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Outside the Irish Huddle: Notre Dame Sneaks Past Pitt

After a week away from home, the Fighting Irish returned to Notre Dame Stadium Saturday and picked up their third victory of the season against the Pittsburgh Panthers.

The Irish led 20-3 at the half but let Pitt back into the game during the second half, ultimately holding on in the last minutes with some quality defensive stops.

Half way through the season under a new coaching staff Notre Dame sits at 3-3 and is looking to make a big run in the second half.

Let’s go Outside the Irish Huddle and take a closer look at this 23-17 victory over Pitt.

Undefeated in Pink

For this game many of the Irish starters came out with pink wrist bands, tape and towels in support of October as breast cancer awareness month.

This is a cause that is near and dear to head coach Brian Kelly’s heart as his wife Paqui is a two-time survivor of breast cancer. NBC also highlighted Irish linebacker Carlo Calabrese and a tattoo on the player’s chest in honor of his survivor mother which read "If only I was as strong as you," with a pink ribbon.

Tough Day for the Turf

Towards the end of the Stanford game two weeks ago the playing surface at Notre Dame Stadium was starting to get pretty sloppy. It has become an annual ritual that the natural grass turf becomes a mess in the October and November months of the season, but the field did have the benefit of two weeks off from action.

On Saturday during the Pitt game the field looked in great shape but once again caused numerous slips and bad cuts for players. Luckily for Notre Dame the breaks usually went against Pitt as the Panther receivers slipped on a key third down play in the end zone and on a Harrison Smith interception.

I remain convinced that most players in 2010 are not as comfortable or athletic on the thick and longer natural grass at Notre Dame Stadium. It’s a tradition I’m more than willing to let go of.

Question Corner

Did Notre Dame Contain the Pitt Running Game?

Yes they did, and for a while Notre Dame forced Pitt to abandon their running game and put the ball in the inexperienced hands of Panther quarterback Tino Sunseri.

The Irish held one of the nation’s top runners in Ray Graham to just 44 yards on eight carries, while Dion Lewis was kept in check with 63 yards on 13 carries (30 of which came on a key fourth down conversion).

It wasn’t a dominant performance by Notre Dame, but anytime you limit one of the nation’s better running games to just 110 yards, it’s a good day at the office.

Was Notre Dame Able to Cut Down on the Turnovers?

There’s only one stat you need to know and that is zero. As in zero turnovers for Notre Dame on the day. The Irish were plus-two in turnover differential forcing an interception and recovering a fumbled snap on a failed field goal attempt.

Did the Irish Offense Find Any Consistency?

No, it was another incredibly inconsistent day from the offense in a game where it was safe to say that the defense outplayed them and it was because of the offenses’ inability to put a few more points on the board that the game was so close.

Even if the team spotted Pitt their two missed field goals, there was the feeling from this game that had Notre Dame executed a little bit better on offense then they should have scored 35 points and still won comfortably.

Team Unit Grades

Offensive Line: C

This was a decent outing by the offensive line but they could have played much better.

It was a sub-par performance in the running game and while the pass protection was good, the line caused a couple crucial holding calls (negating a big pass play to Floyd) and also gave up three sacks.

Starting right tackle Taylor Dever was out of the lineup with an injury and that forced left tackle Zack Martin over to cover that position while Matt Romine started on the left side. Pitt standout defensive end Jabaal Sheard usually had his way with Martin ending the day with two sacks and numerous hurries.

Wide Receivers: B

It was a pretty solid day from the receiving corps with Floyd and Riddick having very quality afternoons. TJ Jones was limited to only one catch but it was a spectacular 37 yard grab and Goodman chipped in with two receptions as well.

Quarterback Dayne Crist has been more willing to throw downfield as this season has progressed, but the passing game is still very limited to screen passes and short routes.

The receivers also have to stop cutting back after catching the ball and fight forward for more yards instead.

Tight Ends: C-

Rudolph got back on track a little bit with five receptions for 38 yards and Mike Ragone caught a nice 11 yard pass as well.

