Notre Dame was in control all afternoon against Pitt and cruised to an easy win--even after giving up two late touchdowns. Let's talk about it!
Play-Call of the Game: 25-yard Sprint Draw to Adams
Guess who's back!!?
After quite the absence we finally saw the sprint draw again. It didn't look absolutely wide open as it has in the past but the blocking was solid, Adams made a nice cut near the line of scrimmage, and picked up a big chunk of yards en route to Notre Dame's second touchdown.
Was this Kizer's best game at minimizing mistakes? He wasn't much of a factor in the run game (14 non-sack yards) and didn't sense a couple blitzes from his back-side (nearly losing a fumble on one play) while also over-throwing Fuller a couple times. Probably the biggest error was a lazily thrown (not much zip on it) ball across the middle to Corey Robinson that very easily could've been intercepted.
But then there's that whole 5 touchdown passes (well, it's really 4 if you don't count the pop pass) to just 7 incompletions thing. Quite a nice day at the office. He was completely in control of the offense and threw 4 picture-perfect touchdown passes.
A couple things stand out to me after watching Kizer through 6 full games:
1. The offensive problems (wasting timeouts, play-call slowness, etc. etc.) appear almost completely gone. I don't know how much affect Kizer's presence has on this or whether it's more of Sanford's influence or if things would have been this way had Zaire stayed healthy. All I know is there's a level of calm and "I got this" that we really haven't seen during the Kelly era. In some part, that is due to Kizer running the show.
2. He's one of the best deep ball passers in the country. Not even hyperbole. True, Kizer has been able to throw some hilariously open streaking Will Fuller passes but really think about how rarely he's missed on passes 30+ yards downfield. Not very many. Rees never had the arm strength and Golson really struggled in this area, so FINALLY Notre Dame is getting the type of arm that can open up the entire offense.
Turning Point: Okwara's Second Sack
This was the exact moment when the game turned from "Notre Dame in complete control" to "The Irish are out-classing Pitt on the afternoon."
We'd just seen Adams' pop-pass touchdown run and here we were 3 plays from scrimmage later. The teams had traded 4 touchdown series' to open the second half and this was the first time either squad punted. Okwara completely dominates Pitt's center Artie Rowell and pushes him back 5 yards before notching his second sack. Following the Pitt punt, the Irish would score again to make it 42-17 with 5:47 left in the game.
Surprising Stat: 6.3 YPP from Pitt's Offense
Funny how things go that the Irish led by 25 points with under 6 minutes left in the game and only finished winning the yards-per-play battle by 0.11 yards. Allowing 6.3 YPP to Pitt was the second worst effort on the season but I don't know if this was even close to the second worst overall performance on the season.
I feel like we've got a really good idea of what this defense is all about this season. We're not great at making plays in the back-field, we usually have a handful of mental errors in the secondary, we give up big plays too much, but on the greater whole they play really good defense in an era when it's pretty difficult to do so.
For example, Pitt had 321 yards (80.6% of their total yardage) on just 13 snaps. On the surface that's just terrible defense that gives up too many big plays. But dig a little deeper and you'll see 4 rushes by quarterback Nate Peterman for 83 yards. Sure, we lost some gap integrity looking for kill-shot sacks but is that much of a concern when Pitt's running backs combined for 42 yards, 3 yards-per-carry, and no run longer than 6 yards?
Limiting Pitt to 1.54 YPP on 50 snaps is fantastic. And really, Pitt was in full on major underdog mode with onside kicks, multiple trick-plays, throwing Jordan Whitehead at running back for the first time all season (we're they're Super Bowl!), and all the rest. At the end of the day I'd love to see the defense clean up the big plays but again we know who they are--only one team has gained more than 500 yards and/or scored more than 30 points on this defense and that's USC.
This is not an elite unit but if they can keep teams under 400 yards and around the mid-to-low 20's in scoring the Irish will win a lot of football games.
