PITTSBURGH – Will Fuller leaned against the wall beneath Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon completely at ease. Wearing a red Notre Dame visor usually reserved for quarterbacks, the junior showed for postgame interviews with ear buds in and one of those U-shaped plane pillows already snug around his neck.
After another seven catches, another 152 yards and another three touchdowns, Fuller had earned the right to go casual. Notre Dame had too with its 42-30 defeat of Pittsburgh that actually felt two touchdowns bigger.
“Just another day at the office, I would say,” Fuller said. “When the ball’s in the air, it’s my ball. I gotta go get it.”
In winning back-to-back road games in Pennsylvania, the Irish have a foundation of substantial wins to go with the Clemson loss that still seems to top Notre Dame’s resume. How the Irish lost last month in South Carolina won’t carry Brian Kelly’s program into the College Football Playoff. Clinically putting down Pittsburgh just might.
At no point this season has Notre Dame looked more mature than it does right now. And while the Irish don’t control their postseason destiny, how Notre Dame beat the Panthers means it just jumped from a team that could run the table to one that looks like it should.
The Irish sat at No. 5 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings last week. Notre Dame might not move up after Oklahoma State’s rout of TCU, but it shouldn’t backslide either.
“We’ve been here before,” said receiver/corner Torii Hunter Jr. “I think last year we got a little deterred from (the playoff rankings). We’re a more mature bunch now.”
Wake Forest and Boston College won’t push Notre Dame.
Stanford will, but Notre Dame has added a layer of muscle to push back.
After disintegrating during the playoff chase last year, the Irish are now getting stronger as the offensive line sets the table for a group good enough to score Notre Dame into the Final Four. The Irish put up a respectable 437 yards against Pitt, within a Fuller bomb of the Panthers’ season-high.
Notre Dame now ranks fifth nationally among Power 5 teams in yards per play at 7.17. That’s more than a yard better than the previous high mark during the Kelly era.
“I think that was the best performance of our offensive line today, most consistent performance for four quarters,” Kelly said. “I think that was the difference today for us.”
Fuller is Notre Dame’s biggest offensive weapon, but that line collectively is a close second. DeShone Kizer’s six total touchdowns are as much a compliment to that front as to the red-shirt freshman quarterback. Josh Adams coming into the game and rushing for 147 yards made C.J. Prosise look replaceable, but only because the line allowed it.
In took almost the entire second quarter before the line even knew Prosise was missing, which says plenty about the guys blocking for him. They don’t care who carries, throws or catches the ball. They’re going to maul the man across from them all the same.
This starting five, which has played through injuries instead of getting sidelined by them, is what makes Notre Dame a serious threat to make the College Football Playoff next month. Martin, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey have all played through ankle sprains. Ronnie Stanley tweaked his knee in September and didn’t miss any time.
Sure, the Kizer story makes for a great read.
But this line is Notre Dame’s cover, binding and spine.
“Everyone was locked in all week,” Martin said. “You could tell when we got here. It was a business trip. People handled it unbelievably. People came in, they were locked in, a focused energy.”
Ask Fuller why teams continue to cover him man-to-man and he’ll shrug his shoulders, blissfully clueless why Pat Narduzzi would ask any cornerback to run with him down the field. The reality may be Narduzzi doesn’t have a choice with Notre Dame’s offensive line setting the table.
Opponents can either get sliced by Fuller and Kizer or bludgeoned by the run game.
It’s their choice, but there are only two options.
“They have some options,” Narduzzi said. “They have some monsters out there. Both of their tailbacks are good. Their quarterback DeShone Kizer is a great player.”
It’s those “monsters” that make Notre Dame potentially great and mellow Fuller even before he boards the plane back to South Bend. As long as this Irish line sticks together, Notre Dame will keep scoring and scoring and scoring, right through Wake Forest and Boston College. And right through the season finale at Stanford too.
Notre Dame’s offensive front might not be good enough to win a championship, but it’s good enough to put the Irish in position to play for one.