Mid-term exam week at the University of Notre Dame translates to papers, tests, late nights and stress.
It presumably didn’t leave any time last week for Irish football players to ponder any of what had been underwhelming Pittsburgh defensive rankings.
That Panther defensive unit (ranked 95th in total defense, 99th in scoring defense and 105th in rushing defense while allowing 32.8 points and 420.8 yards per game) hardly resembled the one that gave Notre Dame more than its share of trouble Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi–once the longtime, highly regarded Michigan State defensive coordinator–decided to gang up on the Irish run game and effectively eliminated Dexter Williams and his teammates from having the sort of field day fans might have expected. The Irish finished with 80 net ground yards—37 fewer than in any other 2018 outing.
So Notre Dame went back to an old—or is it new?—standby.
If John Huarte to Jack Snow, Terry Hanratty to Jim Seymour and Joe Theismann to Thom Gatewood qualify as the fling-and-cling combos of days gone by, Ian Book and Miles Boykin are staking their own claim these days.
Those two over the last three games have combined for 23 connections good for 445 yards and four touchdowns.
The most recent of those, a perfectly lofted 35-yarder with 5:43 left against the Panthers, provided the winning points in fifth-ranked Notre Dame’s 19-14 triumph Saturday—its seventh straight win to begin the 2018 campaign.
“We create the energy in this stadium today,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly before the game started. “We’re not going to rely on our fans or anybody else—it’s on us.
“We’re going to put the ball down, we’re going to spot it and we’re going to play for four quarters.
“We’ll create the energy by executing one play at a time. It’s a sense of urgency that this football team has and has identified as who we are. That is the standard that we have set. Anything less than that is unacceptable.
“Eleven players working together and focusing on one play at a time. And we’ll let that be who we are today. One hundred percent focus on every play. No distractions on what needs to happen today.
“For the next three and a half hours we are locked in on our job–and your job as Notre Dame football players is to go out there and dominate our opponent. That’s what we play for – we’ve worked too hard to do anything else.
“That’s how we’re going to play today.”
Pitt had only one drive all day longer than 49 yards—and that came on its opening possession: a 17-play, 83-yard march that lasted 9:43—more than three minutes longer than any other opponent touchdown drive in 2018.
It qualified as the only offensive points scored by the visitors on all of the sun-splashed, 53-degree day. Yet, combined with a 99-yard kickoff return to open the second half, the Panthers held leads at the end of the first (7-0), second (7-6) and third periods (14-12)—when Notre Dame had never trailed at a quarter break all year. The lone time the Irish had been behind was 3-0 early at Wake Forest.
The first period featured 17 running plays and only a single combined incompletion—Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Book both were five of six throwing, with Book throwing an interception on the final play of the period.
Said Irish linebacker Drue Tranquill later, “That first period went by in the blink of an eye.”
Notre Dame’s first three possessions combined equated to 57 net yards—then Irish drives of 44 and 42 yards translated to Justin Yoon field goals.
Meanwhile, Pitt’s offense after that initial TD drive produced seven plays for seven yards in the remainder of the opening half.
“Everybody knows what we have to do,” said Kelly at intermission.
“You have to play four quarters of football. You get what you deserve in this game. You’ve got to go win the second half. You’ve got to do it one play at a time. You’ve got to trust your teaching, you’ve got to trust your teammates. You can’t do it on your own. You’ve got to do it together. If you don’t do it together you’ve got no chance.
“That’s why there are two halfs. You’ve got a second half.
“Be Notre Dame football the second half. Do the little things right for four quarters and we’ll win the football game.”
Maurice Ffrench’s kickoff return (his second of the season for a score) wasn’t exactly what the Irish had talked about at the break. In fact, when special teams coach Brian Polian at halftime noted, “Nobody said this was going to be easy,” he couldn’t have known the mountain would double in size in just a matter of minutes.
Then Book threw a second interception on Notre Dame’s initial third-period try.
But the Irish defense did what it needed to do from there, allowing Panther possessions that produced 49 and 57 yards but ended up in missed field goals from 47 and 36 yards.
Book finally got the home team a TD with 2:09 left in the third period—as he threw 21 yards to Chase Claypool to start the 71-yard drive and finished it with a 16-yarder to Claypool.
What became the winning scoring march began with 7:26 left in the game. It featured a Pitt pass interference call on first down, a Williams run for 13 (his longest of the day on an afternoon in which he ran for only 31 yards), a 12-yard completion to Boykin on a critical third-and-five call—and then the 35-yarder to Boykin for the first Irish lead.
“You just gotta put it up there and give him a chance,” said Book.
“There’s no point in freaking out when there’s time on the clock. We’ve been there before.”
The Panthers’ two last-ditch attempts produced 20 yards on the first (two hurries by Julian Okwara who finished with seven and earned the game ball) and minus-19 on the second (on a Khalid Kareem sack and three more Okwara hurries). Both possessions ended with missed fourth-down conversions.
“The most important thing in these games is execution,” said Kelly to his squad after it was over.
“It might not have been the best execution we’ve had all year but we executed well enough to win the football game today and that’s really all that matters.
“You can take a lot from today. We understand how anything can happen and that on any day you can get beat. That’s why your total preparation is so crucial from week to week.
“Because you don’t know–you don’t know what can happen. Your whole week is wrapped up in your preparation to get to Saturday.
“We did not have to learn a hard lesson today because we did enough to win the game.
“We did some good things out there today. Our defense played very well today. They did things that got us off the field when we needed to, gave us a chance to do the things we needed to do at the end of the game, some young guys out there making plays.
“We’ve got to win games like that. If you’re a championship football team you look back and you’re going to have to win a football game like that.
“Do we want to win all of them like that? Heck no. But you have to grind it out and you have to find a way to win and you did that today.
“You made enough plays today to win the game and you have to be pleased with everybody’s effort. I don’t question anybody’s physical effort in here today. We are a little bit tired mentally because playing this game requires you to be locked in at all times.”
Book completed all 14 of his passes in the second half, one to Pitt’s Jazzee Stocker and the other 13 to his teammates for 158 yards.
And the Irish certainly have proven they can win close games. Four home wins over Michigan, Ball State, Vanderbilt and Pitt have come by a combined 6.25 points per game—with the Notre Dame defense allowing an average of 16.2 points in those four efforts.
“We’ve got five more weeks of tough football and we’ve got to take a deep breath now and recharge ourselves and finish strong,” Kelly told his players. “You’re in great position—first time we’ve been 7-0 since 2012. But that’s not where we want to finish. We’re too far into this now and we’ve got work to do.
“When we get back from this break (the Irish have an open date next Saturday in advance of an Oct. 27 date with Navy in San Diego) it’s time to reset and we start all over again with a five-game season.
“Great job of being gritty and hanging in there for four quarters. Not a lot of stuff went right for us and you just kept plowing in there. I’m proud of the effort in this room.
“Pitt played their very, very best. That’s not the same team you looked at on film. They did everything right today and you still found a way to win that football game not playing your very best.
“And all we’re talking about is winning football games.”
Kelly in the media room paid another tribute to the visitors: “They played exactly the way they needed to play.”
And he’s banking on his team learning from what they experienced Saturday:
“We’ll learn and grow from it. We’ll be better because of it.”
Little did he know exam week did not end Friday.
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 1976 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.