Notre Dame cannot afford to emphasize growth this week. The No. 3 Irish (4-0, 3-0 ACC) made the passing game their focus to start last weekend, a decision that brought mid-October worries in the name of November progress.
“It was a big emphasis,” fifth-year quarterback Ian Book said after finishing 11-of-19 for 106 yards in the sluggish 12-7 victory against Louisville. “We talked about it all week.
“It’s not that we didn’t want to go out there and run the ball, but we saw some opportunities in the passing game and we want to go out and there and do that early.”
Moving the ball through the air may have been Notre Dame’s want, but it was not the reality. On the first two Irish drives, both resulting in field goals, Book dropped back to pass 16 total times, gaining just 41 yards. Meanwhile, 11 rushes gained 68 yards.
“We came out with the intention that you needed to respect our ability to throw it,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “We did not complete enough passes where we had opportunities to push the ball down the field, so that will continue to be a priority and our focus that we’re going to push the ball vertically down the field. We’re going to have to be better at it, so that’s going to be a focus and priority as we continue to strengthen this football team.”
Inarguably, Notre Dame will need to get better at passing downfield. Book did not complete any passes longer than 18 yards against the Cardinals and has only eight of 20 or longer this season, including a 75-yard screen pass to sophomore running back Kyren Williams and a 22-yard shovel pass to junior receiver Braden Lenzy.
But facing Pittsburgh is not the time to establish a downfield game, even if Lenzy is finally healthy, as is classmate Kevin Austin. Trying and failing welcomes a risk specific to the Panthers that could welcome a Pat Narduzzi-trademarked top-five upset.
Pittsburgh has the most sacks in the country, and that pass rush dials up its intensity on third-and-longs. In its 31-19 loss at No. 13 Miami last week, that pass rush logged two sacks and sparked one interception on third-and-longs and made another sack on a second-and-long. The Irish have the offensive line to stand up to that rush — one Kelly struggled to find a comparison to outside of Clemson’s defensive line circa 2018, a unit that produced three of the top-17 picks in the next NFL draft — but clear passing downs put even the best blocking schemes at a disadvantage they will struggle to overcome.
“They’re really strong up front, they do a lot of things with their blitzes and movement that make it hard for teams to move the ball,” Notre Dame left guard Aaron Banks said Tuesday. “We have a really good scheme for them this week and want to go out and dominate every single play.”
Dominating every single play suggests an emphasis on running the ball. No one who has watched the Irish would argue the ground attack is anything but their strongest approach. Playing a competent foe requires leaning on a strength. (Yes, this suggests Notre Dame’s first four foes were not competent.) Leaning on that strength is what sealed the Irish win against Louisville, eating up the final 7:55 in clock with a 14-play, 57-yard drive, featuring 12 runs.
“We ran the ball really well at the end of the game,” Banks said. “It’s a good thing to end with, kickstart us into the next game.”
Notre Dame will need that kickstart Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC). The Panthers sell out to defend the run, successfully, and thus leave their cornerbacks largely in one-on-one scenarios.
Yards before contact/designed run allowed, min 3 games:
1. Pitt, 0.18
2. Clemson, 0.34
3. Ok St, 0.74
4. GaSo, 0.83
5. Okla, 0.92
6. A&M, 0.95
14. Bama, 1.5
19. Miami, 1.64
29. ND, 1.96
33. UNC, 1.99
54. LSU, 2.54
58. VT, 2.83
61. FSU, 3.04
69. TCU, 3.76
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) October 22, 2020
If the Irish have any chance of exploiting those opportunities, a complete change from what they have shown in the last two months, they cannot let Pittsburgh control the line of scrimmage without that extra attention. It is the exact opposite version of exploitation Notre Dame deployed in its 19-14 victory against the Panthers two years ago, the first year Randy Bates coordinated that defense.
“We didn’t establish a running game. That won’t be the case,” Kelly said Thursday, thinking back to that win, Book’s fourth of the year and fifth in his career. “We’ll continue to run the football. That’s going to be a difficult chore.”
Back then, though, Book could rely on Chase Claypool (five receptions for 61 yards and a score), Miles Boykin (four completions for 84 yards and a score) and Chris Finke (six catches for 62 yards). He went 26-of-32 for 264 yards, a stat line that is hard to fathom this fall. A few such completions, be they to Austin, Lenzy or any of the available tight ends, would go a long way to both bolstering this season’s trajectory for Book and this weekend’s chances for the Irish.
“Being opportunistic with those one-on-one matchups is going to be key for us,” Kelly said. “But [the reporter] mentioned first down. It’s really being able to carve out an existence in the running game.”
Notre Dame will need its running game to create chances for its passing game in its first road trip of the season, likely the priority against any staunch competition this year. Louisville did not qualify as such an opponent and thus inverting the offense was survivable then in search of long-term development. This weekend, the Irish cannot afford the luxury of worrying about next month.