how much of it his is own inexperience being a roadblock in his development, versus an offensive system that wants to run first and hasn’t shown much proclivity to try to stretch the field.

Panthers running back Qadree Ollison has rushed for 596 yards this season while averaging 6.5 yards per carry, leading the only reliable aspect of the Pittsburgh offense. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

The Panthers do have a decent running game, averaging 203.8 yards per game, but Notre Dame allows only 127.8. How devoted is Narduzzi to the running game?

He loves it, and for good reason. It’s tough to argue with a 14-5 mark for the Panthers when they’ve rushed for at least 200 yards under Narduzzi. It would seem that the drop-off from senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall (plus senior fullback George Aston) to Pitt’s next-strongest position group is quite pronounced, so might as well do what works until the opponent takes it away. It stands to reason Notre Dame will be more equipped to do that than Syracuse was, as the Orange did the unthinkable and actually allowed Pitt to mount its game-tying comeback drive solely on the ground (11 rushing attempts until one desperation end-zone pass before a field goal sent it to overtime).

I ask in that fashion because the Irish defense has basically forced opponents to pass this season by rendering the run so ineffective. If it comes to that, possibly in tandem with Notre Dame’s offense opening up a lead, does Pickett have the weapons to get aggressive through the air?

Not so much, no. Ffrench and Araujo-Lopes have had their moments the past couple years, but they’re fairly similar players in terms of mostly working out of the slot given their lack of size. Indiana transfer Taysir Mack is the closest guy the Panthers have to a conventional No. 1, go-up-and-get-it receiver, but he’s been banged up and didn’t play last week against Syracuse. He seems questionable, at best, for Notre Dame, so that again leaves Pittsburgh wanting for big-play pass-catchers. True freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis is one to keep an eye on, but his breakout game hasn’t arrived just yet.

Flipping to the defense, let me ask this in a general fashion out of deference to Narduzzi — Is this a typical Narduzzi defense? Giving up 32.8 points per game (not to mention 428.3 yards) would imply otherwise, but anyone who follows the Irish is too familiar with Narduzzi’s handiwork at Michigan State to assume anything negative about his defense.

Well, it’s been typical for his time at Pitt, which has been the cause of much consternation among the fan base during his tenure, even the years he was winning. The thought was that this might be the year it could finally look something like those vaunted Spartans units with Mark Dantonio as head coach and Narduzzi as defensive coordinator, given that Pitt returned nine starters and a slew of other contributors, many of whom are fifth-year seniors, but it hasn’t worked out that way so far. Maybe that’s a testament to some of the elite offenses it’s seen (Penn State, UCF, Syracuse) but it’s more likely Pitt’s defense just isn’t there. Whether that’s talent or scheme is one of the major questions about this team — and program — but after showing signs of life in the final two games of 2017 (20-14 loss at Virginia Tech, 24-14 upset of Miami) that momentum was squashed early this season.

UPDATE: Since holding this Q&A with Brian, the Panthers defense suffered a significant blow.

To this point, Wirginis has led Pittsburgh with 41 tackles with seven for loss including three sacks. He has also forced two fumbles.

Pittsburgh will be without its best defender Saturday, losing linebacker Quintin Wirginis for the season to a knee injury suffered in practice this week. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Before I continue down the Narduzzi path into the macro, have I missed anything in particular in the micro?

Not really. Pitt has a good kicker named Alex Kessman, who boomed field goals of 45, 54 and 55 yards, all of which were needed to take Syracuse to overtime and eventually win. So, he’s a weapon in his own right, perhaps.

Focusing on Narduzzi, he looks to have lost some momentum. At least, that is the view from a distance. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, he led the Panthers to a 5-7 record last year and this season could very well match that. His job isn’t in danger yet by any means, but is there any amount of frustration within the program/from Narduzzi?

Pitt does a decent job of hiding that kind of stuff if there is any frustration. You have to imagine that no one within those walls was feeling too hot after blowing a halftime lead to dreadful North Carolina, then getting eviscerated by Central Florida a few weeks after Penn State came into Heinz Field and delivered a beating. The Pitt faithful, at least the ones I have the pleasure to interact with via email, Twitter, etc., are starting to get restless. Second-year athletic director Heather Lyke gave Narduzzi a vote of confidence, so to speak, just last week.

Now in his fourth season leading Pittsburgh, head coach Pat Narduzzi is 24-20, including 8-10 over the last season and a half. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The highlights of his tenure have been two top-5 upsets in the last two years, with Pickett leading the way over then-No .2 Miami last season in his first career start. How did the Panthers pull those off? Is there anything applicable to this weekend to be gleaned from those upsets?

One thing Narduzzi really does seem to bring to the table, especially when you consider those games, is firing up his guys for a stunner. Most of the personnel from the Clemson shock two years ago have moved on, but 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 Kenny Pickett, who can manage the offense and occasionally bust out a splash play with his legs. One constant with 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.

Might Pittsburgh find magic again this weekend? Notre Dame is favored by three touchdowns. What goes through your head when you see that?

It might, but I wouldn’t predict it. The point spread doesn’t surprise me much given that it’s a home game for the Irish, who could be headed for an historic season even by their lofty standards. Pitt faced pretty long odds from Vegas against Penn State and Central Florida this year, too, and I projected both games to be closer than the betting line. Turned out, both were even more lopsided than that, so who knows? The Panthers are consistently inconsistent, so for as much of a Notre Dame walkover as this is in theory, I’ve come to never know what to expect from this program despite being around it more often than my wife this time of year.

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.