Coming off the heels of a disappointing performance against Louisville, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish came out firing on all cylinders with a 45-3 demolition of the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field. The Irish answered plenty of questions in this game, but also sparked some new ones that may be flying under the radar before the Irish matchup with Clemson in two weeks. For a primer on the statistics that will be used in this article, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
This game was back and forth early, as Notre Dame’s offense sputtered after an opening drive touchdown. The Irish began to pull away in the second quarter and put this game out of reach with the blocked punt returned for a touchdown. The second half is one of the most boring win probability charts you can find, but that’s a welcome sight as Notre Dame put the clamps down on an inferior opponent.
NOTRE DAME OFFENSE
Notre Dame dominated Pittsburgh in every facet. The Panthers dared Ian Book to beat them by loading up the box and he delivered in a big way. He had a season high 0.48 EPA/Play and averaged 9 yards per dropback. Book did leave some points on the field though with some accuracy issues and, surprisingly, had his lowest PFF passing grade of the season. While we disagree and believe Book played well on the whole, this goes to the point we made last week following the Louisville game. Notre Dame can be a lot better offensively by just altering the run-pass mix. Going into this game Notre Dame had a pass rate on first and second down of 36%, the lowest figure among Power 5 teams. Against Pittsburgh they threw over 50% on first down and 68% of the time on second down and had their most productive passing game of 2020. This will also only help the rushing attack as future opponents will no longer be able to stack the box with extra defenders since Book has proven he can take advantage through the air.
Kyren Williams was not good on Saturday, rushing for -0.13 EPA and a paltry 1.7 Yards/Play. There’s no reason for alarm here. Pittsburgh also took a page out of Louisville’s playbook and often called corner blitzes to keep Williams from bouncing outside. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of the passing game will free up space for the running backs moving forward.
While Book was very productive at all levels of the field, he wasn’t necessarily accurate. He only completed 37.5% of his passes between 10-19 yards downfield, and only went 2 for 5 on throws behind the line of scrimmage. This offense is going to need to keep pace with Clemson and although the Irish defense is elite, asking them to keep the Tigers completely in check is unrealistic. Book is going to hit almost all receivers when they’re open and hopefully getting more familiar with his receivers will shore up these concerns.
As we predicted in the preview, Kenny Pickett not being able to suit up was the beginning of the end for Pittsburgh’s offense. Joey Yellen was terrible as he produced -0.43 EPA and 4 Yards/Play. Our concern going into the game was that their top two receivers, Jordan Addison and Taysir Mack, would cause headaches for the secondary but that was not the case at all. They were held completely in check to the tune of 0.02 and -0.32 EPA/Play, respectively. Their running backs were also as bad as advertised, averaging -0.33 EPA on 10 non-garbage time carries. The eye test told you everything you needed to know about their ground game, as they seemingly ran into a brick wall every time they touched the ball.
The only concern following this game from a defensive standpoint is one that we have harped on the last few weeks, and that is the deep ball. When throwing passes under 20 yards, Notre Dame’s pass defense was elite as they held Pitt to a negative EPA/attempt. Once again they got burned a couple times deep, as Pitt went 2 for 5 for 0.59 EPA/play on throws over 20 yards. This is concerning as Clemson looms large and the Irish face a quarterback that is extremely capable of going over the top.