These doubts were proved wrong for a night. The secondary overcame an opening drive touchdown bomb from Tyler Palko to Greg Lee to only allow 220 passing yards, more than a 100 yards less than what they gave up to this team last season. Lee finished with only four grabs for 63 yards. The run defense was stout. With the exception of a long fourth quarter run by Pitt's Raymond Kirkley, Dave Wannstedt's philosophy of establishing the rushing game never materialized. Head coach Charlie Weis attributes this effort to his veteran players.
"Senior leadership is significant," Weis said. "Even though Corey (Mays) hadn't played a whole bunch in his career, he brings some senior leadership, too. A lot of these guys, starting with Brandon, really took it personally when everyone says you're only returning three and the defense isn't going to be good. They've taken it personally and you are going to see them playing hard every game."
The players heard the whispers, too. No one likes to be called out as the weak link and on Saturday night, the defense upheld their end of the bargain.
"We definitely took it personal," safety Tom Zbikowski said about the pre-season predictions dooming the Irish defense. "Coach Minter and the coaching staff really emphasized flying to the ball and all eleven to the ball. I think we showed that today. We got to the ball and tried to cause some turnovers. We didn't get a lot but the ball was loose. We held a good offense to a limited number of points.
"Coach Minter is aggressive but our players are real aggressive. When they get a chance to see that type of quarterback, especially what he did last year, to get our shots in."
*Along with the numerous personnel groupings Weis implemented versus Pittsburgh, one combination had a lot of success. Rashon Powers-Neal ran for three touchdowns. Normally he would be blocking for the running back scoring the touchdown. Thankfully, Notre Dame is blessed with physical freshman Asaph Schwapp and that allows Powers-Neal to get some carries. Schwapp played a lot Saturday night and was effective in clearing the path for the would-be runner.
"When we were going through this recruiting process last year, we didn't bring in a running back," Weis said. "We did bring in Asaph. He obviously is a very physical presence. I kind of had in my mind we were going to build depth form within. I kind of had in my mind that Powers-Neal was a guy that I could swing back between fullback and halfback if I had a big bruising blocking fullback. Because Asaph fills that role, it allows you to swing Powers-Neal between fullback and halfback. It was a nice compliment tonight."
For Powers-Neal, he was sporting a big smile at the post-game interview session. This is a natural reaction to a fullback busting loose for three touchdowns. Powers-Neal came into the game with confidence and was happy with the results.
"I expected to win," Powers-Neal said. "I didn't expect myself having this much success. It's great. We had a great plan. Everyone was ready to go out there and execute. I'm going to enjoy it tonight and get back to work tomorrow."
*Notre Dame built a big lead early and was able to cruise to victory. It also allowed Weis to play some inexperienced guys and let them get some game action. For a team with depth issues at several positions, it was a great benefit to let these players learn what the college game is all about.
"The biggest plus I felt after the obvious win of the game was being able to get a lot of people into the game," Weis said. "That's going to be important down the line, especially with the inexperience we have. We were in a position to give those guys some valuable playing time."
David Grimes was the only freshmen listed on the depth chart as a starter and this was at punt returner. The freshman let the first punt he saw bounce away instead of catching it. The next time Pittsburgh punted, Zbikowski was back fielding the punt and returned it for 23 yards.
*The win gives Weis his first collegiate head coaching victory. The second win might be a little tougher. The Michigan Wolverines await in Ann Arbor next weekend for the Irish. Game time is slated for 11:00 a.m. South Bend time. Weis is notorious for putting in long hours and outfoxing his opponents on game day. He couldn't resist thinking about the maize and blue late in the fourth quarter.
"I was really happy for our players," Weis said about the end of the game celebrations. "I really wasn't worrying too much about me because I knew we won the game and to be honest with you, my mind was already on Michigan."