Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh provided a chance to collect a few more answers about the direction of the Notre Dame program one week after an impressive 31-13 win at Boston College, yet just two weeks removed from a miserable 37-14 home loss to Stanford.
Pittsburgh couldn’t provide all the answers, but trying to get back to .500 this season against an opponent that had beaten the Irish in two straight games and three out of the last four would certainly serve as a nice confidence boost at the halfway point of the season.
Floyd hauled in Crist's lone touchdown pass of the afternoon.
The Irish trailed early, got rolling with high-tempo offense through most of the first half, stalled some in the second half, and finally held on late for a 23-17 win at Notre Dame Stadium. The win was key because with the schedule easing up in coming weeks, 3-3 looks much better than 2-4.
“Our kids played really hard for four quarters,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “And there is something they are starting to develop and that is they believe they are going to win. That’s starting to change how they go to work every day. It’s how they play the game now. They have a belief that they are going to win football games.”
In terms of offense, defense and special teams, Saturday was a complete effort, save for a couple of ill-timed penalties and a second half that brought only six offensive points on two field goals. Even with some offensive inconsistencies, this was the kind of performance the Irish coaches were looking for to provide some strong game-day evidence that the program and process is starting to fall into place during the early stages of this restoration project.
“We’re not there yet, believe me,” Kelly said. “But we are starting to take the right steps to where we want to go as a football team.”
For the second straight game, Notre Dame jumped on its opponent early offensively, then turned fortunes over to the defense to protect the quick lead. The Irish also stayed turnover free for the first time this season, and used great special teams play to dominate the field position game. The average starting field position for Pittsburgh was its own 20-yard line, compared to the 35-yard line for Notre Dame.
The only time the game felt uncomfortable for Notre Dame came when Pittsburgh jumped to a 3-0 lead early the first quarter. But using the same high-tempo offensive formula that led to 21 unanswered points and an easy 18-point win over Boston College a week earlier, the Irish responded with 17 straight points against Pittsburgh to build what appeared to be a comfortable 17-3 lead at halftime.
For the second straight game, junior quarterback Dayne Crist did his best work in the first half, completing 12 straight passes at one point, and leading three scoring drives on four possessions before intermission.
Crist finished 24-of-39 passing with 242 yards and a one-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Michael Floyd in the first quarter. Crist also added a key 10-yard touchdown run in the first half. But as he did against Boston College, Crist slowed some in the second half. After his string of 12 straight completions, Crist actually missed on six straight passes, and the Irish had to settle for just two field goals in the second half.
The Notre Dame quarterback will always garner most of the attention after any win, but senior placekicker David Ruffer did his best to steal some headllines, converting all three of his field goal attempts, including a career-long 50-yarder early in the third quarter that staked Notre Dame to a 20-3 lead, its biggest of the game.
Ruffer is now 11-for-11 kicking field goals this season and 16-of-16 for his career, the most consecutive makes ever by an Irish kicker.
The fortunes of the placekickers became an important piece of the story Saturday. Ruffer was perfect, while the Panthers failed on two of its three field goal attempts, leaving six potential points off the board, the winning margin for Notre Dame.
Pittsburgh still didn’t go quietly. And a couple of Notre Dame mistakes helped the Panthers score two touchdowns in the span of about 10 minutes late through the third and fourth quarters to pull within 23-17 with 7:23 remaining in the game, creating some fear this would become another of those fourth-quarter breakdown that have haunted the Irish in recent years.
“As we’ve shown, we are really good at stubbing our toe, whether it be a penalty here or a drop [pass] here,” Kelly said, “but that’s us, so you’re going to have to try and get used to it because I’m trying to get used to it.”
The Irish defense kept Pittsburgh in check after the lead shrunk to six point, and Notre Dame looked to put the Panthers away with an apparent touchdown throw and catch from Crist to junior receiver Michael Floyd that appeared to give Notre Dame a cozy 30-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
But the touchdown was called back on an offensive pass interference penalty, and after trading punts, Pittsburgh had one more chance from its own 6-yard line with 1:37 remaining to try and cap a comeback that didn’t seem possible three and half quarters into the game.
Pittsburgh’s rally was cut short when Irish senior cornerback Gary Gray broke up a fourth-down pass with 1:07 remaining in the game allowed the Irish to kneel on the ball and put the game on ice.
The Irish offense did just enough with some sustained scoring drives and better ball protection. But this was a collective effort and the defense deserves its due also.
Opportunistic was the operative word. Notre Dame held Pittsburgh to just 5 of 15 on third-down conversions and 2 of 4 in red zone opportunities.
Pittsburgh (2-3) had several opportunities to cut into Notre Dame’s 17-3 lead in the first half, but an interception by Harrison Smith ended one drive, and the missed field goal opportunities spoiled two others. The Panthers actually outgained the Irish 188-178 and didn’t punt in the first half, but managed only three points on its four possessions because of costly mistakes, and some timely defense by Notre Dame.
“We just haven’t put a full game of good football together,” said Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt. “The offense in the first half, we were moving the ball. We get down in there, we have to settle for two attempted field goals, we don’t finish the job. We got to get the ball in the end zone.”