Notre Dame-Pitt Recap: Irish Earn Winning Streak in Ugly Fashion

It wasn't pretty, but Notre Dame has started a winning streak and is back to .500 on the season.

After a rough and tumble start to the season, the Irish have come through with two gritty wins and look to play (what could be) one of the weakest opponents on the schedule next weekend.

There's a lot to talk about after this victory over Pitt so let's get right to it.

Unit grades after the jump.

Offensive Line: C+

You could definitely talk me into raising this grade, but this was the line's worst game of the season. 

Still, they're playing at a pretty high level of football. They get dinged for a couple untimely penalties and giving up two sacks and a handful of poor blocking assignments, but generally they are giving Rees plenty of time to throw the ball. 

Plus, the team almost ran for 200 yards against what is a pretty good Pitt run defense---so the line didn't play THAT bad. I remain convinced that they are fighting an uphill battle too. Change some things with this offense and we'd be speaking about this line in ridiculously glowing terms, at least that's how I feel about it.

Tight End: A-

We could probably nit pick this position to death and knock its grade down a notch or two, but I'm not sure what more we should expect out of Tyler Eifert. He caught 8 passes for 75 yards with the game-winning touchdown and a crucial two-point conversion. Kyle Rudolph didn't have a 8-catch 75+ yard game through his first two seasons at Notre Dame, so I think we should be pretty excited about Eifert right now.

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Tyler Eifert had a career day against Pittsburgh.

Bonus points to true freshman Ben Koyack who didn't look terrible in blocking and caught his first career pass.

Wide Receiver: C

Not all of it is their fault, but you can't get too high of a grade with only 126 receiving yards from your entire wideout group. Floyd was so quiet that it was completely shocking and unbelievable. He has been doubled in the past and still been able to get open, so it makes you wonder if Rees was being instructed to look elsewhere.

Riddick ended up with a decent day (6 for 52 yards), and that just goes to show how much potential he has. Those are decent numbers, certainly not terrible, and it still feels like he's doing almost nothing on the field. Meanwhile, Jones had a quiet game and Toma finally caught a pass and scampered for 16 yards. 

I'd like to be in the film room with the coaches and see how often these guys are getting open. I'm willing to bet often.

Running Back: B+

I know people will say without the long Gray run the ground game was a pretty pedestrian 112 yards at 3.5 per carry, but the Irish offense has been consistently able to rely on Wood and Gray in key moments. This simply has not been the case in the past 3 or 4 years---if not longer.

And where are we in this game without that long touchdown run anyway? That was a key spark in the first half.


This was the first game where I wanted to see more of Gray, and I was kind of disappointed that he only carried the ball 3 times. Wood was bottled up at the line a lot, but he continues to run for a ton of 5 to 10 yard gashes on opponents. Overall, these guys played tough and although Wood was shut down a little bit, he still made some key third down conversions.

Quarterback: D+

Obviously, this was Rees' poorest performance of the season.

I'm going to have some deeper thoughts on Rees and the offense later in the week, but this game was a microcosm of how Rees limits the offense: Poor escapability, shaky throwing on the run, moments of laughingly bad arm strength, severely questionable decision making, and a general feeling of "If I don't get perfect protection and my primary read doesn't get open, nothing good is going to happen."

Statistically this doesn't look like an awful game, and Pitt deserves a lot of credit for playing especially well and changing up their schemes and what not, but there were a lot of very bad decisions by Rees. He deserves praise for the game-winning drive and not turning the ball over in the second half, yet he didn't make many tough throws and he did make so many awful ones.

Before this game Kelly was praising Rees for his third down efficiency and how he keeps the offense moving. In this game, Rees was only 2 for 9 in 3rd down conversions when Notre Dame threw the ball.

That is a telling stat.

However, we have to give credit to Rees for not turning the ball over after his early mistakes, making some changes and coming through in crunch time. 

Rees was a perfect 8 for 8 on the game-winning touchdown drive, and finished the game over the last three series going 12 of 15 for 112 yards. The first three quarters were pretty brutal, but that's a strong finish.

Defensive Line: B+

Not a whole lot to complain about with this unit, once again.

They're almost always getting a huge push, and they make it damn hard for anyone to run up the middle. We could probably use a pinch more explosiveness from them, particularly the ends, but I'm not about to get picky. The defensive line has been our most consistently good unit on the team and I'm overjoyed at that fact.

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Notre Dame remains very physical up front.

The young guys are still playing very well. Lynch had another sack and I really like the effort and ability to eat space and defenders by Stephon Tuitt.

Linebackers: B-

Manti Te'o continues to be solid, but not very flashy. With how well the defensive line is playing you would think Te'o would be on fire right now, but he's not. He's making plays don't get me wrong, but I don't think he's playing like an All-American right now.

Opposite Te'o I think Dan Fox is a liability, and just not playing very well at all. Maybe he's doing some things on tape that we don't necessarily see on the broadcasts, but I have to think the coaches aren't very happy with him. He's getting a lot of playing time and doing very little to help the team.

Calabrese is playing better than Fox, but I'm not sure that's saying much. With that said, Carlo is doing enough to get the majority of the snaps. At least every once in a while he's coming up with a big hit or making a key stop. 

