Pitt preview

Pittsburgh: Irish Reaching Superhero Status?

It’s a bird.

It’s a plane.

It’s … Tilleryman?

Well, that was Pittsburgh football coach Pat Narduzzi’s assessment this week of Notre Dame senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery. Without question he meant it as a compliment.

“They’ve got some creatures out there,” said Narduzzi.

“The Tillery kid is 6-foot-7, 305 pounds. He’s a monster.

“They should probably name a new cartoon after that guy.

“You’ve got Superman? They’ve got ‘Tilleryman.’

“That guy, he’s a beast.”

So, that’s apparently what happens when Irish coach Brian Kelly and his team combine to knock off three ranked opponents (Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech) in the first six weeks of the season. Only five other Irish teams in history have done that.

Wherever the Irish stood coming into the 2018 season, they certainly stand prominently on the radar now halfway through their regular-season slate.

What that means for Kelly is that the visibility, expectations, scrutiny and interest all are upsized for his program from here on out. And maybe a little craziness comes with the territory, too.

The Irish head coach may not quite be ready to label any of his players as superheroes — but, hey, if that’s the way the opposition wants to view it, so be it.

Says Narduzzi, “I’m looking forward to Notre Dame, and when I say I’m looking forward, I don’t know if I’m looking forward to playing the No. 5 team in the country because they’re awful good. Maybe as good of a football team as you’re going to see, that Notre Dame has ever had, I think.

“Now all of a sudden here we’ve got a guy named Ian Book. You’re like, where did this guy come from? Where’s (Brandon) Wimbush? Wimbush is really good — St. Peter’s Prep High School, he’s a Jersey guy.

“And then there’s Book, and offensively he’s making things click. He can run. He’s tough. He’ll run you over. You’d better watch out on the sideline if you’re standing around. He’ll take you out. He’s got the whole package. I think they’ve found their guy.

“Defensively there’s Jerry Tillery, the (Drue) Tranquill kid at linebacker.

“They’ve got a football team.

“Their receivers are big. I can’t tell the difference between their tight ends and the receivers. I think our guys are going to get confused. They put them all in 80 numbers and you can’t tell.

“They’re all big. They’re all fast, and we’ll have our hands full when we get out there Saturday.”

The Irish will play for a seventh straight Saturday versus the Panthers (3-3) and then take a weekend off (an open date on Oct. 20) at the end of the University’s fall break.

Kelly’s now fifth-ranked crew (6-0) is coming off an impressive 45-23 road victory at Virginia Tech, marking its largest win margin over a ranked foe in 52 years.

“What we did well was handle the elements on the road in a very difficult place traditionally to play in,” said Kelly.

“Certainly what we learned is that we need to play four quarters. We played well in the second half. Probably didn’t play our best in the first half. Certainly we have some room to grow, and we’ve got to be better there.

“What we learned, more than anything else, is that we can overcome adversity. We lost some key players, went on the road without some key players — and our guys stepped up and played extremely well.

“Handling adversity, handling a road environment is something that I’m really pleased with from last week. And then we’ve got to play for four quarters.”

With the Irish playing in prime time last Saturday, they had some ability to watch Pittsburgh score 44 points in its afternoon overtime victory over a Syracuse team that began the year 4-0.

“Pat Narduzzi is somebody that I’m very familiar with as a former Michigan State defensive coordinator,” says Kelly. “We’ve had many battles with him, and now as the head coach, we know his style of football — physical, hard-nosed, run the football, aggressive defense. We’re going to get that again. They beat a very good Syracuse team last week — they’re coming off a great victory with a lot of momentum. I really like the way they’re playing.

“Defensively, it’s a structure that’s similar to what we’ve seen in the past with Michigan State, with aggressive corner play, aggressive third-down pressures. You have to be really in tune, and we’ll have to do a very good job of picking up their pressures.

“Offensively, they’re running the ball very, very well — as well as anybody we’ve seen this year. This is an offense that wants to control the line of scrimmage. I like their offensive line. It’s a veteran group. They play exceedingly well together as a group.

