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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

“Fearless” Irish step up, throttle Pitt 45-3

Pitt has long been a dangerous opponent for Notre Dame. Twice, the Panthers have nearly ruined the Irish’s unbeaten seasons, both in 2012 and 2018. In the last six games against the Panthers, the Irish had won five, but they only notched one victory by more than a touchdown. Coming off an underwhelming 12-7 win over Louisville, there was considerable angst amidst the Irish fanbase entering Notre Dame’s first road trip of the year to face the 3-3 Panthers. 

As it turned out, the angst wasn’t needed. As head coach Brian Kelly said after the game:

“We’re not interested in just winning football games," he said "We’re interested in being a championship football team.”

For arguably the first time all season, the Irish (5-0, 4-0 ACC) looked the part of an undefeated and No. 3-ranked team. Notre Dame dominated in all facets of the game, jumped out to a 28-3 halftime lead and never looked back, rolling to a 45-3 victory over Pitt (3-4, 2-4 ACC). 5th-year quarterback Ian Book was 16-30 in just under three quarters of action, racking up 312 yards and 3 touchdown passes. He also notched 40 yards on eight carries.

Charles LeClaire | USA TODAY Sport
Irish fifth-year senior quarterback Ian Book breaks a tackle during Notre Dame's 45-3 win over Pitt on Saturday. Book threw for a season-high 312 yards and ran eight times for 40 more in the win.

Book spread the ball out, with graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek collecting two passes, both for touchdowns, for 107 total yards. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer was Book’s top target, with five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. While the rushing game took a rare backseat to the aerial attack, sophomore running back Kyren Williams churned out 38 yards on 17 carries, often manufacturing yards after getting hit at the line of scrimmage against a Pitt defense ranked No. 1 against the run coming into the game. 

Defensively, the Irish swarmed Pitt's offense, finally breaking through with three interceptions after just one in their first four games. Kurt Hinish was a strong presence on the defensive line and spoke on the dominant effort.

"I'm very happy. We showed up and play loose today and played free," finish said. "[Irish defensive backs] are tired of waiting for the ball to come to the receivers and they, you know, they're just starting to take the ball now. And that's the mindset that we have".

Notre Dame came into their first road trip of the year in need of a statement. The Irish were coming off an underwhelming 12-7 over ACC cellar-dwelling Louisville. Despite being ranked No. 3 in the country, Notre Dame received a lot of criticism as not being on the same level as other top-five teams. Their offense, particularly the passing game, had been inconsistent and unable to take advantage of their defensive dominance with blowout victories. With their No. 7 rushing offense being tested against Pitt’s No. 1 rushing defense, it seemed the Irish would need their passing game more than ever.

Meanwhile, the Panthers entered also desperately in need of a win. Pitt stumbled into Heinz Field on the heels of a 3-game losing streak. Two one-point losses to NC State and Boston College preceded a loss to then-No. 13 Miami, leaving Pitt at 3-3 and desperately in need of turning around a once-promising season. 

The Irish came out looking like they wanted to make a statement on offense. They churned out 75 yards on 11 plays, converting a pair of third downs. After being backed up on a facemask penalty, Notre Dame recovered from a 1st & 21 at the Pitt 44 in spectacular fashion; Book ran for 10 yards on first down, and then hit graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek on a crossing route for 34 yards and the touchdown. Brian Kelly discussed the fast start and Notre Dame’s need to make a statement in this game.

“We need to play at an elite level," he said. "It starts with playing at a level that allows you to suddenly play your best when you have to, but to have that ready to go because you are already playing at a high level.”

Despite the fast start for the Irish, Pitt responded by getting off to a somewhat promising offensive start. With redshirt freshman backup quarterback Joey Yellen in for the injured senior Kenny Pickett, the Panthers drove into field goal range on the strength of 11 and 22-yard passes on third down. It was enough for a 45-yard field goal from Alex Kessman, cutting the Irish lead to four points. 

However, that would be the only highlight for the Pitt offense. in eight ensuing drives from their offense, excluding a kneel-down at the end of the first half, Pitt punted five times and threw three interceptions, accumulating 99 yards in the half and a total of 162 yards on the day. They also were rarely on the field, as Notre Dame dominated the time of possession again, controlling the ball for a stunning 41 minutes of game time. 

Notre Dame’s offense didn’t immediately capitalize on their defense’s dominant effort though, fumbling and punting on their next two possessions, but Ian Book eventually got the passing game rolling, and the Irish met little resistance from there on out. The spark came on a huge 3rd and 14 play in the second quarter, as Book launched a deep pass to Skowronek down the left sideline. Skowronek went up and secured the contested ball, broke a tackle, and raced the remainder of the way for a 14-3 Notre Dame lead.

“Ben had not been healthy, but we knew what he was capable of,” Kelly said. “He went up and took the ball away and set a great tone for how we were going to be moving forward.”

Two possessions later, Notre Dame turned a Bo Bauer interception into a short touchdown drive, which Williams polished off with a 2-yard run around the right end, trucking a Pitt defender as he crossed the goal line. While the Irish would have likely been very content with a 21-3 advantage heading into the locker room, Pitt got strangely conservative and eventually found themselves facing a 4th & 15 with 20 seconds to play in the half.

Notre Dame strategically used their final timeout of the half to force the Panthers to punt, and they were rewarded with sophomore Isaiah Foskey breaking through the Pitt blockers for a huge block. The ball rolled backwards into the end zone, and Foskey pursued and picked it up for the touchdown and a 28-3 halftime lead. 

Any hope that the Panthers had for a quick turnaround to start the second half was quickly quelled, as the game went from teetering on blowout territory to a complete laugher within minutes. Pitt’s first three drives in the second half combined for 27 yards, ending in one punt and two interceptions. Consequently, Notre Dame responded to each of Pitt’s offensive efforts with scoring drives, putting up 17 points in their first three drives of the third quarter.

The first, a 14-play, 72-yard drive, stalled out at the Pitt 3. The drive was highlighted by some tough running by Williams on 3rd down and a 41-yard completion from Book to Javon McKinley. Senior placekicker Jonathan Doerer knocked in the 21-yard field goal to push the advantage to 28 points. Both of Notre Dame’s final touchdown drives needed just four plays, with both starting inside Pitt territory. Ian Book capped off one with his third touchdown pass of the day, a 14-yard dot to Mayer, and junior running C’Bo Flemister bulled in from two yards out to account for the final score of 45-3. 

With subs in, the rest of the game was a formality, as Notre Dame capped off a dominant defensive performance with three more forced punts, before the offense killed the clock with a final drive that drained the final 7 minutes and 52 seconds. Overall, the defense did not allow a drive of more than 43 yards, as the Panthers netted more than 30 yards on a drive just twice. Notre Dame has now allowed just 49 points in 5 games. That 9.8 points per game mark ranks sixth in the country.

While the 45-3 win over Pitt certainly isn’t the end goal for this football team, Kelly believed the performance was indicative of what they can accomplish.

“We needed to play fearless, we needed to play with great energy, and we needed playmakers. We saw all of those things today,” Kelly commented. “This is a very good glimpse of what this football team is capable of.”

Notre Dame will look to deliver another emphatic performance ahead of their Nov. 7th showdown with No. 1 Clemson. They travel to Georgia Tech for a 3:30 Halloween kickoff.