On a day when the running game wasn't working and the passing game was missing opportunities, Notre Dame turned to defense to survive and advance.
Three Things We Learned about Notre Dame Football in Week 7
1, The Irish can grind it out on a day when things aren’t going well
There’s nothing wrong with the occasional close win. Even unbeaten teams who have national-championship hopes need to dodge the occasional bullet. Just ask Georgia, West Virginia, Washington and Penn State.
And so, Notre Dame fans shouldn’t be overly concerned about the narrow 19-14 escape against upset-minded Pitt.
``A win’s a win, and these football games happen,’’ quarterback Ian Book said. ``We’ve been there before, so we didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was. I’m proud of the guys for remaining calm and being able to go down and win the game.’’[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
After three top-notch offensive performances since Book and running back Dexter Williams jump-started the offense, maybe the Irish were due to be flat. On the other hand, they know they need to do a better job of taking care of business.
``I told [Book] winning is fun, but let's not win like this again," said receiver Miles Boykin, who caught the game-winning, 35-yard touchdown pass from Book with 5:43 left.
The bottom line is, Notre Dame is among the four teams projected for the College Football Playoff along with Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. And if ND will need to weather some more best shots from some more upset-capable teams—including Northwestern and USC on the road, plus Florida State, Syracuse and Navy—any losses from here will be considered surprising.
The Irish are showing the talent and the resolve to enjoy their best season since they played Alabama in the 2012 national championship game.
2, This looks like a defense that can get to the Final Four
I don’t know how the Notre Dame defense would fare against Alabama. Then again, I don’t know how the Chicago Bears defense would do, either.
What we are seeing is that the Irish defense is capable of getting ND into the College Football Playoff. What happens then is a question for another day.
After giving up 88 yards as Pitt took a 7-0 lead on its first possession, the Irish allowed only 154 more yards the rest of the way. Give credit to youthful first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who provides a low-keyed counterpoint to excitable head coach Brian Kelly.
``He keeps me calm,’’ Kelly said. ``I'm like, `Hello? Is there somebody up there in the press box on defense?’ That's Clark. He just has a steady sense about him. He's calling defenses and putting our kids in good position.’’
The Irish are allowing 18.7 points a game, 22nd in the nation. and are allowing 340.9 yards a game, 34th in total defense.
Interestingly, ND needed triple overtime to survive Pitt 29-26 in 2012. That came a week after its big 30-13 win at Oklahoma. This year, the Irish dodged another Pitt challenge, a week after their big win at Virginia Tech.
And now they have a bye week to get ready for wily Navy, a game that will be played in San Diego. That’s a Navy town but this doesn’t shape up as a Navy game. Signs are pointing toward this being an Irish year.
3, Book turned the page on another encouraging chapter
After seeing Dexter Williams go off for 181 yards against Stanford and 178 yards against Virginia Tech. Pitt decided not to let that happen. And so, the Panthers loaded up against the run and challenged Book to throw.
The sophomore QB, making just his fifth career start, threw a couple of interceptions. But he also completed 26 of 32 or 264 yards and two touchdowns.
It was a pretty good strategy. Carrying 13 times, Williams managed only 31 of ND’s paltry 80 rushing yards. And Notre Dame needed a big defensive effort to eke out a victory.
But it was a good step for Book.
``His pocket awareness was not great in the first half,’’ Kelly said. ``Had a nice conversation with him in the second half. He settled down nicely, but I think this is just maturation.’’
Nor was Kelly reading too much into the off-day for Williams.
``I think Pitt's plan was to exert a lot of pressure on the running game, and they left themselves vulnerable in the passing game,’’ the coach said. ``Any time you throw it for 80 percent completion, you just have to put more points on the board. That's where we fell short. Nobody in this building, including myself, is concerned about the lack of a running game. There are some players that we wish executed better. But the way they were configured and the way they wanted to play this game, it was going to make it difficult to have a sustained running game.’’
We’ll see about that. Williams doesn’t have a vast body of work. Although he’s a senior, his 370 rushing yards this season already are a career high. He ran for 360 last year, 200 as a sophomore and 81 as a freshman.
Don’t be surprised if other teams try shutting down the running game. When that happens, we’ll find out more about Book. Including. . . whether he’ll use his Pitt experience to make other run-loaded defenses pay a higher price.[/membership]