“The running back situation, with (Qadree) Ollison and (Darrin) Hall contributing, both of them are playing at a high level. They’re big, physical backs, they play with a fullback, so it’s good old-fashioned get-after-it football.

“That’s synonymous with Pittsburgh in terms of who they are and what they’ve been as an identity.

“They’ve got a really good wide receiver group, with (Taysir) Mack and others that have now stepped in for them and can break the game open.

“Each year now they’ve upset a top-ranked team–Miami last year, the year before Clemson. So it’s certainly a capable football team and one where you have to be able to match their physicality and their will.”

Despite the score against Virginia Tech, Kelly wasn’t convinced his team played with enough juice:

“We weren’t very emotional. I think we didn’t play with enough passion at times in that game.

“One of the things that we talked about is that that wasn’t our best performance in a lot of ways, and we have to play with more energy.

“We have to play with more passion, and that is going to be the emphasis this week in terms of how we need to play against Pittsburgh.

“This is really about going back to the practice field, having much more of a focus on how we prepare.

“We know that this is a big game for Pittsburgh. But for us, it’s important that we play at a higher level this weekend.

“We’re not pleased with the way we played for four quarters last week, and our emphasis will be on our performance and playing much better.”

One thing Kelly likes about his team is the way it has responded in the second half in claiming wins over ranked opponents Stanford and Virginia Tech.

“The last two weeks we’ve done a really nice job with that,” he says. “There’s something in the ability to complement your defense, and offensively we’re scoring some points. We weren’t doing that earlier in the season in the second half.

“We’re just playing a little bit better on both sides of the ball. Yet we can play better as a unit offensively and defensively together for four quarters. We were a little spotty on Saturday. It would be nice to put it all together. We’ve got some room for growth there.

“More than anything else, this putting opponents away is much more about our guys being in really good physical condition. They can play all day. We’re scoring some points in the second half that we weren’t earlier in the year.

“They’re doing a lot of really good things, but it’s nice to know that after six weeks that there’s still plenty of room for growth.”

Kelly also has instructed his team to take an aggressive approach to what is normally a challenging week in terms of mid-term exams prior to the week off from classes.

“It’s Notre Dame. Let’s go. Bring it on.

“You can say this is a tough week and you’ve got three exams — and that’s not going to do you any good.

“Let’s go at it like warriors.

“Let’s get after this. Let’s change the narrative.

“Let’s get up early for the exam. Let’s be positive about what we’re doing.

“It’s a mindset. Everybody in the world has to take exams. You want to use it as an excuse? It’s not going to help you. So let’s be positive about it, let’s get our work done.”

Narduzzi knows his team needs to consistently make plays on the field to have a good chance to win Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“When you execute and you believe in what you’re doing, those are the keys to playing well and having a chance to win the football game,” he says. “That’s all — you just want a chance. We have yet to do that.

“We get to go on the road, which is always another challenge. I’ve been in that stadium plenty of times. I know what it’s like. I’ve sat and watched tape of 2015 when they came here, what they did and how they did it, all their screens. We’ve seen everything.

“And they’re very similar to what they were then. They don’t change much.

“You see Brian Kelly’s fingerprints over everything they do on offense.

“Clark Lea, their defensive coordinator, does a good job — he’s very sound. I’ve sat in a meeting room with Clark and talked football and defense. The guy is as sharp as you can get, and there’s no doubt why they’re having success, because they’re consistent.

“They’re smart. They’ve got good players. They keep it simple. And they let those guys make plays.”

Narduzzi’s history suggests he won’t be awed by the Notre Dame Stadium environment.

“Notre Dame is a great institution, great place,” he says. “I’m Catholic, I love Notre Dame, but this is a football game.

“We’re going to walk in there and it’s a business trip. It’s all about the football game.

“We’re not going to go to the Basilica or go see Touchdown Jesus. We’re not taking any tours.

“We’re going to play a football game.”

