C.J. Prosise was off to a decent start (five carries, 28 yards, 11 long) when he was knocked out of the game with what Brian Kelly referred to as a shoulder/neck/possible concussion late in the first quarter. Enter freshman Josh Adams, who became a workhorse over the final three quarters, finishing with 20 carries for 147 yards, a 7.3-yard average, and a five-yard shovel pass score early in the fourth quarter.
Adams had runs of 25, 24, 23, a 12-yarder, a nine and two eights.
Still, the Irish averaged a modest 4.2 yards per carry with a 175 yards rushing, which is the third lowest output of the season behind Temple (168) and Clemson (111). Four Pittsburgh sacks of DeShone Kizer/Brandon Wimbush for a total of 39 yards lost brought down the final mark.
The Irish showed promise in the short-yardage game. Prosise converted a 3rd-and-1 in the first quarter on a gain of three. Kizer converted a 3rd-and-1 early in the second quarter and Adams went for seven yards on a 3rd-and-1 in the third quarter. It’s not much and Brian Kelly doesn’t run a lot on third down, but it was progress.
A real checkmark against the Irish run game were the 10 tackles for loss by the Panthers for a defense averaging just 6.6 per game. Dexter Williams also missed his mesh point on Pittsburgh’s 32-yard fumble return for a score.
The four sacks chips the overall grade down a notch, but that’s about all that can be faulted in another real quality performance by DeShone Kizer, Will Fuller and the supporting cast.
Fuller accounted for 152 of Kizer’s 262 yards passing as well as three of the five scoring tosses. Kizer completed 19-of-26 while averaging 10 yards per attempt and 13.7 yards per completion. Most of the damage came on Fuller’s 47- and 46-yard touchdowns. No other Irish receiver had a reception of more than 19 yards, although Torii Hunter, Jr. made a nice, extending 12-yard red-zone touchdown grab. Fuller slightly enhanced his average-per-catch with a 22.4-yard average on seven receptions.
For just the second time in seven starts, Kizer avoided an interception. He completed a 3rd-and-5 to Fuller for 10, a 3rd-and-9 for a 14-yard score to Fuller, a 3rd-and-7 to Amir Carlisle for 13 yards, a 3rd-and-1 to Fuller for 12, and a 3rd-and-4 to Torii Hunter, Jr. for six.
The passing game was a knockout punch by the Irish en route to a 42-point outburst.
A disappointing performance by the Irish run defense, which is succinctly summarized by the Panthers’ 5.6-yard average per carry as well as numerous 10- and 20-yard runs. Pittsburgh needed just 31 carries to match Notre Dame’s 175 yards rushing (on 42 carries).
Quarterback Nate Peterman – who came into the game with 110 yards rushing on 58 rushing attempts (including sacks) – finished with a career-high 60 yards net (85 yards gained) and a 7.5-yard average, including a long run of 27 yards as well as 26- and 20-yarders. Those are huge chunks by a mobile quarterback, but one that shouldn’t be gashing a defense like that.
The Irish did a solid job of limiting bulky freshman Qadree Ollison (12 carries, 32 yards, long of six, 2.7-yard average), but got burnt by wide receiver Tyler Boyd’s 37-yard first-quarter end-around as well as converted safety Jordan Whitehead’s 6.8-yard average on four carries.
Notre Dame went 1-for-2 on a couple of 3rd-and-1s, but Whitehead’s two rushing touchdowns raised Notre Dame’s total allowed on the season to 14, which is in the middle of the pack in the FBS.
The poor grade above is a bit surprising for an effort that included limiting Nate Peterman to just 12-of-31 passing with three sacks and just one touchdown pass in a game in which the Panthers would need much more than that.
The problem is the 18.5 yards per completion that Peterman averaged after coming into the game with an 11.4 mark. Kudos to the Irish for limiting a 67.4 percent passer to 38.7 percent. There were some drops mixed in there, but 19 incompletions on 31 attempts is a helluva effort.
Way too many big plays, however, and that doesn’t include the 42-yard overruled grab by Dontez Ford that could have gone either way.
The Irish did record three sacks, led by Romeo Okwara, who really has come on strong the last three games to play at a high level. Credit, too, for a beautiful diving interception by Matthias Farley (while leading the team in tackles with seven in basically one half of football). Notre Dame also had a noteworthy eight quarterback hurries, including two each by Jaylon Smith and Andrew Trumbetti.
Tyler Newsome got his mojo back after a rare struggle a week earlier against Temple. Three of his four punts – all of which came in the first half – exceeded 50 yards, including a 57-yarder and two 55-yarders. One of those 55-yarders had a minus-one return attached while the other included a 17-yard return by Avonte Maddox. Newsome’s first kickoff went out of bounds.
For just the second time in the first nine games of his career, Justin Yoon did not attempt a field goal, thus keeping his streak of seven field goals in a row intact. He did convert all six of his extra points. Notre Dame did not have a kickoff return. The Irish picked up a block in the back penalty on one of Newsome’s punts.
The most critical special teams play outside of Newsome’s field-shifting punts was the onside kick recovered by Te’von Coney after the Irish took a 28-17 lead late in the third quarter. Matthias Farley fell on another onside kick after Pittsburgh scored a defensive touchdown in the final two minutes.
The Irish successfully defended a two-point conversion pass by Nate Peterman after the Panthers cut it to 12 at the 1:44 mark of the fourth quarter.
This grade also includes Jack Swarbrick and the athletic administration for allowing the team to depart Thursday, thus providing the team with the opportunity to wake up in Pittsburgh Friday and to practice at the same time they would be playing Saturday (noon ET). Brian Kelly said he knew his team would be ready for the early wakeup call on game-day based upon the way they responded in practice Friday.
Not only did the Irish get off to a fast start – jumping in front just 1:11 into the game – but never trailed and never led by less than double digits after an early second quarter touchdown gave the Irish a 14-3 lead.
With so much emphasis placed on success in the offensive red zone, Kelly, the staff and the offense were a perfect 4-for-4 on touchdowns once inside the 20-yard line. That is coming through in the clutch big time after struggling in the red zone the last two weeks and facing a top-notch red-zone defense.
It’s disappointing that the defense would let down in the second half, allowing three touchdowns with a turnover accounting for a fourth. But there really was never any doubt after the opening drive – certainly by early in the second quarter – that Notre Dame was the better football team and would prove it over the course of 60 minutes.
This was a dangerous game for the Irish coming off the hard-fought victory over Temple. The Irish invested a lot in that victory and could have been off their mark at Pittsburgh, especially since the Panthers had two extra days of preparation and were coming off a loss.
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but still a well-prepared football team in the right frame of mind to defend its No. 5 College Football Playoff ranking.