SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Whatever could go wrong for No. 5 Notre Dame largely did Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh. A Panthers kickoff return for a touchdown? Check. An interception created primarily by a Pittsburgh defensive lineman hitting the quarterback as he threw? Check. Two trips to the red zone yielding only field goals? Check.
What went right for the Irish? They won, 19-14.
“We faced adversity today,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “There were a lot of things that didn’t go our way and the team responded. We came out of here with a win. It’s hard to win week to week in college football.
“Pitt has taken a lot of people down over the time I’ve been playing football at Notre Dame.”
Indeed, the Panthers (3-4) have taken down a top-five opponent in each of the last two seasons, and they looked ripe to do it again Saturday using a tried-and-true recipe. They controlled the ball — eating up nearly 10 minutes of first-quarter game clock in marching to their first touchdown — and playing an aggressive defense that stopped the Irish run game in its tracks. Notre Dame (7-0) finished with only 112 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on 35 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per attempt.
“[Pittsburgh] played exactly the way they needed to play to keep this game in the manner that they did,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We still found a way — giving up a kickoff return, throwing two picks and not scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
“If you told me all those things are going to happen and we still found a way to win the football game, I’d be pretty excited.”
Part of Notre Dame’s reduced rushing attack came from hardly having the ball; the Irish had just 10 possessions if not counting the three snaps in victory formation to end the game.
All that meant Notre Dame needed its passing game to bail it out and remain undefeated, reaching 7-0 for the second time under Kelly. Junior quarterback Ian Book completed 26 of his 32 passes for 264 yard and two touchdowns, matched by two interceptions. Somehow, despite completing 81.25 percent of his passes for 8.25 yards per attempt, it felt like a pedestrian day for Book, which speaks to just how well he has played through four starts this season. His two touchdowns in the final 18 minutes — including one with fewer than six minutes remaining to take the lead for the first time of the afternoon — turned an average showing into one that was good enough.
“[Book’s] pocket awareness was not great in the first half,” Kelly said. “Had a nice conversation with him in the second half. He settled down nicely, but I think this is just maturation.”
Whatever it was, it led to a win, a win to keep the Irish without blemish entering their idle week, a win the Panthers had deprived national title contenders of in recent years.
“A win’s a win and these football games happen,” Book said. “There’s no point in freaking out when you have some time on the clock, and we’ve been there before, so we didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
It stood out not only for its game-changing realities, giving Notre Dame its first lead with only 5:43 remaining, but also for how much it differed from Book’s long offerings just a week ago. At Virginia Tech, he routinely, even only, overthrew receivers on deep routes. With the game on the line Saturday, Book connected with senior receiver Miles Boykin for a 35-yard score, the pass itself traveling 40 yards through the air and hitting Boykin in stride hardly a step before the goal line.
“[Boykin is] really rangy, so just got to put it up there and give him a chance,” Book said. “That’s something I was focusing on all week was giving our guys a chance, not overthrowing.”
Book also showed off his arm earlier with a deep crossing route to senior Chris Finke, hitting Finke a couple feet before the sideline and out of reach of a trailing defender for a 26-yard gain, the sole chunk play of Finke’s six catches for 62 yards.
“The Virginia Tech game showed [Book] in a bad light,” said Boykin, who finished with four catches for 84 yards. “Usually he doesn’t overthrow us like that. In practice he’s always on the money. I think it was one bad game, one bad instance, and today he was back on it.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Quarterback hurries are an inexact stat, one measured subjectively and inconsistently. What cannot be gauged inaccurately is the effect junior defensive end Julian Okwara had on the final minutes Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh ran 10 plays while trailing, all at the end of the fourth quarter. Okwara provided pressure on Panthers sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett on half of them, forcing rushed throws, eliminating possible reads and nearly single-handedly ending Pittsburgh’s hopes for dramatics.
“He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable,” Kelly said. “They move their feet. They change their launch point, their eyes drop. Things just make them uncomfortable.”
Unofficially, Okwara was credited with six tackles and seven quarterback hurries, though his one tackle for loss may have been most impressive. With Pittsburgh driving in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame blitzed both inside linebackers up the middle, dropping Okwara into coverage. Pickett connected with running back Darrin Hall in the flat, only to have Okwara immediately tackle him for a loss of three yards on a third down.
“His ability to drop [into] coverage and make a play like that on a running back, he’s a pretty special player,” Kelly said. “He does a lot of things that sometimes don’t show up on the stat sheet, per se, but he’s one dynamic player.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish first found the end zone with a 16-yard Book pass to junior receiver Chase Claypool late in the third quarter. That cut the Panthers lead to 14-12, and Kelly opted to go for two, rolling Book out to target Boykin in the flat. The sharp angle of the throw left little margin for error and a resulting incompletion.
The failed conversion attempt kept the pressure on Notre Dame. It also raised some eyebrows, seemingly early to be chasing those points. Why do it? The math said to.
“The analytics provided us the information that said to go for two in that situation,” Kelly said.
Similar logic led the Irish to consider going for a fourth-and-2 near midfield early in the fourth quarter. After a Pittsburgh timeout, Kelly opted to punt, and fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome sent it for a touchback. Kelly expects to hear from his numbers department about the inefficiency of his own second-quessing.
“I’ll get a note from our analytics people on Monday telling me that I was incorrect and I should have gone for it,” he said. “The sense I had in the game, however, is that they weren’t going to go 80 yards on us, so I was not going to give our defense a short field to operate. So I went against our mathematicians in that situation.”
The Panthers faced a similar decision on the ensuing drive, also opting to punt, also sending it for a touchback. The net 30-yard field position change did not stop Notre Dame from scoring to take the lead, indicating Pittsburgh would have been better served going for the fourth-and-5.
STAT OF THE GAME
Excluding sacks but including scrambles, the Irish ran 35 times Saturday, more than last week at No. 24 Virginia Tech (30) but otherwise a season-low. Kelly thought that run-pass balance should have been even more titled toward Book’s 32 pass attempts (plus three sacks).
Once Notre Dame started taking advantage of the openings in the secondary provided by the Panthers planting a seventh defender in the box, it started moving the ball a bit.
“Started hitting us on some slants,” Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Hitting [Claypool] on the seam in there. We struggled to stop that route in the last couple drives.”
How much more should the Irish have thrown the ball? Quite a bit, per Kelly.
“Maybe we were a little stubborn,” he said. “We should have thrown the ball a little bit more. This should have been maybe 45 to 50 times throwing the football. It was that stark in terms of the pressure that they were putting on the running game today.
“We want to try to stay balanced. We want to try to stay true to who we are. Today, they weren’t going to allow that to happen.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I don’t know a team that’s won the national championship that hasn’t had to come from behind at some point in the season or play in a close game. That happened to be today for us.” — Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill.
1:26 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Qadree Ollison 9-yard run. Alex Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 0. (17 plays, 88 yards, 9:43)
4:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 22 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 44 yards, 3:34)
0:05 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 41 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 6. (12 plays, 42 yards, 3:27)
14:46 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Maurice Ffrench 99-yard kickoff return. Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 6.
2:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 16-yard pass from Ian Book. 2-pt conversion failed. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 12. (8 plays, 71 yards, 2:51)
5:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 35-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 19, Pittsburgh 14. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:43)