Notre Dame football grades: Defense, special teams make boatload of big plays
Andrew McGuinness | Wednesday, November 1, 2023
Even though the Irish put up 58 points in their victory over Pitt on Saturday, it is a bit misleading when it comes to how the offense actually played. The same can’t be said for how the defense fared. If anything, it played better than the seven points allowed to the Panthers would indicate. The Irish forced several turnovers and contained Pitt from start to finish. It was another smothering performance from Al Golden’s unit, as the Irish defense has become the driving force of the team’s success. Here’s how each position group fared against Pitt.
The Irish held a struggling Pitt offense in check starting from the trenches out. Senior Jordan Botelho notched one of Notre Dame’s two sacks in the game, which was also one of six tackles for loss on the day. Graduate students Howard Cross III and Javontae Jean-Baptiste notched a hurry as well. Notre Dame held Pitt below its already pitiful 3.4 yards per carry average, holding the Panthers to just 2.8 on 19 carries for a total of 53 rushing yards. That was the fewest for any opponent against the Irish this year.
Notre Dame contained Pitt starting quarterback Christian Veilleux all game. Notre Dame’s four quarterback hurries are solid, but the Irish defensive line made a bigger impact. The Irish defensive line racked up four quarterback hurries and wreaked havoc on other occasions. The pass rush directly led to Veilleux overthrowing a receiver on his second pick of the afternoon.
Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: B
The Irish linebacker room filled plenty of categories on the stat sheet. Graduate student JD Bertrand was tied for the team lead with five tackles, an Irish-best four solos and a quarterback hurry. Graduate student Jack Kiser had a hurry himself and a pair of tackles. Fellow graduate student Marist Liufau had just one tackle, but it was for a loss, and he also registered a pass breakup. It was more of a quiet game for the Irish linebackers as other groups were more in the spotlight on Saturday.
Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: B+
It’s hard to have a better performance than Notre Dame’s secondary did on Saturday. The Irish held Veilleux to a 14-for-29 line for just 127 yards and no scores. Even more impressively, the Irish picked off the redshirt sophomore not once, not twice, not thrice but four times. Senior safety Xavier Watts, fresh off a two-interception game against USC, picked up right where he left off. Watts showed off his pass-catching skills as a former receiver on the first pick, expertly angling back to snag a lofting pass in front of the Irish sideline. The second was a bit easier, as Veilleux overshot his target, sailing the ball right into the chest of Watts. The Omaha, Nebraska, native returned the two interceptions a combined 31 yards as well.
Watts wasn’t the only one getting in on the turnover fun, though. Sophomore cornerback Jaden Mickey all but put the game out of reach with a pick-six on Pitt’s opening drive in the third quarter, the first time the four-star recruit has found the end zone with the Irish. If that didn’t put Pitt away, freshman cornerback Christian Gray’s acrobatic, juggling interception two plays later certainly did.
It’s always a good sign when you force nearly as many turnovers as the number of points you allow. Oh, and the Irish did this without sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison for the entire game and graduate student cornerback Cam Hart for most of it. And focusing solely on turnovers misses out on other standout performers, like graduate student safety Thomas Harper, who had a team-high two tackles for loss and was tied the team-high with five tackles overall. It was a banner day for the Irish secondary from start to finish.
Weekly Grade: A+; Season Grade: B+
Golden isn’t the only coach who’s likely smiling ear to ear after Saturday. Once again, Marty Biagi’s group had a signature moment, this time thanks to Chris Tyree. It looked like the senior wide receiver would be bottled up shortly after fielding Pitt’s first of many punts on the day. However, Tyree shook a pair of immediate tackle attempts, wiggled past a couple more attempts to wrap him up and then hit the jets. Tyree’s 82-yard return was Notre Dame’s first punt return score since 2015 and the first return touchdown of any kind since a kickoff return against Wisconsin in 2020 by … Tyree.
Tyree wasn’t the only one showing off his elusiveness, though. Freshman wide receiver Jordan Faison also made a couple of defenders look silly on a 20-yard third-quarter punt return. Nor was Tyree’s return the only special teams touchdown of the day. The whopping four interceptions were bookended by a fumble recovery by senior safety Ramon Henderson on a bobbled punt forced in part by the pressure of graduate student running back Deyvn Ford.
Graduate student Spencer Shrader made his lone field goal, a 23-yard chip shot, but did miss an extra point. In fairness, when you have to kick seven in the same game, it’s understandable.
Weekly Grade: A+; Season Grade: B+