Rashon Powers-Neal scored three touchdowns, the offensive line opened up 275 yards of rushing and Brady Quinn was extremely efficient as Weis picked up his first head coaching victory with a dominating 42-21 win over Pittsburgh. The head coach, who calls the plays, used a dizzying array of personnel and formation groupings to gain over 500 yards in total offense and confound Dave Wannstedt and the Panthers into submission. They head next week to the Big House to face rival Michigan and to win game two for Weis. The game was over midway through the third quarter and they did not punt until 14:55 of the fourth quarter. Weis's debut proved some national doubters wrong for a night.
"I'm happy for Notre Dame," Weis said. "I'm happy for our players. I'm happy for our university. I'm happy for our fans. There is going to be a lot of people drinking coffee tomorrow with a big smile on their face. I'm happy for all them, too."
Notre Dame gained more yards in the first half than five complete games from last year. They raced to a 35-13 lead and went into halftime with the momentum. The Irish did not relent after intermission. After receiving the ball first in the third quarter, Notre Dame proceeded to march 80 yards in 20 time-consuming plays, capped off by another Powers-Neal touchdown from four yards out. On the drive, the Irish converted third downs one after the other and used up 7:01 of the clock to increase the lead to 42-13 as stunned Pittsburgh fans headed to the exits. A late Palko scoring run and two-point conversion was much too late for the 0-1 Panthers.
The one big concern for the team, the defense, stepped up big time. With only three returning starters back, much of the pre-game talk was how they were going to contain a team who torched them for 41 points last season. Led by a swarming attack, they limited the Tyler Palko to only 215 passing yards and stuffed the running game.
"I would say we won the line of scrimmage," Weis said. "It was a very physical game and our players played very physical. That's what we are looking for."
The beginning, though, was a rocky one. Pitt struck on the first drive of the game. Tyler Palko's play action pass to Greg Lee on a deep post was on the mark for a 39-yard touchdown pass. Safety Tom Zbikowski bit on the run fake and could not catch up with the floating scoring strike that staked Pitt to an early 7-0 advantage. This would be the only big play from the duo as the Irish secondary held the Panther passing attack in check.
Notre Dame responded quickly on their first drive of the Weis era. Darius Walker took a screen pass and raced up the right sideline with the aid of a few key blocks for a 51-yard catch-and-run score to even the game at 7. Walker caught the ball sparingly last season but hauled in three passes in the new system, mostly on screen plays. Weis's first offensive drive as the play caller took only 2:39, much to the delight of the Irish team who raucously celebrated on the bench. Walker touched the ball five of six times on the opening possession and ran for 101 yards on the night.
"With the coverage that their team was playing, as I told them all along I was going to make adjustments based on whose defense we were playing," Weis said. "They were playing Dave's. And Dave's defense is basically four across. That screen is designed for a team that plays four across. Fortunately, we got a couple of blocks and Darius made a nice run."
Quinn made only one mistake all night. He badly under threw a wide open Maurice Stovall and was picked off by Darrelle Revis. To add injury to insult, 288-pound Ryan Harris was decleated by 195-pound cornerback Josh Lay on the return. Pitt capitalized on the turnover with a 49-yard field by Josh Cummings, a record long for a kicker at Heinz Field, to make it 10-7.
The Irish signal caller, who threw for 237 yards on 18-of-27 passing, shook off the errant throw and marched Notre Dame right back down the field. A key third down reception by Rhema McKnight kept the drive alive and one play later, Walker busted a run to the left side for a two-yard touchdown gallop to give the Irish their first lead at 14-10. Quinn has learned a lot from Weis about running the offense but one principle is crucial.
"The biggest thing is take what they give you," Quinn said. "There was one time where I tried to force something and made a bad decision but that's fine. I thought I was pretty patient with things and take what they give me."
Notre Dame extended their lead on the next drive. Rashon Powers-Neal bulled his way into the end zone to make it 21-10. On the score, Weis used three tight ends with Asaph Schwapp leading the way for Powers-Neal. Quinn hit two first down completions to Anthony Fasano while Walker added three rushes for 21 yards to propel the scoring march.
Special teams, a huge emphasis for this coaching staff, came up with the next big play. Mitchell Thomas caused Pitt's Marcus Furman to fumble on the ensuing kickoff and the ball was recovered by Chinedum Ndukwe. The Irish offense didn't wait long as two plays later, Jeff Samardzija made a full-out diving catch for a 19-yard touchdown strike from Quinn to put Notre Dame up 28-10. Quinn spread it around to receivers all night. Fasano had four receptions, Walker three, McKnight three and Samardzija three.
Pitt cut it to 28-13 on a 23-yard field goal by Cummings but their defense failed them again. Powers-Neal, after catching a screen pass and running 18 yards earlier in the drive, finished it by blasting his way for a 9-yard touchdown run to make it 35-13. Notre Dame did not punt once in six first half possessions and gained more total yards in 30 minutes than they did in five completed games in 2004.