Running GameMichael Floyd is the team's best player and the reason the current offense works, but Cierre Wood's emergence as a consistent, all-around runner has been the season's most important development through one month. Wood churned for 94 yards on 23 carries including the most important three of the season: trailing 13-7 and faced with a 3rd and 2 at the ND 39-yard line, Wood spun through a line of scrimmage tackle for a tough-as-nails 1st Down. The play was blocked well and defended better, but Wood simply wanted the yardage more – it was the most important run in an afternoon that included six carries of 7 to 11 yards and a long gain of 18 yards.
While Wood was the most important offensive piece, backup Jonas Gray provided the lightning strike – a 79-yard touchdown sprint over the right side in which he ran through and early arm tackle, past another, then raced down the right sidelines for the game's first – and his first career score. Guards Trevor Robinson and Chris Watt (pulling) and center Braxston Cave opened the initial lane while Michael Floyd dominated on the outside to provide a clear path to pay dirt. The Robinson/Cave combo also aided Wood on his longest run (18 yards) with pull blocks over the right side.
Analysis: Along with Floyd, Wood was one of the few that appeared ready to play early…For the fourth time in as many games, Wood offered winning, BCS-Bowl level football from the backfield – his cutting ability in traffic might be his most valuable skill – it's a rare run when Wood doesn't turn five available yards into more …Gray had but two more carries after his 79-yard burst: a bull-dozing three-yard gain to move the chains on 3rd and 3 and a 10-yard charge called back due to a hold – it's not a good sign for the running game when the play-caller can't get a guy who sprinted for 79 at least a handful of carries over the course of the next three quarters. (The offensive line will be covered Monday in our Eye in the Sky film review.)
Eifert's Official EmergenceThose close to the program knew tight end Tyler Eifert would meet or exceed the output of departed star Kyle Rudolph – the junior target's second half effort vs. the Panthers announced his presence on the national stage and is chief among the reasons Notre Dame stands at a manageable 2-2 rather than dead-to-rights 1-3. Eifert's game-best eight receptions for 75 yards included six receptions that resulted in a first down and three clutch catches on the game-winning march ending in his leaping touchdown grab and ensuing two-point conversion (not included in the final statistics).
I noted the comparison following the loss at Michigan – Eifert is this era's Jeremy Shockey: a chain-moving, downfield weapon and one of the toughest covers in the country.
Theo Riddick's quiet day turned on the winning drive – three of the juniors six receptions occurred in a four-snap span including a toe-tapping 16-yard effort on the sidelines that moved the Irish from the midfield area to the Panthers 30-yard line…Backup slot Robby Toma caught his first ball of the season at an opportune time: his 16-yard catch-and-run kick started the drive and provided the offense breathing room after an opening snap at its own 15-yard line…
Kudos to the Pittsburgh defense for taking Michael Floyd out of the game for the better part of 50 minutes – on the final drive, the All-America's cohorts made the Panthers pay.
Analysis: The unit has played exceptionally well since the opening-game dud vs. South Florida. Though not heavily involved (3 rec./31 yards), T.J. Jones has emerged as a tough cover on third down and is a tremendous compliment to the Floyd/Eifert pair…Riddick's clutch late play could be a spark for the inconsistent junior – if not, Robby Toma deserves more field time, because he's rarely successfully covered by zone defenses.
Rees Responds (Again)The worst game of sophomore Tommy Rees' young college career ended with 10 consecutive completions including the game-winning pass (and subsequent two-point play) – his second late-game go-ahead march in three weeks.
Prior, Rees was confused and at times, the worst player on the field: for the second straight week he lost a fumble when sacked (his fourth in the last six games dating back to last November at USC) and for the fourth straight week, threw an unconscionable interception – late to a previously wide-open Tyler Eifert near the Pittsburgh goal line.
I haven't doubted Rees as the man for the job since he took over last November, but to be blunt, I'd have pulled him in favor of Dayne Crist midway through the third quarter. Brian Kelly's faith in his signal-caller helped win a football game.
Analysis: Awful early; unflappable late, Rees will have to clean up his game as Notre Dame won Saturday because its opponent was incapable of making them pay. It's relevant that Rees' previous complete stinker – vs. USC last November – ended with the gutty triggerman leading a game-winning touchdown drive as well. Rees has flaws – choking isn't among them.
