There were no scares for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this Halloween weekend, not even with the hatin’-ass Pittsburgh Panthers in town. Despite a couple early interceptions from Sam Hartman, Pat Narduzzi’s squad never posed any real threat and the Irish romped, 58-7. The Irish now embark on a perilous road trip which will in all likelihood define the second half of this season. With that in mind, your song of the week:
This game gave the Irish a lot of opportunities to work on issues that plagued them in the middle third of their season, and saw them do so with varying success. Let’s talk about a few of those ahead of next week’s trip to Death Valley.
Forcing the Issue Through the Air
The Irish passing attack had been moribund ever since the Ohio State game. Finally getting an easier opponent into South Bend gave Gerad Parker and Sam Hartman an opportunity to reestablish some of the dynamism we had seen earlier in the season, and there were definitely concerted efforts to get increased target share to Notre Dame’s receivers, take more downfield shots and get Sam Hartman looking like the Heisman candidate we saw early in the season. The results were...mixed.
Notre Dame did succeed in getting a bigger group of pass-catchers involved on offense: Chris Tyree, Rico Flores and Tobias Merriweather all made catches for chunk plays, while Jayden Thomas got back some of his typical usage as a possession receiver. On the other hand, in his clear effort to force the ball downfield Hartman also threw two interceptions early in the game, which Pitt teams of years past might well have seized as opportunities to stay in the game for the long haul. Against a Clemson Tigers defense that will put more pressure on Hartman and do a better job staying with Notre Dame’s receivers, we will need to see continued increases in creativity, but we will also need to see Hartman prioritize being careful with the football.`
More Dynamic Plays for the Running Backs, Please
One of the other improvements in the Irish offense this week was the use of the running backs: Notre Dame found more and better ways to use the powerful trio of Audric Estime, Jadarian Price and Jeremiyah Love, even as Estime retained his traditional lead rushing role. Estime also proved to be a chain-mover early in the passing game, a role that could likely be expanded. We got to see Love’s straight-line speed on a 33-yard catch and run down the sideline, and Price’s lateral quickness as well as his power and nose for the goal line.
Most importantly, we saw an Irish team that had answers when Pitt committed to stopping its staple run plays - using a wider variety of plays and backs while gaining control of the game and getting to a point where they could simply lean on their opponent. With the toughest part of their schedule behind them, the Irish should find a lot of success if they can continue along this path.
Notre Dame’s Secondary is Crazy Deep
Another week, another shout-out to Xavier Watts, who now leads all of college football in interceptions after recording two against the Panthers. But the Irish secondary also showed a new strength in this game, namely its depth: with Benjamin Morrison out for the entire game and Cam Hart out for the second half, Jaden Mickey and Christian Gray stepped into the main corner roles. While it wasn’t always perfect (the Irish did give up long plays of 50 and 34 yards), the two young corners ultimately limited Pitt’s passing attack to only 202 yards and a 23.3 QBR for Christian Veilleux.
Most impactfully, the young corners also showed they could maintain Morrison and Hart’s playmaking ability: both recorded interception, with Mickey taking his to the house after perfectly jumping a route while Gray recorded a spectacular one-handed, leaping pick. With Gray and Mickey returning after this year alongside Morrison, the future of the Irish secondary is very bright.