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Week Four: Pittsburgh

Andrew Owens | Monday, September 26, 2011

PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. But it was a win.

Notre Dame (2-2) scored with less than seven minutes remaining to defeat Pittsburgh (2-2) 15-12 and in doing so, avoided losing its third game in four attempts to start the season.

“Well, [it was] a good win for us obviously,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Hard fought four quarters came down to our ability to put together a very good drive at the end of the game.”

The Irish trailed 12-7 until sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees found junior tight end Tyler Eifert in the end zone for the go-ahead score. The two connected again on a two-point conversion to give Notre Dame a three-point advantage it would not relinquish. Eifert reeled in four passes on that drive alone for 34 yards.

“Just guys making plays on the last drive was really what stands out,” Kelly said. “Obviously two fourth down conversions, our offensive line getting a big enough push to convert — those are good signs for us in terms of being able to win closely contested football games, because you’re going to have those on the way.”

Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham said he was proud of Pittsburgh’s game plan.

“We’re capable of playing good coverage,” Graham said. “We pressured the quarterback. We had a great plan.

“Defensively, I thought we played well enough to win the game. I like the character of this team and how the players have bought into it. I believe in our football team. We’re getting better.”

The Irish sealed the win late in the fourth quarter when Kelly kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-one from the Pittsburgh 35-yard line with 52 seconds remaining. Rees kept the ball and dove forward to gain the yard and ensure an Irish victory.

“I’m really pleased with our resilience and our toughness,” Kelly said. “We’re playing the kind of football we want our teams to play. It’s not going to be an instant classic, but it certainly is from a football standpoint. [These are] games you have to win on the road.”

Notre Dame compiled 398 yards of total offense but only mustered two scoring drives. Early in the second quarter, senior running back Jonas Gray sped away from the Pittsburgh defense and scampered down the sideline for a 79-yard touchdown run. It was the longest Irish run since Terrance Howard broke away from the West Virginia defense for an 80-yard burst in 2000.

“[Gray] only had three carries, but obviously a big run,” Kelly said. “He showed great speed. It was a big time run, when your two-back gets in there and gets a chance and makes a big play, and that’s what we expect from Jonas and that was a big play.”

Overall, Notre Dame rushed for 182 yards. In addition to Gray’s 84 yards, junior running back Cierre Wood added 94 yards on 23 carries.

“I thought [Wood] was solid,” Kelly said. “He picked up tough yards inside. A lot of his runs were inside-out and, again, here’s a guy everyone talks about his breakaway speed, but he’s not afraid to stick his nose up in there between the tackles and that’s what he did today.”

Rees was only able to connect with senior receiver Michael Floyd four times for 27 yards due to the defensive game plan, employed by Graham.

“[They were doing] a lot of things,” Kelly said. “A lot of different coverage variations. They just did a nice job. I thought we adjusted to the things we needed to.

“We started to get some pretty nice flow and rhythm and they had one three-and-out in the third quarter, but other than that we made some adjustments at halftime based upon what their game plan is and it’s the first time someone has really aggressively tried to take Michael out of the game.”

After racking up over 500 yards of total offense in the first two games and a 31-point effort against Michigan State, the Irish offense struggled against the Panthers. The Pittsburgh defense utilized new looks against Rees, especially coverages he had not seen before, Kelly said.

“Again, [Rees was] growing up and seeing some things,” Kelly said. “There were some new looks out there for him that he hadn’t seen before that we had to adjust a lot with him. After he sees it, he gets much more comfortable. You could see his comfort level that last drive. Like I said at one time it was close to being 13- or 14-out-of-15 at throwing the football.”

Rees completed 24-of-41 passes for 216 yards and turned the ball over twice, giving Notre Dame an NCAA-worst 15 turnovers in 2011. The sophomore was poised toward the end of each half, Kelly said.

“The end of the half he did some really good things in terms of throwing the football,” Kelly said. “He was on a really good streak. He had to step up and he didn’t get enough on the interception he threw to Eifert, but you look at him and he knows what’s going on out there. You don’t feel like he’s rattled.”

Senior kicker David Ruffer missed a field goal and the offense was hamstrung by the team’s eight penalties, which lost them 85 yards overall.

“We won’t do anything different [in practice],” Kelly said. “We’ll keep coaching our guys. We do not accept penalties as being part of the game. We demand our guys to pay attention to those things over and over again and hope it turns out better next time.”

With Notre Dame’s September slate now complete and the team holding a 2-2 record, Kelly said he is happy with the competitiveness and development of the squad.

“I told you this many times — I like the way we compete,” he said. “I’d like to win 37-0 too, but winning’s winning. It’s not easy. You go on the road against a BCS team and hold them to 12 points, and find a way to win. I like that development. We’re developing an expectation with our guys that in a close game we’re going to win. Those are good dynamics. We put this one behind us and we have expectations that we’re going to win every game.

“It was a tough, blue-collar kind of day and that’s what was required of everybody and that’s what we got out of our team and it was enough to win and get out of here.”