No. 3 Notre Dame exposes Pittsburgh’s deep flaws in 45-3 rout

Ben Skowronek Pittsburgh
ACC Media
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Notre Dame found a downfield passing game for two scores, notched a special teams touchdown and completely shut down Pittsburgh’s offense. In other words, absolutely everything went right for the No. 3 Irish (5-0, 4-0 ACC) in their 45-3 breeze by Pittsburgh (3-4, 2-4) on Saturday.

This was supposed to be a genuine challenge for Notre Dame, both on paper and in reality, a first this season. It was not.

“We needed to play fearless, we needed to play with great energy, and we needed playmakers,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We saw all those three things today. This is a very good glimpse of what this football team is capable of.”

A week after the Irish passing game may as well have not existed, fifth-year quarterback Ian Book connected with graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek for two deep touchdowns, both times beating the Panthers’ usual one-on-one coverage with athletic catches followed by untouched dashes toward the goal line.

By the time Skowronek finished his 73-yard jaunt to give Notre Dame a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter, too much damage had been done for Pittsburgh to ponder a comeback.

“He went up and took the ball away and set a great tone for how we were going to move forward,” Kelly said.

For that matter, Skowronek’s first score, of 34 yards, was probably too much for the Panthers to rally from.

They gained positive yards on just two of 12 first-half first-downs. To put that another way, 10 times before halftime Pittsburgh faced 2nd-and-10 or worse. (Update: Adding in the second-half numbers on this first-down tidbit … The Panthers had nine first-down plays in the second half, and netted zero yards. That makes for 21 first-down plays with eight yards gained total, only three positive plays.)

Pittsburgh rushed for 63 yards on 17 carries (sacks adjusted) and converted 3 of 13 third downs. The only reason the Panthers’ red-zone offense did not also become an issue is because quarterback Joey Yellen never got them into the red zone, getting past the Notre Dame 45-yard line only twice, one resulting in a field goal and the other an ill-advised punt, a poor decision given how much effort it took Pittsburgh to advance that far up the field in the first place.

“I’m going to start off giving Notre Dame credit, period,” Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They’re the No. 3 team in the country. They played like it. They’re as good a football team I have seen walk on the field in the last six years. They’re talented from front to back on both sides of the ball, and we got beat by a better football team, period.”

Book finished with 312 yards on 16-of-30 passing, a third touchdown finding freshman tight end Michael Mayer, part of his five-catch, 73-yard afternoon. Pushing the ball downfield has been an issue for Book all season, if not his entire three-year starting career, but facing one of the better defenses in the country, he had six completions of 20 yards or longer, only one of them a short pass broken long by the receiver after the reception.

The Irish ground game did not dominate the Panthers as it did Notre Dame’s first four opponents, partly a reflection of Pittsburgh’s dominant defensive line and partly a luxury afforded by the passing success. Kelly anticipated as much, and set specific goals for the Irish rushing attack: Avoid negative plays, convert short-yardage situations and be effective in the red zone.

A pair of two-yard touchdown rushes, one each from sophomore Kyren Williams and C’Bo Flemister, fulfilled that last thought, while the simple facts that Notre Dame went 11-of-18 and third down and the lead backs lost a total of 12 yards on their 33 carries covered the rest.

“Those were the three goals of the running game,” Kelly said. “We were going to be able to carve out enough in the running game that was going to allow us to do the things that we wanted to do.”

The things the Irish had not done, namely, connect with Skowronek downfield.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Panthers’ work was already cut out for them and probably beyond their reach when down 21-3, but they had possession at their own 36-yard line with 1:22 remaining before halftime. Three timeouts in hand, Pittsburgh had a vague chance to score and then do so again after receiving the second-half kickoff.

In fact, the Panthers had just gained a first down on an 11-yard rush, shockingly enough compared to their other 11 first-down attempts in the half (which netted a loss of three yards). But the next rush resulted in a four-yard loss, and the back-to-back carries innately suggested a want to run out the clock, anyway. Except Notre Dame had another idea.

A rush and a short completion each kept the clock running heading into 4th-and-15, at which point Kelly called timeout, simply to force Pittsburgh to punt.

