Irish overcome mistakes, slow start to top Pittsburgh
Charlotte Edmonds | Sunday, October 14, 2018
Despite trailing Pittsburgh for much of the game, No. 5 Notre Dame scored on a long drive late in the fourth quarter to take the lead and keep its undefeated record and playoff hopes alive.
Few matchups will ever match the 2012 triple overtime when the Panthers (3-4, 2-1 ACC) took on the undefeated Irish, but Saturday’s matchup was not without drama of its own.
The Panthers wasted no time getting on the board, intent on making a statement as a legitimate contender in this matchup, getting a little help from the Notre Dame special teams, a unit that has continued to plague the Irish (7-0) the season.
When senior safety Nicco Fertitta jumped offsides during a Pitt punt, the Panthers took advantage of the veteran’s blunder with a touchdown, marching down the field through a 12-play series that ended in a 9-yard rush by redshirt senior Qadree Ollison into the end zone. This drive, which had a lone play over 9 yards, a 15-yard pass to junior receiver Maurcie Ffrench, set the tone for much of the game, marked by unnecessary mistakes and small, contained plays by the Panthers that the Irish struggled to respond to.
An interception in the first quarter made it clear that despite a down season, this Pitt team was still just as capable of spoiling a contender’s season. After the Pitt touchdown, a 22-yard run by Book was followed by a Book interception on the very next play, as he broadcasted his toss — intended for junior running back Tony Jones Jr. — into the arms of Panthers sophomore defensive back Jason Pinnock.
Book said despite the rocky start, he understood the important of moving on for the team.
“Forget about it and move on,” he said. “The offense, I need those guys; and if they make a mistake, I need them to forget about it and same goes with me. You think about it for a minute and got to move on.”
The Irish continued to struggle to get past the Panther defense, struggling to capitalize in the passing game due to the significant pressure on the line. They managed to keep the game close throughout the first half behind the defensive unit, which forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter. Meanwhile, senior kicker Justin Yoon recorded two field goals to give the Irish their only points heading into the break.
This second quarter also gave preview to the dominant performance junior defensive lineman Julian Okwara would go on to put up, featuring two of his seven total quarterback hurries, earning him the game ball.
Graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill said when plays like Okwara’s don’t always make it in the stat book it can be frustrating, but he’s a selfless player who’s arguably the most talented pass rusher for the Irish.
“He causes havoc in their backfield and he’s pushing sacks to every other guy,” Tranquill said.
Pitt returned to the field with vengeance in the second half, with sophomore Maurice Ffrench returning the ball 99 yards on the opening kickoff, putting the Panthers up eight.
Like a repeat of the first half, the Irish offense once again responded to this touchdown with an interception, giving the Panthers great field position just inside the red zone.
After a missed field goal by Pitt junior kicker Alex Kessman, Book and this offense marched 71 yards down the field to hit junior receiver Chase Claypool for a dive into the end zone to bring the Irish within two.
This transition towards the passing game proved successful for Notre Dame as they were able to exploit the gaps in Pitt’s defense.
“I think what’s going on is that confidence on this is knowing you’re playing defense — I’ve got to fill up on the gaps with some guys in the box,” graduate-student offensive lineman Sam Mustipher said. “I mean why would you try to run.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly echoed Mustipher’s sentiments about the openings in the secondary.
“This should have been maybe been 45 to 50 times throwing the football; it was that stark in terms of the pressure that they were putting on the running game today,” Kelly said. “And you know, we want to try to stay balanced. We want to try to stay true to who we are.”
The Irish were finally able to shed the sloppy play in the fourth quarter when Book changed the offensive scheme, looking for deep receivers to lift the Irish out of their first home deficit of the season. Following a long ball to the middle of the field intended for Claypool that was called for interference, Book managed to move the chains up just past the midfield line before connecting with a cutting Miles Boykin for a 35-yard touchdown. This score, with seven-and-a-half minutes remaining, would be the last point scored in the game as the Irish went on to win 19-14, with each team exchanging four-and-outs until the clock ran down.
Boykin, a senior wide receiver, said he told Book after the game that “winning is fun, but let’s not win like that again.”
In a game of poor discipline, the Irish weren’t the only side to struggle on special teams. Kessman missed both field goal attempts for the Panthers in a game that would go on to be decided by five points.
Tranquill said to keep the postseason dreams alive, the team knew coming down the stretch that the defense had to make stops more often to get going.
“I mean I don’t know a team that has won a national championship that hasn’t had to come from behind at some point a season or play a close game, and so you know that happened to be day for us,” he said.
With the obligatory Pitt trap game in the past for the Irish, the stakes for their postseason hopes continues to rise as they prepare for a bye weekend before traveling to San Diego to take on a perennial rival, Navy.