Unheralded Star: Tyler Newsome
Let's review the punt numbers from Newsome on Saturday: 55, 40, 57, and 55 yards. Three punts of at least 50 yards is ridiculous. There was a bit of a tipping point in the middle of the 1st half where 7 series' went by from each side without scoring and Newsome's punting absolutely crushed Pitt's field position during that time. Sneaky big part of the game before halftime.
Missed Opportunity: Boyd's 51-yard Touchdown Reception
Quite the annoying ending to the game, right? It looked like Notre Dame had the blowout all sewn up--it would have been the biggest win over Pitt in nearly two decades--and then the Irish completely blow it and let Pitt's biggest playmaker get wide open for an easy score.
Larz will breakdown this play, among other things, later this week.
Flag of the Game: Nothing
There were only 5 combined penalties for 55 yards in the game with nothing of consequence affecting the outcome to any degree.
Red Zone TD Success: ..........................
This was a magnificent turn around from a week ago when the Irish turned the ball over twice and settled for a field goal in the red zone. Pitt came into the game ranked 22nd in opponent red zone touchdown percentage and Notre Dame finished the afternoon 4 for 4.
Kizer's accurate low pass to Hunter opened up the red zone scoring. Kizer's fade to Fuller in the middle of the 3rd quarter was number two. Adams' pop pass was number three, while Kizer's easy touchdown run from the 2-yard line capped off the perfect day.
Schemes n Such
My biggest gripe would be Pitt's 4 sacks a couple of which were good licks on Kizer. That was really out of character for Notre Dame. On the whole, Notre Dame settled down and protected their quarterback pretty well.
We saw a good mix of play-calling and it seems like the tight ends are finally finding a groove in the run game after a lackluster performance against Temple. We did a little bit of everything against Pitt--hit them over the top, grinded out run plays, hit easy short passes--that bad play-calls never seemed to factor in during the game. Which is a great sign.
Despite keeping Notre Dame under 200 rushing yards and giving up 10 tackles for loss I thought this was a workman-like strong effort from the offensive line. The running backs only had 8 total negative yardage and there were plenty of run lanes opened up, particularly late in the game when it was obvious the Irish were not passing the ball much anymore.
The defensive line has played well this year and this wasn't a flashy performance. They won a lot of snaps but Day had a quiet...ahem...day and so did Rochell. There was a stretch there when the line seemed to completely lose their mind and kept flying high and wide up-field which led to several of Peterman's long scrambles right up the middle. They did stuff Pitt's running backs but could have done a little better getting in Peterman's face during the game. The Irish did have 6 quarterback hurries but only 2 came from the line.
Alize Jones, Brandon Wimbush, Te'von Coney, C.J. Sanders, Justin Yoon, Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Jerry Tillery were the true freshmen to see the field.
Coney added an assisted tackle, Sanders totaled 18 punt return yards, Adams went off (more on this below), Williams gained 6 yards, and Yoon hit all of his PAT's. Wimbush played briefly late in the game and did not look comfortable--you have to wonder if he was mentally on-point in a game most didn't expect to see him on the field. He ran for 17 yards after a pseudo-broken play, lost a yard on another run, and then had the atrocious sack/fumble that led to Pitt's final touchdown.
We can breathe a sigh of relief that C.J. Prosise looks to be okay and will likely practice this week if he passes concussion protocol. Once he went down things looked like they could get a little hairy as Notre Dame passed the ball on 8 out of the next 9 snaps. However, we settled in with Adams running the ball and he had a career-high 147 yards plus the touchdown 'catch' on the pop-pass. Our top two running backs are averaging 6.59 (Prosise) and 7.63 (Adams) yards per carry this season which is absurd. Adams' ability to get to the second level is impressive as he ripped off 3 separate runs of at least 20 yards.
We were very critical of Nicky Baratti's play last week but happy to note that he had a very nice bounce back effort with 2 key special teams tackles.
SchmidtGate, Volume 17. Another game with Schmidt coming away as the game's most criticized defender. Here were the 3 glaring issues I saw with him against Pitt:
A badly missed tackle which Schmidt has made a drinking game out of in the past. However, this was the only missed tackle that I saw in the game.