“I’m never content,” Narduzzi said. “But with 1:22, I don’t feel like we were going to get into a two-minute drill and do anything crazy. … Didn’t want to go slinging it around the park and see something bad happen.”

Something bad happened.

The Panthers could have been aggressive in that possession. They could have tried to cut into Notre Dame’s lead, similar to how Louisville scrambled to at the end of the first half a week ago. Instead, the punting unit took to the field, and Irish sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey blocked his second career punt, adding some emphasis to a dominant first half. If the 21-3 lead was not insurmountable, the 28-3 deficit assuredly was.

STAT OF THE GAME

Yellen is not Pittsburgh’s preferred starting quarterback — veteran Kenny Pickett sidelined by an ankle injury — and he was helming an offense both desperate and at a talent disadvantage. But Notre Dame intercepting him three times is still a welcome sign for Clark Lea’s defense, which had just one interception (sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford against Florida State) through four games.

Junior linebacker Bo Bauer was among the last people expected to start those festivities, but he showed sure hands in doing so, before senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah snagged one and graduate transfer cornerback Nick McCloud eventually got in on the takeaway fun.

“Anytime you can turn the ball over, that’s great,” senior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish said. “We were just happy we showed up and played loose today, played free, were running around the field.

“Our [defensive backs] are tired of waiting for the ball to come to the receivers. They’re just starting to take the ball now. That’s the mindset we have.”

Lea’s defense has been the Irish strength for three years now — this was the first time since a two separate stretches in 2012 that Notre Dame held consecutive opponents to single digits — but at some point the turnovers needed to start popping up for the Irish. The blocked punt is not technically a turnover, but Notre Dame still ended plus-three in turnover margin.

PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME
Cracking 300 yards for the seventh time in his career, plenty of time will be spent on Book in the coming days. Some already has been up top. Deservedly so.

But another grouping of the Irish will fly beneath the radar, even though their success underscores the long-term strengths of the program and how it has been constructed in this four-year revival. Notre Dame’s best position groups for the last few years have consistently been its offensive and defensive lines.

The offensive line is currently regarded as one of the, if not the, best in the country. The defensive line does not rise to that level, but its depth continues to stand out. Consider:

Junior end Justin Ademilola: Four tackles with one for loss.
Junior end Ovie Oghoufo: Three tackles with half a sack.
Sophomore end Foskey: Two tackles with half a sack.
Junior tackle Jayson Ademilola, sophomore tackle Jacob Lacey: One tackle apiece.

Their success stands out on its own, but it also creates more success for the starters.

“Everything we do is for the brotherhood,” said Hinish, finishing with one tackle himself. “There are times I definitely don’t want to come out, and some of it is just being selfish. I have to understand that I’m not as fresh as the other guys coming into the game.

“Obviously we have to get those guys in to make some plays.”

Particularly in a year when a position group can see its conditioning hampered for two weeks, as happened to this exact unit, that depth can revive its effectiveness.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
“[Book] was very unhappy last week, but this week, all the fruits of his labor paid off. I can’t wait to play with him moving forward. He’s a hell of a football player, and he’s a winner” — Skowronek.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
10:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ben Skowronek 34-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Pittsburgh 0. (11 plays, 75 yards, 4:52)
7:38 — Pittsburgh field goal. Alex Kessman 45 yards. Notre Dame 7, Pittsburgh 3. (10 plays, 37 yards, 2:30)

Second Quarter
10:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Skowronek 73-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Pittsburgh 3. (4 plays, 87 yards, 1:29)
1:29 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Pittsburgh 3. (8 plays, 46 yards, 3:42)
0:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Isaiah Foskey punt block recovery. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Pittsburgh 3.

Third Quarter
7:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 21 yards. Notre Dame 31, Pittsburgh 3. (14 plays, 72 yards, 6:10)
4:22 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 14-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Pittsburgh 3. (4 plays, 49 yards, 2:01)
2:42 — Notre Dame touchdown. C'Bo Flemister 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Pittsburgh 3. (4 plays, 35 yards, 1:33)