• One way to avoid the red zone dilemma presented to the Irish by Pittsburgh was to hit big plays, which is Notre Dame’s specialty. Notre Dame did just that in the first half when DeShone Kizer hit Will Fuller for 47- and 46-yard bookend touchdowns – one on the opening drive of the game and another with 1:35 left in the first half.
Ultimately, the Irish did just fine in the red zone (see below). But when you have the ability to heave the football as far as the eye can see and feel confident that Will Fuller will make the catch, it’s a pretty powerful trump card to have in your coat pocket.
Fuller has now scored 27 touchdowns in 22 games, dating back to the 2014 season-opener. He has scored at least one touchdown in 19 of those 22 games, including at least two six times and now three twice with his seven-catch, 152-yard, three-touchdown game against the Panthers.
To be a consistently great offense, you need to be a quick-strike unit, but also one that can grind it out. To be one of the most lethal offenses in the country – which the Irish have become – you have to have the ability to score whenever you need to.
Kizer deserves credit too. For an incredible seventh time in eight games, Kizer led a touchdown drive at the end of the first half/game. This one came with 1:35 left in the first half. But the ability to strike like a viper – regardless who’s throwing the football – is Fuller’s domain.
• Time of possession can be the game’s most deceiving statistic. Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati teams were some of the worst in the country in possessing the football, but that was because their offense struck so quickly, the defense was going back on the field in a heartbeat.
The time of possession statistic as it pertains to Pittsburgh is legit. The Panthers came into the Notre Dame game absolutely dominating their opponents by keeping it simple offensively, putting itself in 3rd- and 4th-and-manageable situations, and keeping its defense off the field.
Notre Dame claimed a rare time-of-possession victory against Pittsburgh, 33:39-to-26-21, including a 12:46-to-2:14 mark in the fourth quarter. This was huge, even though the Irish ran just five more plays (68-63) than Pittsburgh did, and they did it without a banged up C.J. Prosise.
When it comes to Pat Narduzzi’s Panther team, one of the keys to a victory is time of possession, and the Irish won it decisively. Notre Dame was determined to win the “tough yards game,” and it did just that. In the process, it controlled the football, which significantly reduced Pittsburgh’s odds of pulling off the upset.
• Brian Kelly has been looking for answers in the red zone, and while he claims it’s been everybody across the board that has contributed to the inability to slam the football into the end zone after reaching the 20-yard line, the fact of the matter is freshman Josh Adams (20 carries, 147 yards) shows a more consistent effort between the tackles when it comes to lowering the pad level and slamming in there.
Physically, Adams looks like Prosise. Their frames are similar. They both have a long, explosive stride. But Adams did something Prosise has had difficulty doing on a consistent basis, and that is score on a five-yard shovel pass early in the fourth quarter to give the Irish a 35-17 lead, which would balloon to 25 points midway through the last quarter when DeShone Kizer scored from two yards out.
All told, the Irish were 4-of-4 scoring touchdowns in the red zone with the Panthers allowing just 8-of-17 through the first eight games of the season. Kelly called it the best and most consistent effort by Notre Dame’s offensive line and it showed in the most crucial area of the field.
In the process, the Irish might have found their short-yardage back.
• Following Pittsburgh’s 26-19 loss to North Carolina, Narduzzi bemoaned the fact that his offense simply wasn’t creating enough big plays. Through eight games, the Panthers ranked 114th nationally in plays of 10 yards or more (91) and 92nd in plays of 20 yards or more (34).
If you’re looking for a cure to what ails you offensively, Notre Dame’s defense usually provides the elixir.
Pittsburgh had nine plays of at least 20 yards and they came early and often. Tyler Boyd’s 37-yard end-around on the first play of the second Panther series got the ball rolling, and whether it was quarterback Nate Peterman scampering 26 yards, Peterman hooking up with Dontez Ford for 37, Peterman racing for another 27, or even veteran tight end J.P. Holtz hooking up for a 21-yarder through the air, the Panthers had answers every time Notre Dame’s defense rose up and kept Pittsburgh at arm’s length.
To the defense’s credit, Brian VanGorder’s unit added another five three-and-outs to the ledger and limited the Panthers to six possessions of nine yards or less. For the sixth straight game, the Irish recorded an interception after failing to make a theft in the first three.
But Notre Dame’s defense is what it is: a hit-and-miss unit that can rise up and squash a drive before it gets started or give up a 75-yard drive at the drop of a hat.
It’s tough to make the playoffs and win a playoff game with a defense as inconsistent as Notre Dame’s.
• Pat Narduzzi has a chance to be a very good head coach. He’s building a program in the image of his mentor, Mark Dantonio, which focuses on a strong rushing attack, a commitment to stopping the run, and strong special teams.
The Panthers aren’t very good yet, but Narduzzi is establishing a sound foundation. If he can recruit in Pennsylvania while the Penn State program is down, he has a chance to find a niche and become a consistent eight-win program.
Narduzzi, however, spends way too much time, energy and focus on screaming. He screams at the officials, raises/waves his arms madly, screams at his players, and screams at his coaches.
Brian Kelly came under fire this week for allowing his ire to be raised to a boiling point by an assistant strength coach’s decision to dispute the officiating crew at Temple. The fact is since Kelly’s outburst on TJ Jones four seasons ago, he’s been relatively calm throughout most games for the Irish. He knows what his job is and finds a way to get back to the matter at hand after he’s expressed his opinion.
Narduzzi yells at the officials, yells at his players, yells at his coaches, and then repeats the cycle again. He does this on a regular basis.
Coaches yell, for sure, but when everything that happens negatively is addressed through an outburst and, subsequently, an accusation of incompetence, your players begin to mimic you, which the Panthers were doing during the Notre Dame game.
All of a sudden, you’re focusing more on the officials’ calls than your own game.
As for the “party in the fourth quarter” that Narduzzi initiated earlier this year, let’s be real. That’s about as amateurish and bush league of a move as you’re ever going to see on the major college level, not to mention a real drain of emotion on the Pittsburgh team. That will get old with the players…if it hasn’t already.