Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans often cross their fingers going into games against the Pittsburgh Panthers, and the games often prove they are right to do so. Not so in 2020, as the Irish - minus a couple of key contributors - walked into Heinz Field and absolutely manhandled the hideously charcoal-clad Panthers. With another road matchup on deck against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets next week, let’s look at what all went right in this systematic annihilation of Roc and Co.
The Irish offense had struggled mightily to move the ball through the air prior to Saturday, and had to step up with Pitt fielding a stout run defense. Fortunately, Ian Book, Tommy Rees and co. finally found a strategy that worked: find the big fellas.
Ben Skowronek made headlines with an impressive 107 yards and two touchdowns on only two receptions, while Book also established connections with Michael Mayer (5 rec, 73 yds, 1 TD) and Javon McKinley (2 rec, 50 yds) that helped spring the Irish offense as the Panthers sold out to stop the run. Whether it was over the middle or down the sideline, Book succeeded by finding big-bodied athletes and giving them opportunities to outmuscle the defense.
With Kevin Austin out for the season and Braden Lenzy continuing to deal with nagging injuries, we may continue to see an Irish offense that quite literally plays to its tight ends and receivers’ strength.
The Irish defense are a bunch of big mean bullies and it’s glorious
The absolute pinnacle of Pitt’s day on offense was a field goal on the opening drive. After that came a show of complete and utter dominance by the Irish defense in which Pitt never again saw the inside of the Irish 30 yard line. The Panthers seemed to have already given up by the end of the first half, attempting to run out the clock in the final minutes rather than score. The Irish did not allow them even that luxury, calling a timeout to force a punt that was then blocked and picked up in the end zone by Isaiah Foskey for a soul-crushing touchdown.
The statistical breakdown reveals a brutal and bullying defensive performance from start to finish. Poor Joey Yellen embarked on a descent into hell that saw him complete only 37% of his passes for an average of 3.7 yards, culminating in back-to-back interceptions that chased him from the game in the third quarter. The Panthers used three quarterbacks on Saturday. Their mean QBR? 16.2. Meanwhile, Pitt’s entire ground attack was outrushed singlehandedly by C’Bo Flemister.
Even the Panthers’ efforts to generate some garbage-time points against the Irish second string came to nothing, and the last time they touched the ball on offense was with 7:53 remaining. While the opponent was far from elite, this was a championship-level effort in which the Irish denied the Panthers even the smallest of silver linings.
This team has some serious grit
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this effort by the Irish is the context in which it happened. After an uninspiring effort the week prior, the Irish were on upset alert against the Panthers. On the national scene the question seemed to be when, rather than if, the Irish would be surpassed by any number of teams from the Big Ten, with a loss to Clemson in two weeks treated as a virtual certainty. On top of that, they lost a key contributor on each side of the ball, with Austin and TaRiq Bracy both held out.
With their pride on the line and their legitimacy as a top team in doubt, the Irish responded with a dominant effort and looked every bit the part of a top-5 team. They showed heart, poise, and a healthy mean streak that will serve them well going forward. They’ll have another chance to strut on the road next week at Georgia Tech before gearing up for a matchup with game-of-the-century implications on November 7.