Panthers struggle to stop Kizer, Fuller as Irish top Pittsburgh, 42-30
Alex Carson | Monday, November 9, 2015
PITTSBURGH — DeShone Kizer accounted for all six Irish touchdowns Saturday as No. 5 Notre Dame used a strong first half to roll to a 42-30 victory over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.
The Irish (8-1) could not have asked for a much better start, as the sophomore quarterback hit junior receiver Will Fuller for a 47-yard touchdown on the game’s third play from scrimmage, putting Notre Dame ahead 7-0 after just 71 seconds.
“It gets us comfortable, it allows us to set our identity against Pitt,” Kizer said about getting ahead from the start. “It also helped us out with understanding that our game plan was completely right … as a team, we saw exactly what we needed to see early.”
The duo connected twice more for touchdowns — one on a 46-yard connection where Fuller carried his defender into the end zone, the other a 14-yard, jump-ball touchdown pass — as Fuller was on the receiving end 152 of Notre Dame’s 262 passing yards on the day to move into second on the all-time receiving touchdown chart at Notre Dame, passing Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate.
Fuller, however, didn’t seem too focused on the accomplishment.
“All I worry about is getting Ws at the end of the day, so whatever it takes to do that is what I’m gonna do,” he said.
Fuller entered the game as one of two dynamic playmakers at receiver, but Pitt junior Tyler Boyd was largely held in check through the air until the end of the game; he only hauled in three passes for 84 yards and a score, one that came on a 51-yard pass in the final five minutes of the game.
Pitt (6-3, 4-1 ACC) threatened to tie the game late in the first quarter after a pair of big plays: a 37-yard, career-long rush from Boyd was followed by a 26-yard gain by junior quarterback Nate Peterman put Pitt inside the Irish 10-yard line. However, the defense held firm, forcing the Panthers to turn to junior kicker Chris Blewitt, who knocked home a 22-yard field goal to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 7-3.
It was the closest the Panthers got.
Notre Dame standout running back C.J. Prosise exited the game at the end of the first quarter with an injury and did not return, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he expected the senior to return soon.
“It’s kind of one where he’s going to have to continue to be evaluated,” Kelly said. “Shoulder, neck, upper-body [injury]. … He’s doing pretty good right now, but we’ll evaluate him, and he’ll be a day-to-day situation.”
With Prosise out, freshman running back Josh Adams entered to take the majority of the carries the rest of the way, but the Irish offense did not miss a beat. Adams ran for 25 yards on the first play of the second quarter to move Notre Dame into scoring position, and after a third-down conversion, Kizer hooked up with junior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. for a 12-yard touchdown pass.
While Hunter finished with three catches for 37 yards, his contributions weren’t solely seen on the offensive side — Kelly and the Irish coaching staff sprung a surprise when Hunter entered the game on defense, as a nickelback, in the second quarter.
“I’ve been working on it the last couple weeks, working on the fundamentals and stuff like that, and I guess they thought I was ready this week, and they put me in a couple plays just to get a feel for it,” Hunter, who played cornerback in high school, said of his defensive cameo. “I’m sure my reps will increase if I keep progressing.”
Hunter’s snaps at nickel made him the first Irish player to play both sides of the ball in Kelly’s tenure and the first since safety Tom Zbikowski took snaps on Senior Day in 2007.
After each team twice traded three-and-outs, the Panthers were the next to mount a serious threat at putting points on the board. Pitt picked up a first down on 4th-and-1 from midfield on the ground before Peterman hit senior J.P. Holtz for his third, and final, completion of the half to move into scoring position.
Irish graduate student cornerback Matthias Farley, starting at safety due to senior Elijah Shumate’s one-half suspension incurred last week at Temple, had other plans — he jumped in front of Peterman’s touchdown-bound pass at the 1-yard line to intercept it, preserving Notre Dame’s 14-3 lead.
“What I love about Matthias is he just keeps playing,” Kelly said. “He has one play where you want him to be in better position, then in the next play he makes a great interception.
“ … That’s just the kind of kid he is.”
While the Irish weren’t able to pick up a first down on the ensuing drive, a successful series of plays, boosted by a 55-yard punt from sophomore Tyler Newsome, saw Notre Dame gain 20 yards of field position.
“Tyler really bounced back after a subpar performance against Temple,” Kelly said. “ … Three plus-50s today, I thought he was outstanding.”
Those 20 yards quickly became important. After Kizer threw incomplete on first down, Adams gained 24 yards on second down to move the Irish across midfield. It set Kizer and Fuller up to connect for their second big touchdown of the day with 1:35 left in the half, pushing Notre Dame ahead, 21-3.
“I knew that we were going to have some opportunities to go deep on them like everyone else does,” Kizer said. “And [Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi] just kind of counts on his front six to eight to get in and get some pressure and get to me. But there was a couple of times they didn’t get to me on time, and I was able to air it out.”
While Pitt’s offense started clicking better in the second half, the Irish offense had an answer whenever the Panthers cut their deficit from 18 to 11.
Panthers freshman safety Jordan Whitehead joined Hunter as a two-way player Saturday when he carried the ball in the first half, and he matched his counterpart’s scoring total 3:41 into the second half when he ran from 10 yards to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 21-10.
But the Irish responded. Adams carried for a 23-yard gain to push the Irish across midfield, and a 19-yard connection between Kizer and Hunter got Notre Dame in the red zone. From there, Fuller did the rest.
“I put the ball up there, and he comes down with it,” Kizer said of the junior receiver. “ … You’ve just got to get the ball in the playmakers’ hands and allow the good things to happen.”
Whitehead one-upped Hunter when he scored on a jet sweep with 2:06 left in the third quarter to cut the Panthers deficit back to 11, but once more, Notre Dame answered.
After a sack on the final play of the quarter dropped Notre Dame to a 2nd-and-16, Notre Dame came out of the gates to start the fourth. Kizer hit junior receiver Corey Robinson and Hunter on back-to-back plays to pick up the first down, and three plays later, Adams got his touchdown, a five-yard reception off a sweep.
Notre Dame’s defense forced its first stop of the half with a three-and-out, and the Irish put the game away when Kizer notched his rushing touchdown from the 2-yard line, putting Notre Dame up 42-17 with 5:47 left.
The touchdown pushed the Irish to 4-for-4 on the day in the red zone, a week after Kizer threw two interceptions inside the 20-yard line.
“I made sure that I was gonna make some better decisions down there, unlike Temple,” Kizer said. “ … When you get down there and you put up points, it allows you to have a sense of confidence for the next time you get down there.”
Boyd’s presence was finally felt a few plays later when a miscommunication between Irish senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell and junior safety Max Redfield left the Panthers receiver wide open deep, as his 51-yard touchdown got Pitt on the board once more.
With the Irish up 42-14 with 1:44 left in the game, Panthers redshirt senior defensive lineman Ejuan Price recovered a fumble by freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush for a touchdown, but a failed 2-point conversion and onside kick recovery, Notre Dame’s second of the game, meant the contest ended without further drama.
Notre Dame will return to action next Saturday when it hosts Wake Forest for Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m.