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?
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?
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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
— 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