Here are details of presentations and introductions that will take place Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium when Notre Dame and Pittsburgh face off:

  • The national colors will be presented before the game by John J. Brennan, chair of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees, and his wife, Cathy. Brennan is the chairman emeritus and former chief executive officer of Vanguard Group, and the Brennans are the parents of three Notre Dame graduates — William, Kara and Conor.
  • There will be a pregame flyover by four U.S. Air Force T-38 Talons flown by the “Black Knights” of the 49th Fighter Training Squadron out of Columbus (Mississippi) AFB. The crew is Capt. Matthew “COMA” Martenson, Capt. Michael “Bronco” Mangano, Capt. Kyle “Raw” Sellner and Capt. Tyler “Slasher” Clark.
  • The Presidential Team Irish Award will be presented to the Holy Cross House and Corby Hall dining team. That group has shown tireless dedication to creating an extraordinary dining experience for the Holy Cross priests and brothers who live on campus. Its members strive to create a sense of community, home and family for those who dine with them. One unique moment that showcased their dedication was when the team served Corby’s historical last supper and opened its new interim kitchen at the Presbytery for breakfast without missing a beat.
  • The Notre Dame and Pittsburgh bands will perform at halftime, along with the Notre Dame alumni band.
  • The Notre Dame faculty recognition goes to Krupali Uplekar Krusche, associate professor of architecture. Whether working in rural villages in Nepal and Romania or around international landmarks, Krusche does not simply honor tradition; she preserves it. Her largest-scale projects have come as director of the digital research team DHARMA which uses 3D laser scanners to create detailed blueprints for World Heritage Sites like the Taj Mahal, the Roman Forum and the Vatican, ensuring they could be restored if they were ever damaged or destroyed. In addition to directing DHARMA, Krusche serves as the School of Architecture’s associate dean for research, scholarship and creative work.
  • The Notre Dame student-military recognition Saturday salutes Maj. Roland “Woody” Olmstead, an Air Force officer and pilot from Monument, Colorado. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Maryland. He attended pilot training in Texas and then flew the C-130 Hercules out of Pope Field, North Carolina. While there he deployed twice to the Middle East and Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and New Dawn. He then returned to pilot training and taught future Air Force pilots in the T-1 Jayhawk as an instructor pilot and flight commander. He is currently a PhD student in Notre Dame’s Department of Political Science under the direction of professor Daniel Philpott where he is researching how societies reconcile after conflict. He will go on to teach political science at the Air Force Academy. Woody has been married to his wife Jill for 12 years and together they have four children: Josiah, Hudson, Lily Ruth and Boaz.
  • The University of Notre Dame is proud to recognize the 50th anniversary of its partnership with Indiana University School of Medicine–South Bend. Since 1968, the IU School of Medicine-South Bend has jumpstarted the medical careers of hundreds of Notre Dame graduates, some of whom serve on its faculty today. Once housed in Haggar Hall, the medical program is now located on Notre Dame Avenue adjacent to another joint venture between Notre Dame and IU, the Harper Cancer Research Institute. Notre Dame provost Tom Burish and Dr. Mark Fox, director of the IU School of Medicine–South Bend, and several members of the medical school faculty will take part in the on-field recognition.
  • The official game program for the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game will include feature stories on the evolving history and tradition of the Notre Dame Monogram (by John Heisler), the four new head coaches of Irish fall sports teams (by John Heisler), former Irish star running back Jerome Bettis (a Strong of Heart piece by John Heisler), Notre Dame student Sam Grewe who has become a world champion high jumper in para track and field (a Strong of Heart piece by Todd Burlage) and Irish standout senior wide receiver Miles Boykin (by Tyler Testin).
  • The Notre Dame-Pittsburgh pep rally will be held at the Compton Family Ice Arena from 6-7 p.m. Friday.
  • Fans coming to campus this weekend also can attend an Irish home volleyball match Sunday versus Virginia Tech (noon at Purcell Pavilion).

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.