Shembo had some really bad moments, and then a couple really great moments. He still seems really hesitant and slow in coverage and this is really hurting the defense. Shembo is still young and needs time to learn, and I'm sure it was tough for him to play with the health of his father. Nevertheless, opponents are having field days on the perimeter and Shembo (or any other Dog linebacker) are nowhere to be seen in pass coverage.

Darius Fleming had a tremendous game, and without his performance this unit's grade is much lower. 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and a quarterback hurry are what you want to see out of his Cat position every game. 

Secondary: C+

The secondary did okay, but weren't really tested very often. Pitt almost exclusively threw short completions in the flats and underneath the soft zone coverage near the linebackers (what else is new, right?). 

There were a couple missed tackles and the pass interference penalty on Gray, but not a ton to complain about. Giving up only 165 yards on 22 completions should be considered good enough on most Saturday's.

I still have a big problem with the safety position.

Harrison Smith is good, but he is much too inconsistent to continue receiving the praise he received during the preseason. I'm glad to have him back there, but he's not a game changer like a top 5 safety (as some argue he is) should be.

I see Jamoris Slaughter out there every once in a while and he seems to always play well. That's why I don't understand how Zeke Motta continues to get the lion's share of the playing time---at least it appears he does. Say what you want, but Motta is just not helping---to my knowledge he hasn't made one play of significance and he gets beat at least 3 or 4 times a game in some fashion.

Special Teams: C

Ben Turk finally had a consistent game with solid punts all around. Good for him.

Brindza had some nice long boots on kickoffs, but also put another out of bounds. 

Kick coverage was pretty good, but the snapping was bad and Ruffer missed another field goal. Atkinson looks pretty good in the return game, but at least we're not fumbling punt returns anymore!

Final Thoughts

First, a tip of the cap to Pitt in this game.

In my preview I mentioned that the Panthers had the talent to be a very good team, but that we hadn't really seen them play up to that talent level this year. In this game I thought they showed they have what it takes to be a dangerous team in 2011.

That doesn't mean Pitt is the Big East favorite (I never thought they should be), but I totally disagree with some people's assessment that this is a bad Panther team. 

Defensively, their defensive line played well and the schemes clearly affected Rees and protected the Pitt secondary, which had their best statistical game of the year.

Offensively, the Panther line played decent and Sunseri completely played within himself. We knew Pitt would struggle to handle the Irish defensive line and that the Panthers lacked some receiving threats---so none of that should have been a surprise. 

Overall, I still think Pitt is the third best team in the Big East, and while that might not say much on a national scale, calling the Panthers a terrible team is pretty disrespectful as far as I'm concerned.

With that said, I think it was obvious (as Urban Meyer repeatedly mentioned) that Notre Dame was by far the more talented team. And since the Irish were more talented, and not in the first year of a new system like Pitt, there's not a lot to be happy about with a 3-point, come-from-behind victory.

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Gray scored his first career touchdown Saturday---and it was a dandy.

Defensively I am very happy with where this team is at. There are some holes and weaknesses (linebackers in coverage, safety position opposite Harrison Smith, Gray making a play on the ball, inconsistent tackling), but there's no denying the Irish defense has been really good this year.

The defense could be criticized for being a little too conservative at times and unable to cause many turnovers, but they've only given up 8 touchdowns in four games, including only one rushing touchdown on a play in which they caused a fumble, while keeping the past two opponents under 15 points each.

There are other issues with this team, but I think they are primarily focused on the offense side of the ball.

The good thing is that despite looking pretty terrible at times, and pretty average for the bulk of the game, the offense still put up 398 yards. That is a continuing reminder that there is a lot of talent and playmaking ability on the roster, even if it's not all coming together at the right times. 

Of course the sky isn't falling and there are a few things to be positive about (mainly we're not a team that struggles to rush for 100 yards anymore), still there are a lot of curious things going on with this offense---a lot of head scratching things that leave me wondering where we're headed in the future.

I'll have more thoughts on the offense soon.

While I'm concerned with the offense, in the grand scheme of things I'm not too upset because I believe Notre Dame is still trending upward. The Irish won the game despite some offensive struggles, Pitt played mistake-free football and brought out all of these new defensive looks, and still Notre Dame was able to fight through it and march down the field when it really mattered. 

The Irish offense should have played better, and it has to play better in the future, but the tools are there for it to do so.* This isn't one of those situations where things look hopeless---the team just needs to clean up the turnovers, put the ball in the end zone when deep in opponent territory, and possibly make some tweaks to put themselves in a better position to be successful.

*For the most part

Bottom line, Notre Dame won the game and is allowed an ugly win on the road against a traditional rival. If we see the same type of outcome and poor play offensively next week against Purdue (a team much worse than Pitt) than we can start worrying about the future.

Other observations:

  • As noted in the game day open thread, Luke Massa was on the sidelines working with the quarterbacks as part of the Red Hat Army. Anyone know what is going on there?
  • It was an announced sellout for Pitt at Heinz Field, but quite a lot of people decided not to show up as large areas of the upper deck were empty.
  • Notre Dame is last in the country with a -10 turnover margin after four weeks of football. Brian Kelly's old team at Cincinnati leads the nation with a +14 turnover margin.
  • The Irish are tied for 18th in the country with 11 sacks.
  • Notre Dame has won two in a row against Pitt for the first time since 2002-2003.
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