Let's go streakingAn ugly three-and-out to begin the game, then 12 straight completions (the program-record is 14) that resulted in a 14-3 lead…followed by six consecutive passes that missed their target.
Junior quarterback Dayne Crist had en eventful 24 for 39 afternoon; His 242 passing yards included a touchdown toss, no interceptions, a touchdown run, and no turnovers.
Irish fans and head coach Brian Kelly will take that every week.
"Absolutely; no turnovers," Kelly answered when asked if Crist took a step forward. "We obviously didn't fumble the football or put it in a bad situation with our quarterback.
"He's starting to move a little bit better; we'd like him to obviously see some things, but, look, we can say that this is going to be the same conversation until he gains more knowledge and he's doing that.
"He saw some things today…he feels better about after the game. So I think we could probably continue to have this conversation that he's coming along. He's making progress."
Consecutive victories for the first time since last October should also be considered progress though Saturday's win over previously formidable Pittsburgh was less-than-inspiring for most longtime Irish fans.
"Again, got off to a pretty good start offensively, but as we've shown, we are really good at stubbing our toe, whether it be a penalty here or a drop here," Kelly noted. "But that's us. So you're going to have to get used to it, because I'm trying to get used to it or it's going to make me look really old real quick.
"We're going to continue to work hard every week. And obviously we'll point out the things we believe we can obviously clean up and get better, but I just told them, ‘Enjoy the win.' We'll micro manage this and talk about what we could have done and should have done on Monday."
Hayseed and Gray's plays of the dayThe Irish defense suffered two breakdowns, one of which resulted in a game-altering touchdown: a 56-yard touchdown pass to the omnipresent Jon Baldwin (9 receptions for 111 yards; three touchdowns in three career meetings against the Irish).
"Interesting enough, the touchdown they caught, we were in (Cover 2). The ball got outside the defense; we lost contain," Kelly said of the Panthers score that trimmed the Irish lead to an unsettling 23-17 midway through the final quarter. "The safety (Jamoris Slaughter), came up, and (Baldwin) gets behind us. But other than that, we did a pretty good job against Baldwin."
Part of that effort was due to the extended deep coverage responsibilities of senior safety Harrison Smith.
"Coach Diaco called a very good game of balancing when to drop Harrison for run support and then when to keep him back to double Baldwin," Kelly said of the Irish defensive coordinator.
Dubbed "Hayseed" by former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, Smith finished with a game-high 11 tackles and added two pass breakups and an interception for the second time in as many weeks. The senior had never intercepted a pass in his 29-game career prior to his last two takeaways.
While Smith likely received the defensive game ball for his efforts, it was classmate and fellow DB Gary Gray who closed the proceedings with successive plays on Pittsburgh's final drive. Gray first jumped a 3rd and 10 slant route to limit the play to six yards with a clean tackle vs. 6'5" 220-pound target Mike Shanahan; then defended the dangerous Jon Baldwin's short hook on the boundary, breaking up the pass to win the game.
Kelly noted the Irish were in Cover 2, a defense that should not allow 4-yard hook routes completed in front of it in 4th down situations.
"(Tino) Sunseri was not going to throw the ball to the wide field and complete it," Kelly stated of Pittsburgh's erratic signal-caller.
Key to the defensive effort was the Irish rush defense. Again led by the inside push of nose guard Ian Williams, Diaco's unit limited the Panthers to three gains in excess of 8 yards and just 110 rushing yards on 31 carries.
The Notre Dame rush defense has surrendered just 281 yards on 98 carries over the last three weeks after yielding 593 in the first three contests. Each of Notre Dame's last three opponents features a power running game as the basis of its offense.
"Why can't Notre Dame find a good kicker?"It's the single most asked question of all Irish faithful and media alike over my 30 years following the program, attending the school or covering the team.
Fans, of course, tend to forget the successful, albeit lesser-known field goal kickers (Mike Johnston, Kevin Pendergast, Nick Setta, D.J. Fitzpatrick…Nicholas Tausch) while remembering the heroes and pros (Harry Oliver, John Carney, Reggie Ho in '88, Craig Hentrich).
Notre Dame kickers connected on 19 of 22 boots last season, the last five of which from the foot of walk-on transfer David Ruffer. Ruffer hasn't missed since - or to be accurate - ever, in his now record-setting and ongoing 16 straight field goal boots.
"Ruffer is obviously doing things that obviously not many people including myself thought he could do," Kelly admitted post-game. "Nobody would have thought 50 yards was, like, automatic. He kicked that thing into the net. (I) had to look twice that it was 50 yards. He's just been outstanding."
Ruffer's 50-yard boot gave Notre Dame what should have been a commanding 20-3 lead early in the second quarter. It also broke teammate Nick Tausch's program record of 14 consecutive field goals made and served as the first 50-yard+ boot that rang true for an Irish kicker since D.J. Fitzpatrick's 50-yard effort in a 2003 loss to Syracuse (indoors).
Ruffer and Tausch have combined to hit 30 of their last 33 field goal attempts dating back to the beginning of the 2009 season (and 30-33 in their college careers). It's the best run of success in the nation.
They've twice broken program records. Ruffer has never missed. He's hit from 50; he's connected in overtime; he's twice connected on all three attempts during two close home wins this season.
Now everyone can officially stop asking why Notre Dame can't find a kicker…
Can't find the jugular(s)Its external location is visible just beneath the skin; though the internal jugular is on a deeper plane and travels with the carotid artery. In layman's terms, it's its on the side of your neck *(turn your head to the right, its just underneath the muscle the feels like a strap).
Regardless, Notre Dame's football team hasn't been able to locate any opponents jugular vein for the better part of four seasons. Saturday was no exception.
"It takes experience more than anything else," Kelly said of the innate ability for one team to put another down. "Because really what we're talking about here is a couple of individuals, if we make a play here or there, or we get something that goes our way, we do put the game in a position where it's less in doubt with our defense having to come up with a big play.
"So it's just a couple of players needing to make plays."
Failure to turn 2nd and 5 at the Pittsburgh 15 into more than the minimum three points with nine minutes remaining; offensive pass interference (off-the-ball) negating what would have been a game-clinching touchdown with five minutes remaining; an inexcusable dropped pass on 2nd and 4 with less than two minutes remaining…
Three errors in successive possessions systemic of a team still learning how to handle success. Nine of Notre Dame's last 13 losses arrived despite a fourth quarter lead during those contests. Saturday the Irish held on, evening their season at 3-3.
"My job is to help our team win games; find ways to win it," Kelly offered when asked about another relatively untidy 60 minutes. "And I think this is one of those games that you click off and you put a W in it. We found ways to manage the game to win.
"We need to win games and it's not a beauty contest yet for us... but my job is to get Notre Dame to win football games and we're starting to do that."
Kelly's Irish will be heavy favorites heading into each of October's three remaining contests prior to the opening November Bye.
*Note: It required just three doctors (wife, dad, college roommate) with an aggregate 72 years of experience to provide an understandable layman's definition of the jugular(s) location on Sunday morning...we go the extra mile at IrishEyes.