Everybody gets blocked on Tyler Boyd's long sweep run. Since Schmidt is the closest to the ball he was criticized the most. Larz will cover this play in our film review and point out a bigger culprit.
Not a great angle by Schmidt and his lack of speed is glaring next to Jaylon who comes from behind him to make the tackle.
Here's something to think about. Over the weekend I saw a lot of the comments everywhere to the effect of "Schmidt is too slow, he's getting pushed all over the field, and is a huge liability out there." Yet, when you look at the end of the game Pitt finished with 42 yards at 3 YPC from their running backs and didn't complete a pass against Joe Schmidt in coverage. If Schmidt was so terrible in this game why then didn't Pitt make Notre Dame pay for having him out there? It's shocking and hilarious how similar every criticism of Schmidt from this game is across multiple sites. It's a complete echo chamber of bringing up these few plays, and only these plays, as evidence that Schmidt is bad and can't do anything right. This is the biggest sign a lot of people are in witch-hunt mode. Schmidt is so terrible yet his fiercest critics can only cling to a couple of plays.
This is what is maddening about the Schmidt criticism. Thinking someone else could make more tackles? Fine. Wanting to get another player some snaps? Also completely acceptable. But it feels like we've entered this phase where, absent an All-American type of performance, every game is going to devolve into highlighting a couple missed assignments then blanketing the rest of Schmidt's performance as insert hyper negative adjective here. This type of hysteria has never sat well with me. Not only is it unfair to Schmidt (he deserves plenty of criticism, don't get me wrong) but it also often lets other players off the hook (stares intently at the secondary) for their struggles too.
I found it odd how Pitt seemed to welcome the underdog role but decided to punt on their last series before halftime. The Panthers were looking at a 4th & 10 from the Irish 42-yard line with under a minute left. They are trailing by 18 points and suddenly got really conservative in that moment.
Quite the game from Romeo Okwara, perhaps his best game? He totaled 2 sacks, and a quarterback hurry along with 4 total tackles. Okwara is now second on the team with 9.5 TFL and leads the team with 6 sacks.
Torii Hunter caught 3 passes for 37 yards and 1 touchdown--plus he played some nickel corner. No big deal. Truly one of the more strange personnel moves in recent years has been this sudden deployment of Hunter on defense. After the game, Brian Kelly said since Hunter splits reps with Carlisle in the slot they felt he could handle cross-training at nickel. I'm not sure this says all that much about the candidates at nickel. Losing Crawford really seemed to mess with that entire package, plus getting Russell reps there really hasn't been much of a weapon this year.
Jaylon Smith tied for the team-lead with 7 tackles, not included were his 2 quarterback hurries one of which was pretty funny to watch:
Outside of a big mental error on Boyd's long sweep run, Matthias Farley had a really strong first half starting in place of Elijah Shumate. He finished with 7 tackles (4 solo) and was quite productive coming down in run support. Of course, we also have to mention his crucial goal line interception which was one of the big first half plays of the game.
My favorite drive of the game was Notre Dame's 10-play drive in the 4th quarter after Okwara's 2nd sack. Adams got 5 carries, Dexter Williams even picked up a carry, and Kizer converted an easy third down to Fuller early on. After a screen went for a loss of 3 yards to open the drive the Irish picked up gains of 12, 12, 8, 6, 6, 3, 7, 9, and a 2-yard touchdown. That steady drive burned over 5 minutes of clock and effectively ended the game.
This has been an awesome season so far and there are many reasons why Brian Kelly is in the mix for National Coach of the Year. The Irish opened as a 26.5 point favorite over Wake Forest who is coming off a bye. Next weekend Notre Dame plays Boston College who is headed into a bye week and that game should easily be at least a two-touchdown line. At this point, we have a 95+% chance of heading to Palo Alto with a 10-1 record. The Eagles have a better defense than Wake Forest (No. 3 FEI vs. No. 68 prior to this weekend) but BC has averaged 8 points per game against Power 5 teams this year. Not a typo.