Nov. 8, 2015

Sunday Brunch: Daytime Look at Irish Is Revealing

By John Heisler

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly told his team moments before it faced off against Pittsburgh that he was excited to see the Irish play Saturday.

He wasn’t sure why, but he was excited.

Three and a half hours later-in a rare matinee attraction that produced a 42-30 victory for the No. 5 Irish over the 6-2 Panthers-he had some better ideas why:

  • He was thrilled to see what he called the most consistent effort of the season by the Notre Dame offensive line. The Irish ran for 175 yards, exactly the same number as Pittsburgh.

    “To handle their inside pressure, it’s important to have a running game to keep you away from third and long,” said Kelly..

  • He was excited to see his offense churn out yet another 400-yard performance. And, even as productive as Notre Dame was against Pittsburgh, its 437 net yards marked the lowest total in any of the eight Irish victories. Only two Notre Dame teams in history (1968 and 1970) have finished with better total offense averages than the current Irish figure (488.4 per game)..
  • He was intrigued that his squad could shrug off another injury to a major piece of its attack (running back C.J. Prosise left at the end of one period with upper-body issues), only to see a freshman in Josh Adams (and a Pennsylvania product at that) respond with 147 rushing yards. No Irish rookie runner has done better except Jerome Heavens who had 148 in 1975 against Georgia Tech. Adams, who also caught a touchdown pass, earned the game ball.

    “And he’s only going to get bigger, faster and stronger,” said Kelly..

  • He was hardly surprised to see what Will Fuller did against the defensive coverage employed by the Panthers. The results were not pretty for Pittsburgh: seven catches for 152 yards (just seven yards off his career best day for yardage) and three scores.

    Said Kelly, “He’s on the sideline, telling me, ‘Get me the ball. I can score.'” On one afternoon Fuller passed Irish legends Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija on the Irish career touchdown reception list. Not bad..

  • He was impressed once more by quarterback DeShone Kizer, who threw for five TDs, ran for a sixth, finished an ultra-proficient 19 of 26 in the passing department and kept the offense chugging on all cylinders most all afternoon. Kizer came in with a .651 completion rate, upped that with a .730 effort against the Panthers-and knew it could have been better considering he barely missed on a couple of other downfield shots to Fuller. Kizer put himself in rare company, with the six TDs produced ranking behind only the 37 points Art Smith put up against Loyola (Chicago) in 1911.

    Said Kelly, “He (Kizer) is well-supported. He’s got five solid guys in front of him and he’s got a great bunch of running backs and receivers, so if he (Kizer) does his part we can look that way.”.

  • He was relieved to see that playing at a comparatively odd early hour (Notre Dame’s first noon kickoff since four seasons ago at Pittsburgh) would prove no impediment. In a rare travel switch, the Irish flew to Pittsburgh Thursday night just to make sure they could prepare for their early Saturday wakeup call.

    If anything, the Irish caught the home team asleep at the wheel early, scoring a touchdown in the first 71 seconds by traversing 75 yards in three plays. Kelly put his players through a more-involved-than-normal Friday workout, and he said he knew based on the reaction to that session that the early timing would not be an issue.

Kelly, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and the Notre Dame defense might have liked it better if cosmetics had left the final score at 42-17 instead of allowing the Panthers two late TDs. But he wasn’t going to complain after a second straight road win over a quality opponent.

“We had a blown coverage and then we were sloppy with the football. If you take those two mistakes away, I thought it was as good as we’ve played in some time,” said Kelly.

A year ago, when the Irish also were 7-1 and ranked eighth (Associated Press version), they went into a late-season, injury-driven tailspin. Saturday Notre Dame gave solid indications 2015 will be different.

As it turned out, the Irish needed to score their share of points to win against the Panthers, and they did not come cheap. Notre Dame’s TD drives lasted 75, 75, 70, 75, 50 and 62 yards. From the start of the second half, defense in general appeared to be missing in action, as the two teams combined to score on four consecutive possessions (277 combined yards). When Pitt blinked first and had to punt from its own 25, the Irish plastered their final points on the board.

“We needed to be efficient on offense today, and we were,” said Kelly. As to improvement in the red zone (after two missed chances last week at Temple), the Irish head coach noted, “All 11 guys met (during the week) as a unit. We wanted to be more alert, have a heightened awareness of what it would take.”

Give Pittsburgh quarterback Nate Peterman credit. He misfired on nine of his first 10 throws and was three for 18 with an interception (by Mathias Farley, the eighth of his career) at halftime. Peterman somehow pieced together completions good for 51 and 37 yards after intermission, ended up connecting on his nine of his 13 throws for 179 yards after the break and paced the Panthers on 77- and 75-yard scoring excursions the first two times Pitt had the ball in the third period. He also ended up as the leading Panther rusher with 60 net yards.

But none of that was near enough after the Irish led 21-3 at halftime and then scored TDs the first three times they had the football in the second half. Plus, when the game was on the line, the Irish effectively kept savvy Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd from becoming much of a factor (he finished with three receptions and 42 rushing yards).

The tide turned for good when the Notre Dame defense forced Pitt’s first second-half three and out, punctuated by a Romeo Okwara sack on third and five. Taking over with 11:19 left in the game, the Irish marched 62 yards for their final points-with Adams accounting for 42 of his rushing yards on that possession. In all, Notre Dame held the football for 12:46 of the last quarter.

Farley led the Irish with seven tackles (all in the opening half). Jaylon Smith had seven of his own-KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield had six apiece. Notre Dame was credited with eight quarterback hurries (two by Smith)-Pitt had none.

On top of all that, the Irish apparently are a good draw, playing in front of record road crowds each of the last two weeks.

The Panthers pulled out all the stops for this one, inviting former Pitt quarterback Dan Marino to served as the team’s honorary captain-and then retiring the jersey of former offensive lineman Jimbo Covert at halftime. Tony Dorsett, Mike Ditka and Bill Fralic and former Pitt head coaches Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill joined the scene. The Irish countered with 2012 captains Kapron Lewis-Moore and Tyler Eifert and Pittsburgh Steeler defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, all of whom observed from the Notre Dame sideline.

In the end, it became Kizer, Fuller, Adams and the rest of the Irish deservedly earning the headlines.

“Don’t let anyone convince you it’s not a good one,” suggested one Irish player (with a matter of fact grin) to no one in particular as he exited the Heinz Field locker room.

“All we can do is try to win three more games,” Kelly told the media.

“All we can do is take care of what’s in front of us, and this week it’s Wake Forest.”


“That’s a great win-let’s not talk about anything else. We’re not gonna say we could have done this or we could have done that. You beat a quality team, and you checked another box on our mission,” Kelly told his players after the victory. “That’s back-to-back wins on the road against tough competition.

“That was the most consistent performance by our offensive line all year. And if you’re going to press-cover Will Fuller . . . well, that’s all I’ve got to say.

“Now we’re got to come back with a great effort next week on Senior Week. It’s another step for us, and we’re going to go out the right way at home against Wake Forest.

“We’re going to play our best football. November is for contenders, and this team is a darned contender.”

And count on Kelly to be excited to see what happens next Saturday as well.

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.

Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:

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— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On

— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:

— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:

— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:

— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:

— Sunday Brunch: Holy Smokes, Irish Beat USC!

— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: