We said the Irish needed a complete game and they certainly delivered. The Irish offense and Julius Jones pounded the Pittsburgh defense all night in a game that wasn't as close as the score might indicate.
The Panthers entered the game with a high-flying, high-scoring offense and the nation's best passer and receiver but the Irish defense held both in check most of the night.
Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford found his favorite receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, twice early for touchdowns but these would be the only touchdowns scored on this night versus the Irish defense. The Notre Dame defense and Irish cornerback Vontez Duff pitched a shutout against Rutherford and Fitzgerald in the second half as the Panther offense mustered just 49 yards and held Fitzgerald without a reception in the second half.
The real story was the awakening of the offensive line and senior running back Julius Jones. Jones has been a fan-favorite for years because of his quick burst and ability to make the big play. Jones rushed for an all-time, single-game Notre Dame record of 262 yards and two Irish touchdowns. Jones was unstoppable and the Panther defense had no answers for the Irish rushing attack.
Head coach Tyrone Willingham said he never stopped believing in his Irish team. "I never wavered in it and I don't think our young men wavered," said Willingham. "We're not where we want to be yet but I like our approach, I like our attitude."
The Irish coaches and players had said all week that they were going to focus on the struggling running game—352 yards later, mission accomplished. The Irish have struggled all year finding holes for Jones and junior Ryan Grant but not on Saturday, plenty of daylight was seen by Jones and he exploited it all evening.
"The most impact you have when you have a runner who's capable of getting some big runs, is to his teammates—the offensive line," said Willingham of Jones' effort. "They get energized when they see him performing at that level and they want do their job better."
Probably the most important success the Irish had was "the drive." The Irish offense received the ball with 9:14 left to go in the game and we're able to run out the clock behind some strong running and determination.
"That is exciting for everyone in our program," said Willingham of the drive. "That our offensive line and our backs can kind of take control of the football game and step up and make those plays when necessary. That allowed our defense to not have to go back on the field."<
The Irish offense made some changes this week along the offensive line in this game. Starting right tackle Dan Stevenson moved to right guard and freshman offensive lineman Ryan Harris was inserted in place of Stevenson at right tackle—a move that paid dividends for the Irish.
"I thought the combination of Ryan Harris and Dan Stevenson worked very well," said Willingham "I thought it was a great move by our coaches and it worked out very well for us," said Willingham of the switch with Stevenson moving to guard and Harris to right tackle.
The Irish threw for almost 300 yards against Purdue but only managed 33 yards through the air on Saturday. Willingham said his team is still trying to find themselves and this team is still a work-in-progress. "I will label that a part of the growth process we're going through. Some things are going to be good one night and not so good the other night. Eventually we're going to be able to put all our areas in the right place."
Quarterback Bray Quinn didn't have a great game statistically but did lead his team on four successful drives and two that resulted in touchdowns. Willingham said Quinn did the one thing he needed to do—guide his team to a win. "The measuring stick that I have for our quarterbacks is that we win and Brady did that tonight. He made a couple of big throws when we needed big throws and he stepped up and led our football team with a calm presence."
The Irish defense pounded Rutherford forcing him into making a number of bad throws. This was, by far, the most pressure the Irish defense had placed on any quarterback this year. "We knew coming in that we had to put pressure on them because they are good, they often max-protect and it makes it very difficult on our defense," said Willingham of his defense's pass rush.
Not everything was perfect for the Irish on Saturday, they lost their starting kicker Nick Setta to injury. "Nick suffered and injury on the first kickoff and after that point, he was ruled out," said Willingham of Setta's status.
Offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick was pleased with the effort of his offensive on Saturday. "I think our kids did a nice job up front and I thought our running backs ran extremely hard and broke some tackles and we got the big plays and the big runs that we wanted," said Diedrick. "I think across the board, all those kids played very well."
The running of Julius Jones was a highlight for Diedrick. "Julius made some great efforts, very similar to what he did in the first game."
Diedrick has been saying his offense was close to having a breakout game. He was very excited that it came this week against Pittsburgh. "Week after week, you say you're so close to breaking one and sometimes that comes down to either a back breaking a tackle or maybe being a little bit better at the point of attack. When you get big plays like that in a ball game, I think it does two things. Emotionally, it helps you tremendously and definitely it keeps you on the field moving the ball."
As excited as one could get about the Irish offense, the Irish defense played their best game of the season. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer said this was the best offensive team they've faced all year. "I'm just pleased with how we played. We just beat a great football team, I think this was the best offensive team we've played this year."
One player Baer singled out was the play of senior cornerback Vontez Duff. Duff was lined up against Fitzgerald all night and held him well under his usual numbers. "Vontez did a great job in the second half. We put him on Larry the whole second half and I was proud of what he did. I was proud of the whole team."
The Irish did much of their damage on Rutherford playing him straight up on defense and not blitzing a great deal. Baer said they felt they could get to him rushing with just the front four. "We really felt like we could rush four. We did some other things to bring five and a couple of times six, I just felt like we could do it and obviously it worked out."
The Irish confused Rutherford all night and made a very good quarterback look average. Baer's defense clearly won the chess game on Saturday. "We did confuse them some because we moved some fronts and we moved around and obviously he used those timeouts which was tough on him. That was key towards the end of the game because if they get the ball back, they have no timeouts."
The Irish defense were able to sit and enjoy the last nine minutes of the game—something they and Baer are not used to. "I loved that part. When they're just out there, getting first downs, running the football. There was nothing more exciting to me than that, that was the best part of the game in my mind, no question."
A win like this will only help build the confidence of this young but talented team. Baer agrees that this win can be a springboard to the rest of the Irish season. "We just beat a number 15 team at home so it gives you a lot of confidence. I like these guys--I like our team. We've been real close and it seems like we've had no margin of error."
The Irish didn't need a margin of error on Saturday because they rarely made errors all night. This team didn't turn the ball over much (once) and they didn't shoot themselves in the foot with penalties (6).
They did do the things we said they needed to do win this game. They ran the football (352 yards worth), they kept Fitzgerald in front of the defense, they pressured the quarterback, and most important, they played a complete game, the first of the year.
We've been saying this team is improving—they have been and Saturday proved that. Hats off to Willingham, his staff and this team. They didn't give up and gave Irish fans something they could truly be proud of—a complete game.