Morning Briefing

Issues exposed, both on the field and the sidelines, in Notre Dame's Saturday night giveaway at Heinz Field.

Three important takeaways from Saturday night's upset loss in the Steel City:

Tuitt's Targeting

Give me a break.

On the first play of the second quarter, Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage broke around the right side for an innocuous two-yard gain. At the end of the play, he lowered his head, did not slide, and attempted to get down to avoid contact. 6'6" Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt also lowered his head to make contact, a reasonable motion considering Savage's pads were lower than his.

When Tuitt's helmet made contact with Savage's on the play the Irish were assessed a 15-yard personal foul for targeting, a rule instituted this season to limit helmet-to-helmet contact in a sport where contact is mandatory and in which players wear helmets.

Tuitt was ejected, a judgement call upheld by the replay official.

"Letter of the law. They were saying that the helmet-to-helmet contact, they were just reciting the strict interpretation of the rule," said head coach Brian Kelly of the explanation he received from game officials. Asked if "intent" is a factor in a player's possible ejection, Kelly said, "No, no."

Short-handed defensively entering the contest, Notre Dame played the final three quarters without one of its impact players. That reality, however, had little to do with the team's inability to beat the bottom-dwellers from the Steel City.

"Stephon Tuitt not playing in the game, that's not why we lost this football game," said an exasperated Kelly. "That is not why we lost this football game. It had nothing to do with this loss tonight. That's a question and that whole rule, (there's) a time and place that can be handled.

"This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense," he contented. "Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That's why we're hired. That's what we do. We didn't get that from our players tonight. I'm responsible for that. That didn't happen tonight."

The 2013 Irish are a sloppy football team. The defense has given foes 20 first downs via penalty through 10 games. (The 2012 squad just 16 through the entire slate of 13 including Alabama.) They've turned the ball over 13 times including 10 interceptions, this after suffering from just eight picks in all of 2012.

If Kelly and his intact staff were lauded for their team's attention to detail in a run to No. 1 last November, they should likewise be held accountable for the lack thereof in the present.

"The execution on offense was awful," Kelly stated. "Defensively, we kept drives alive with a pass interference penalty, a personal foul. We weren't alert enough to get on the ball, a fumble. And we gave up an explosive play in the passing game.

"We didn't coach well enough. It's on everybody. To single out one thing -- it was, to a large degree, very poor."

Folston For Four?

Notre Dame entered the contest 2-9 under head coach Brian Kelly when it attempts 30 rushes or fewer in a game. Total carries Saturday night? 24.

Make that 2-10.

Just four of those 24 totes were handed to freshman Tarean Folston, the clear-cut top runner among Notre Dame's backfield quartet over the last two games.

Asked post-game why his promising freshman wasn't part of the game plan just one week after a 140-yard effort vs. Navy that included the winning touchdown dive, Kelly offered, "As you guys know, it changes from week to week relative to how the game is going and what is available to us. There were a couple of times where we felt like George (Atkinson) gave us a better opportunity in there because of the kind of runs.

"We were trying to get the ball on the perimeter. George is a guy that we like when the game is a perimeter game -- it fits George's skill-set, so that's why you saw him in the game more."

Atkinson carried six times for 57 yards including a 33-yard burst early.

The team averaged 5.8 yards per pop vs. the nation's 64th ranked rushing defense.

In the second half, Notre Dame rushed the ball six times and passed it 25.

It's okay if Kelly and the staff prefer Atkinson, or McDaniel, or Folston in a given situation.

It's not okay, and it's in error that causes defeat, that they prefer the pass.

Kelly's Irish are 33-4 when rushing 31 times or more in a game. It's a relevant statistic ignored, and it's unconscionable for a staff that prides itself on self-assessment.

Rees Stands Up

Senior quarterback Tommy Rees played poorly Saturday night. Considering the quality protection afforded him in congress with the relative lack of defensive prowess on the other side of scrimmage, it was likely his worst performance of his senior season to date.

Two interceptions that greatly contributed to defeat, both terrible throws, one a ridiculous decision in the Panthers end zone -- on second down, no less.

His coach admitted the quarterback's play wasn't close to good enough. The fan base took to the inter webs to rail on his lack of ability to take Notre Dame to the top level of the sport.

Notre Dame makes select players available post-game. A cynical (not to mention experienced in such matters) media collection joked we wouldn't see Rees until Senior Day, not after that performance in a season-defining, crushing defeat.

And yet there he stood.

Reporters did a double-take and rushed over, the horde pressing him against a hallway wall as Rees' teammates grabbed grub en route to the team bus and a long flight home.

Rees, after his worst, offered his best.

"It can't happen. I take responsibility and accountability for those (mistakes)," he said. "You feel like you let your team down. Have to be better than that and find a way to close out close games."

Rees noted of his end zone interception intended for Chris Brown, "It's a play I have to get out of at the line of scrimmage. I have to recognize what's going on and be better than that. Just trying to make something happen there."

Rees and 5th-year senior captain shared a moment of reflection exiting the field post-game.

"Zack and I are real close," he said of his long-time off-campus roommate. "Just that we have to stay positive and stay upbeat for the guys because they're gong to be looking at us. We feel about the same after a game like that and have to move forward.

Rees should have been remembered as one of the most clutch, reliable backup quarterbacks in program history. Instead he'll wrongly be forever lamented by a frustrated fan base as a player not-quite-good-enough when thrown to the wolves as a starter.

The Irish beat most of the teams they should have with Rees under center; precious few deemed superior were taken down along the way. Asking Rees and the offense to pass 35 to 50 times as he did in eight of nine career defeats as the chief (or tandem) signal-caller is on the staff for poor use of his talents and the offense's as a whole.

Rees' three-act career will likely wind down in a far less satisfying manner than did his second act -- aka 2012-season saver.

But that's of little concern to a player with singular focus.

"I don't think about anything like that," he said of his legacy pending the final three contests. "My full focus is on the guys in that locker room. For me, it's all about my brothers and the guys we grind it out with. I'm not really playing for anything but them."


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