PITTSBURGH – Brian Kelly relocated Notre Dame here a day early on the hunch the Irish needed it.
Kelly bet the noon start – Notre Dame’s first in the regular season in four years – paired with last week’s primetime brawl at Temple put the Irish danger of wilting in the spotlight that comes with playing under the sun. So not only did Notre Dame fly here Thursday night, it went through a half-practice Friday instead of the standard walkthrough.
Consider that strength in scheduling.
Notre Dame (8-1) jumped on Pitt (6-3) early and let up only after the game was in hand as Will Fuller exploded for a historic three touchdowns, passing Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija for career scoring catches. He finished with seven catches and 152 yards to go with those touchdowns.
The 42-30 victory keeps the fifth-ranked Irish in play for the College Football Playoffs and showed another bit of evolution within Kelly’s offense.
Notre Dame was lethal in the red zone against a defense designed to keep you outside the 20-yard line. The Irish put all four red zone trips into the end zone as DeShone Kizer passed for five scores and ran for a sixth. Kizer’s two-yard run with just under six minutes to play staked Notre Dame to a 42-17 lead before Pitt tacked on a couple haggard scores late.
“I thought we played very well,” Kelly said. “We had a blown coverage and of course we were sloppy with the football, if you take those two away, I thought it was as good as we’ve played in some time.”
The Irish did virtually all their damage without running back C.J. Prosise, lost late in the first quarter to a possible concussion and shoulder injury. Kelly was unclear about how long Prosise would be out, although Josh Adams made the potential of an extended absence more inconvenient than disastrous. The freshman back finished with a career-high 147 yards rushing while playing in his home state, including a 25-yard sprint on his first carry after Prosise exited.
Kelly said it’s not clear if Prosise would be ready for Wake Forest next weekend.
With Adams and Fuller clicking, Kizer cooly moved the Irish up and down the field, finishing 19-of-26 for 262 yards and five touchdowns and without the hint of an interception. The five touchdown passes matched Notre Dame’s school record in a road start.
“He’s well supported,” Kelly said. “He’s got five guys in front of him that are really good in the offensive line. He has great balance of a running game, running backs and receivers. If he’s out there just distributing the football to those playmakers, he’s gonna look pretty good.”
Despite getting gashed for six 20-yard plays in the second half, the Irish defense held down Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman, who went 3-of-18 for 44 yards and an interception in the opening two quarters.
Matthias Farley, starting in place of the suspended Elijah Shumate, picked off Peterman late in the second quarter to preserve Notre Dame’s 18-point working margin at the break. Farley then gave way to Shumate, eligible in the second half following last weekend’s targeting ejection.
“What I love about Matthias is he just keeps playing,” Kelly said. “It never looks sometimes as pretty as you want it, but he’s such a competitor and that’s why you love him on your football team.”
Farley recovered Pitt’s final onside kickoff too, capping a performance that sparkled at the top with Fuller but also went deep. Beyond the scheduling adjustment, Notre Dame relied on Torii Hunter Jr. as a nickel back, got strong performance from punter Tyler Newsome (three 50-yard punts) and even relied on Nick Coleman in the base defense.
The end result keeps Notre Dame at the forefront of the College Football Playoff chase with three games to go. The Thanksgiving weekend date at Stanford still looks like the scheduling bump Notre Dame needs, with only Wake Forest and Boston College standing in the way.
If this weekend proved anything about Kelly’s program, it’s that it can keep one eye on the big picture while training the other on the now. This weekend that meant getting to Pittsburgh a day early, logging an extra practice and knocking off the Panthers on a day they honored past greats Dan Marino, Jimbo Covert and Mike Ditka.
How high Notre Dame can climb is out of Irish hands. But after Saturday afternoon it appears Kelly’s program won’t trip itself on the journey.
“We need to win three more games. That’s all we can do,” Kelly said. “Here’s what I told the guys, you put yourself in a position to be a contender, you just have to play one play at a time. I know it sounds like coach-speak, but all we can do is take care of what’s in front of us. And that’s Wake Forest.
“The rest is out of our hands. We can’t control anything else but how we play against Wake Forest. They get that.”