Offensive MVP: T.J. JonesHis fumble at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line notwithstanding, Jones put forth one of the best efforts of his college career Saturday night in Heinz Field.
His 149 receiving yards ranks as a career high, the fifth time this fall he's topped the century mark -- and the fifth time in his Irish career. Jones also rushed for 41 yards -- a career-best -- on just three carries including a one-yard touchdown run around the right side, and with two would-be tacklers left in his wake, to boot.
Jones's 80-yard touchdown catch and run in the third quarter was the longest of his career and marked the seventh straight game this season in which he notched a scoring reception, one shy of the program record set by Jeff Samardzija (2005) and Golden Tate (2009).
Said Jones of the post route sprint-and-score, "I just fake-blocked him. All the run plays where I was running to block the safety set that up."
The aforementioned fumble was however costly. Sprinting toward the Panthers end zone after catching a slant route for what ended as a 35-yard gain down to the Pittsburgh 5-yard line, Jones exploded through the Panthers secondary but at one point, palmed the football while accelerating in space. He fumbled trying to tuck it away. "I was running, tried to open up my stride, the ball was loose," Jones said. "I thought I knew where he was. When I went to double-clutch it before they hit me, he got his arm right inside of mine and when I rolled over the top of him it just popped out."
Jones had the game's longest pass reception (80 yards) and its longest rush (35) during a dominant but imperfect evening.
Offensive Game Balls: Watt, the OL, and KoyackPre-game conversation centered around Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, he of the 19.5 tackles for loss and FBS-best 27.5 career sacks.
He was a non-factor, and 5th-year senior guard Chris Watt was the main reason. Watt, in congress with the rest of the Irish offensive front (sophomore right tackle Ronnie Stanley often tangled with Donald in obvious passing situations) limited Donald to just one assisted tackle and one quarterback hurry. The Panthers as a defense did not record a sack of Irish quarterback Tommy Rees on 39 pass attempts.
The Irish rushed for 138 yards -- losing only two yards during the contest -- on just 24 carries (5.8 per rush) behind their solid offensive front.
Former Five-Star Surging: Junior tight end Ben Koyack, an Oil City, Pennsylvania native, played his best game to date. Koyack's 76 receiving yards more than doubled his career-best output of 34 set last week vs. Navy. He reeled in a career-high four receptions, each of which resulted in a first down including a leaping 38-yard grab on a first quarter corner route that set up his offense on the Panthers half-yard line. Koyack also caught a 17-yard post route to move the chains and a sit-down reception underneath for a fourth-down conversion.
His final reception, an 11-yard grab coupled with a 15-yard face mask penalty on the Panthers set up the Irish offense at the 38-yard line on their final possession.
They would draw no closer over the next four snaps.
Koyack has nine receptions for 158 yards with three scores over the last five games after not being the target of a pass during the season's first five contests (nor during any of the final 11 games of 2012).
Defensive MVP: Prince ShemboIn two previous matchups with the Panthers (2011-12), Shembo registered a combined 14 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass breakup, and 3 QB hurries. Saturday night he answered the bell again, recording three of the defense's six QB hurries while adding five tackles including a fourth quarter sack and forced fumble of Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage.
The fumble though bounced and rolled freely for more than three game seconds -- the clock running with no whistle blown as the Irish defenders inexplicably watched the pigskin rather than reach down to pick it up.
Said Shembo of the massive group-wide mental error post-game, "The ball on the ground, what can you say to that? It has happened plenty of times, Jaylon (Smith) picked up the ball at Air Force (running to the end zone, unsure if he'd heard a whistle). We've seen it enough, man, how many more times do we have to see it?"
Shembo's sack and forced fumble should have positioned the Irish on the Panthers side of the field, tied at 21 with 11:21 remaining. Instead, Pittsburgh punted, intercepted Rees two snaps later, and scored after two snaps of their own for a 28-21 lead that stood up thereafter.
Defensive Game Balls: Jaylon Smith and Sheldon DayThe sophomore Day likely would have received our MVP honors but it was he who had the most egregious mental error on the aforementioned Savage fumble -- first attempting to catch it off a bounce, missing through his breadbasket, then batting the ball away in disgust. Pittsburgh recovered it after the Irish stood and watched thereafter.
Regardless, Day was a player of major impact, recording a career-high three tackles for loss, a number that led both teams, among his five stops. Day also recorded a tackle after a two-yard gain, tweaking his thrice-injured ankle in the process. He returned to finish the contest.
Top Dog: A true freshman, Smith led all tacklers with a career-high 11 including one for loss. He likewise set the edge on a third down toss right and thus allowed Day to shoot through for a two-yard loss to force a punt.
Smith's ascent over the last five contests (dating back to a 37-34 win over Arizona State) is notable: 35 tackles leads the team in that span, so too do his 5.5 tackles for loss. He's the best player on Notre Dame's team since the start of October and could conclude the season as the defense's MVP, or at least biggest player of impact, as a rookie playing the unit's most difficult position.
Special Teams MVP: Kyle BrindzaThe junior punter excelled throughout the contest, drilling punts for 49 48, 46, 32, and 56 yards, the latter of which should have been downed by the coverage team at the Panthers 1-yard line, the Irish trailing 28-21 at the time. In keeping with the rest of the epically bad Irish special teams (outside of Brindza) this season, it was not, instead resulting in a touchback that gave Pittsburgh's offense breathing room at their own 20 with just 6:32 to play.
Brindza missed a career-long 55-yard field goal. Had it been successful it would have been the longest field goal in Heinz Field history including NFL games.