This team is different. They’re not going to play down to the competition. The offense is too good to let that happen.
That was the subtext, if not the text, of the bulk of the national media’s discussion of Notre Dame this week. So with Pitt, tormentor of worlds (see 2008 and nearly 2012), coming to town, we really should have seen this coming.
Luckily, the Irish defense blanked Pitt after their first drive (notwithstanding a kickoff return), and that was barely enough for the Irish to win, 19-14, and get to the bye week at 7-0.
And while Ian Book did his job at the end, make no mistake about it, this was a win by the defense.
After its first drive Pitt ran 43 offensive plays that accounted for 154 yards and no points. That’s 3.58 yards per play during that span.
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 13, 2018
The question is, why was it necessary?
This Pitt defense has been awful. The only team that scored fewer than 19 points against them this year so far was Albany. They gave up 38 to North Carolina and 37 to Syracuse. And this week, their top tackler blew out his knee and was knocked out for the season.
At least one writer on Twitter hypothesized that Pitt must have shown something different on film than on Saturday. That seems logical enough. Ian Book seemed out of sync most of the day (this is weird, by the way, since he completed over 80 percent of his throws, including all of them after his second interception). His numbers against the blitz were and are poor, but general opinion held that was due to the rarity with which he saw them.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi decided to test that theory by blitzing seemingly every play, and it worked. ND couldn’t do much of anything on offense, especially on the ground. Luckily, they started to figure it out in the second half, and Book delivered big TD throws to Chase Claypool and, most importantly, to Miles Boykin, ultimately the game-winning score.
📚 Book Club is now in session.
— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) October 13, 2018
Some key notes from the game:
Special teams… Not Good
Justin Yoon is great, and Tyler Newsome is usually great, and there was nothing wrong with either today, but it still wasn’t the best day for special teams. Another kickoff return for a touchdown occurred, and that would’ve been among the most infuriating things ever if it had cost the Irish the game. Jonathan Doerer is an enigma, as is the question of why he is played, since he is an enigma. Just wind up and destroy the ball, man. For those with your skills, it isn’t that difficult.
The Irish D might not have surrendered a point all day if it hadn’t been for Nicco Fertitta’s jumping offside. (Nicco, if you’re going to commit penalties, we have an over/under on targeting ejections for you.) As it was, after that, and the TD drive it spawned, it was a shutout, with an assist from Pitt missing 2 field goals (we have good luck with that, huh?).
My favorite part was probably the end of the game, when beacon of wisdom Doug Flutie informed us he didn’t like rushing only three players on 4th-and-long because it let Pitt’s quarterback have too long to throw. Now, ordinarily, I can get on board with this. But when the three rushing are Khalid Kareem, Jerry Tillery and Julian Okwara, I’m kind of ok rushing three. And sure enough, they got plenty of pressure on Kenny Pickett, forcing a bad throw.
Pat Narduzzi apparently went to the Mark Dantonio School of Completely Obvious Fake Kicks in his previous job at Michigan State, because for some crazy reason, on what he thought would be Pitt’s final chance on a 4th down (not even a long 4th down), he sent reserve quarterback Jeff George Jr. out there (in an unnamed #96 jersey, no less) for a pseudo-fake punt. ND didn’t even remove its defense from the field, and the play never had a chance. Narduzzi might have been better off putting the punter’s jersey on George, Gordon Bombay-style. Thanks for the assist, Pat. Oh, and when your guy catches the ball 5 yards out of bounds on the final 4th down, pointing as if he was in ain’t gonna fool anybody.
I’ll say this for Ian Book: Again, this was not among his greatest days, but as frustrating as the game was, I was never all that concerned that he would struggle all day. There was definitely a “he’s gonna get us points when we need them” vibe. I am not, generally, Mr. Optimism, so the fact that Book has managed to break that exterior is, from a personal standpoint anyway, pretty impressive. And in the end, he threw for over eight yards per attempt and completed over 80 percent. The kid comes through. Let’s hope it’s a while before he’s asked to in that kind of spot again.
Just move on
This is one of those “great win, now burn the game film and never speak of it again” kind of afternoons. That’s three of those this year, albeit Book’s first. It’s not a pattern until it happens a second time with Book at the controls, but there are some long-term questions. Luckily, we as fans get to ask those questions with ND holding a 7-0 record.
(Photo credit Matt Cashore)