Defensive LineThe Irish were stout up front again, limiting Pittsburgh to 103 net yards though 45 lost thanks to sacks skews the number. Regardless, the defensive front keyed a solid effort vs. lightning-quick tailback Ray Graham, stopping him for three yards or less on nine carries (not including a successful short-yardage conversion) and just two carries over nine yards…Freshman Aaron Lynch recorded the unit's only sack (the Irish had five on the day), a crucial take down of QB Tino Sunseri on a botched screen pass late in the contest…
Analysis: Statistically, the unit was quiet (10 total tackles) but it was again able to control the line of scrimmage vs. a team that wanted to feature the running skills of its best player.
LinebackersNot a strong start as both outside ‘backers Prince Shembo and Darius Fleming lost outside containment on read-option keepers…Manti Te'o played his best game of the season, finishing with 10 stops, two in the backfield, though I believe it was Te'o's coverage responsibility on the Panthers only touchdown…Shembo and Fleming bounced back in the second half – the senior Fleming recording two sacks in the third quarter plus a third-down goal line stop, and Shembo offering consistent pressure including the game's most important tackle – one ruled a sack upon further review to bury the Panthers in a 4th and 25 situation to conclude the contest…Inside ‘backer Carlo Calabrese cleaned up that final pass; he added five tackles and a sack.
Analysis: Ray Graham and Pittsburgh's tight ends were able to take advantage of the team's ‘backers in coverage; so too did 6'5" receiver Mike Shanahan. The Irish will continue to struggle vs. opposing tight ends this season but the unit's overall effort – especially Shembo, was crucial to the tough road victory.
Defensive BacksHarrison Smith offered the best tackle of the day (it saved a Ray Graham highlight reel touchdown) and also the worst miss: an in-space ankle-breaker vs. Graham that turned a 10-yard burst into a 42-yard gain. But Smith's effort to fight off a perimeter block and drop Graham for a four-yard loss in the red zone saved four points…
Robert Blanton finished with seven stops and again gave up nothing of consequence in the passing game…Gary Gray had two instances in which he was unable to locate the football again (hint: it's coming your way) – one resulted in a dropped post-route that would have set up a potentially devastating late score, the other a pass interference penalty in the end zone. Gray also missed a key tackle in space vs. Ray Graham late (resulting in a 3rd and 1 conversion) but redeemed himself with a final drive stop of a 3rd and 4 pass on an identical boundary screen.
Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter were quiet (four total tackles, no passes defended), though the Panthers longest completion was just 18 yards – a credit to the free safety pair and to Smith roaming the back line.
Analysis: The Irish secondary (namely Gray and the late-covering Motta) is fortunate a late third quarter bomb to Devin Street was dropped and that quarterback Tino Sunseri simply couldn't make them pay on the perimeter. With Purdue and Air Force on tap, the next true litmus test for the unit will be October 22 when QB Matt Barkley and star receiver Robert Woods hit South Bend.
Special teamsA kick-off out of bounds, a poor snap and resulting missed field goal, a roughing the punter penalty at the goal line and the world's worst punt return unit…
If not for George Atkinson's kick return score last week, Notre Dame would have – hands down – the worst special teams in the country through four games.
No further analysis needed.
Five of NoteSaturday's five best Irish performers and two that just missed the cut:
- Tyler Eifert: The best of his 12 career starts. The Eifert/Floyd tandem might be the best chain-moving duo in the nation…
- Cierre Wood: The team's rock through four games and the program's best since 2006…
- Prince Shembo: Returned from a one-game absence as the unit's biggest impact player…
- Michael Floyd: When two people cover Michael Floyd, someone else has to be open. Offered another outstanding perimeter block that resulted in an Irish touchdown run…
- Manti Te'o: Led the team with 10 tackles and added a sack, a QB hurry, and four other tackles that resulted in gains of two yards or fewer…
Jonas Gray: His 79-yard touchdown sprint was the longest for the program since Terrence Howard ran for an 80-yard score at. West Virginia in 2000. Gray ran hard in his only other two carries, including a 3rd and 3 conversion…Robert Blanton: Seven solos and simply doesn't give up anything that matters in the passing game...Darius Fleming: A pair of sacks and consistent play in the second-half offsets a rough first half (containment issues along with Shembo on the edges).