However, both tight ends had critical dropped passes in key moments and it appears that Rudolph is severely hampered by his hamstring and cannot stretch the field or cut as well as his normally can.

Quarterbacks: B

Crist didn’t turn the ball over and his accuracy was a little better than the previous game, so those are definite positives.

He showed some nice footwork and pocket presence running away from some defenders and scoring from ten yards out and appears slightly more comfortable running the ball on option reads.

I was a little tough on Crist last week and I thought this week he played really well. If there is one thing that I would harp on from this game it would be that Crist settled too often for check down receivers and particularly on third down.

Running Backs: C+

This was a very workman-like game for the running backs. Their numbers were not overwhelming by any means but Armando Allen ran very hard and the runners picked up a few key third down conversions.

Maybe more importantly, Cierre Wood finally emerged a little bit after a shaky four game stretch and showed some toughness running through the middle.

It definitely felt like a nice 150 yard day for the Irish runners even though it was just over 100 yards.

Defensive Line: B

Ian Williams continues to have a tremendous senior year at nose tackle, while Kapron Lewis-Moore has steadily improved during the season as well. Junior Ethan Johnson has been pretty quiet for most of the season and this game was no exception.

This unit earned their grade by keeping the Pitt running game in check.

Linebackers: C-

It was a fairly quiet game from the linebackers other than a big-time sack by Darius Fleming. Pitt’s offensive line was doing a good job getting to the second level and blocking Te’o and Calabrese on running plays.

Also, Pitt threw the ball a lot more than they have this year and there just wasn't a whole lot of opportunities for the linebackers in this contest.

Secondary: C

You have to give the secondary credit for sealing the game at the end, but this felt a lot like a performance from last year where the corners were playing soft coverage and giving up a few too many completions to an inexperienced quarterback.

Harrison Smith had a solid game, but also took a bad pursuit angle allowing Dion Lewis to run for big yardage on a key fourth down play. And Jamoris Slaughter struggled a little bit and his mistake allowed the long Panther touchdown in the second half.

Overall, this unit didn’t play horrible, but there was a lot of room for improvement.

Special Teams: A

Just an absolutely outstanding game from the special teams unit as David Ruffer nailed all three field goals and remains perfect in his career. Punter Ben Turk had his best game of his career with numerous long punts, including pinning Pitt deep in their own end on more than one occasion in the key closing minutes of the fourth quarter.

The return game continues to be maddeningly average, but the kick coverage guys are super and Barry Gallup had a great shoe string tackle on Pitt’s fake punt attempt to start the second half.

Final Thoughts

Re-watching this game I was surprised at how much better Notre Dame looked than while watching it live. Particularly with the play of Dayne Crist, I thought this was his best game of the season in a lot of ways and he was not getting much help from his teammates because of penalties and key dropped passes.

Half way through the season I think there are three things holding this offense back and you may be shocked to know that Dayne Crist is not one of them.

1. Lack of a Legit No. 2 Receiver

This is probably the smallest of issues (and competing with Crist’s inaccuracy, poor reads, etc. in holding the offense back) but I think it is still an issue nonetheless.

We know that Michael Floyd is being double teamed from time to time and the same with Kyle Rudolph. Clearly Theo Riddick has been taking advantage of this, but the Irish are getting very little production out of TJ Jones and John Goodman on the outside.

If these outside receivers are facing single coverage as often as we believe, then they need to get open more and opponent’s need to pay for leaving them alone on an island with a corner.

TJ Jones’ deep reception against Pitt is the perfect example. If team’s are going to bracket safeties towards Floyd and Rudolph or move up in run support, it is crucial that the X receivers start stretching the field and opening up the offense.

2. Kyle Rudolph is Injured

It seems pretty obvious right now that Rudolph is injured and a former shell of his old self. If he was 100 percent he would have caught that wheel route in the fourth quarter and raced down the sideline for 40 yards and sealed the game.

He even dropped another perfect pass inside the 10 yard line that would have likely set up another touchdown and sealed the game yet again and was also throwing some pretty weak blocks too.

Whenever one of the nation’s best pass-catching tight ends isn’t healthy it is going to hold your offense back and since Crist loves relying on big No. 9, it is even more true with this Notre Dame offense.

3. Concern About Michael Floyd

What’s Floyd’s biggest catch at Notre Dame? What moment sticks out most with the Irish’s best receiver?

It’s tough to think of isn’t it?

Now, I don’t want to say that Floyd is not as good of a player as we all thought he was or that he needs to step up his game to such a higher degree in order to get this offense going.

That’s not what I’m really talking about.

Rather, I think it is more of a combination of Floyd not fitting in very well to the spread offense (especially in comparison to the system run in the past), not being as big of an individual playmaker as once thought, plus all of the added difficulties inherent with a new offensive system and inexperienced quarterback.

There’s also the creeping feeling that it was Jimmy Clausen who was mostly responsible for making Michael Floyd look good in the past.

Floyd double covered deep down field? There was a ball delivered that only Floyd could catch.

15 yard out route? Boom, Clausen had the ball there in perfect time and placement.

Fade routes to the end zone and elsewhere on the field? Nearly automatic.

With that precision passing now gone, we’re left feeling a little concerned that Floyd was supposed to be dominant but has been fluctuating this season between merely good and very good.

Saturday’s game against Pitt was Floyd’s best game of the season, but he does need to improve his game a little bit if we expect this offense to ever become the explosive unit that we thought it could be.

We know Floyd does certain things well (catching fade routes and running like a freight train in open field) but I’d like to see him improve on running after the catch and being generally more dynamic in tight situations.

Overall, Floyd has made progress and I liked what I saw out of him in the last game. The players should continue to get more comfortable in this system and start really opening things up with a few less intimidating opponents on the schedule in the coming weeks.

All of this is a good sign for the future.

So, is Notre Dame better than their 3-3 record shows?

I think so, although it doesn’t mean all that much other than the hope that this team is about to improve in the second half and prove it on the field.

Still, Notre Dame’s opponents sport a combined record of 44-22 (very respectable) and this year’s three losses came to team’s with a combined 16-2 record, including two candidates for top 10 finishes this year in Michigan State and Stanford.

Does that make Notre Dame the best 3-3 team in the country?

They very well might be among the following group of teams:

Cincinnati (2-3): Close losses to Fresno State, NC State and Oklahoma. Victories over Indiana State and Miami (OH).

Pitt (2-3): Close losses to Utah and Notre Dame. Blowout loss to Miami. Victories over New Hampshire and Florida International.

Washington (2-3): Losses to BYU and Arizona State. Blowout loss to Nebraska. Victories over Syracuse and USC.

Arizona State (3-3): Losses to Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State. Victories over Portland State, Northern Arizona and Washington.

UCLA (3-3): Loss to Kansas State. Blowout losses to Stanford and California. Victories over Houston, Texas and Washington State.

Clemson (2-3): Losses to Auburn, Miami and North Carolina. Victories over North Texas and Presbyterian.

Do any of these teams have the same quality mix as Notre Dame?

UCLA beat Texas soundly but has already been crushed twice this season.

Clemson has three close losses but hasn’t beaten a real football team yet.

I’ve been hesitant over the years to welcome the disadvantages of playing such a tough schedule, but I think they apply to this season.

Sure Notre Dame is 3-3 and pundits can call the Irish "average" and "mediocre" but that is a hard fought 3-3 record that is real, tested and true. Yeah a 1-3 September was terrible for fans to endure, but maybe it will serve the team well in the second half and in the coming years.

At least Notre Dame isn’t some fake pretender like Missouri, Syracuse and Northwestern who are a combined 14-2 with wins over: Illinois, McNeese State, San Diego State, Miami (OH), Colorado, Akron, Maine, Colgate, USF, Vanderbilt, Illinois State, Rice, Central Michigan, and Minnesota.

Only five wins among them against bottom-feeding BCS teams, yet at least they’re not average right?

While Notre Dame is sitting at .500 right now, it is up to the Irish to start playing better in the second half and distance themselves in a more clear fashion will all of the other "average" teams out there.

It all starts with a sound defeat of Western Michigan on Saturday.