Notre Dame earned an impressive victory over the Pitt Panthers on Saturday, and after a rough start the Irish offense stepped up and played complementary football with its defense. When the Irish defense gave the offense short fields, the offense took advantage and put the ball in the end zone to blow the game open.
Here are my grades for the Irish offense from the win over Pitt:
COACHING — B
One concern I had coming into this game was that offensive coordinator Tommy Rees would abandon the run and try to rely too much on the pass game. When you consider how good Pitt’s defense is against the run, it’s an often common mistake that coaches make, but Rees did not do that.
Notre Dame didn’t run the ball as much as it has in the past, but it stuck with the run game, kept the game plan balanced and took advantage of Pitt’s aggressiveness.
Rees did a great job building the pass game around his best players, the tight ends and running backs. The tight ends especially were targeted a lot in the pass game, and the usage of Kyren Williams out of the backfield proved impactful.
The third-down game plan was good, and I was impressed by the willingness to run the ball in short yardage situations. We also saw the return of RPOs (Run Pass Option), which was a welcomed sight, and they were effective in limited usage.
My biggest complaint from the game plan is one I've had each week. There's still too much of the pass game that isn't suited for the strengths of the wideouts. Rees is using far too many vertically oriented routes that require either top-notch speed and playmaking ability, or precise route running, and the players they are putting on the field at wide receiver have neither.
QUARTERBACK — B-
Evaluating quarterback Ian Book is a bit challenging. There was a lot of sloppiness, including too many snaps that were misses because of his mistakes and not good play from the defense. There were also some clutch plays, impact plays with his legs, and despite being off, Book competed hard and battled all game long despite a great deal of pressure from the defense.
Book was especially poised on third-down, staying in the pocket and getting the throw off when he needed to, and stepping into the pocket and using his legs to move the chains when that was needed. He made good decisions in this department, and his patience/poise in the pocket meant when he did take off there was a lot more room to run.
One complaint I’ve had about Book for much of his starting career is that when he gets pressured he puts his eyes down and focuses on the rush, not his receivers. In recent games this has been better, and it was very important against Pitt. His willingness to stay in the pocket and take a hit was also a big factor.
Book graded out well for plays like this, and his improvisation also played a big role in the win. The throwback to Javon McKinley that went for 41 yards was not designed to be a throwback pass. It was meant to be a play-action shot downfield to a tight end, but Book saw McKinley open after scrambling around and he got the ball out to his wideout in position to make a big play.
Where Book’s grade takes a hit is his overall effectiveness as a passer. He thrived on big plays, but there were a lot of opportunities to make even more plays that were missed. Book’s timing was often late, which caused him to either not make throws or it caused him to be off target.
Here’s an example:
This is an example of one of the throws that holds Book back. He needs to see the big open window to the left, and the body language/feet of the defender, and know the ball needs to get thrown into that open area so that his wideout can run underneath it.
This was one of three passes that Book threw that could have been picked off. The clip above was about him holding onto the ball too long and almost getting hit, the others were him forcing passes into coverage.
RUNNING BACK — B-
There wasn’t much room to work for the backs, but they competed and maximized the opportunities that were there on the ground. It was a punishing game for the backs, and they gave as much as they got.
Sophomore Kyren Williams finished runs extremely well in the game and he ran with excellent pad level, and his leg drive and balance allowed him to make some crucial runs in the game. His ability to find room in short-yardage situations was impactful in the game, and Williams did a good job working open in the pass game.
His pass blocking was inconsistent and he gave up a couple of hits in the game.
Junior running back C’Bo Flemister also ran with physicality and force. His toughness and ability to maximize yards was impressive.
WIDE RECEIVER — B
Notre Dame’s wideouts stepped up and made plays in the win over Pitt, and it went beyond just the two big plays from Ben Skowronek.
Of course, those two big plays were crucial to Notre Dame’s victory, and both required impressive catches and yards after the catch. Skowronek struggled to get separation for much of the game, but when he was needed to step up he delivered in a big way. Skowronek also blocked extremely well. On one particular snap in the red zone, Skowronek physically drove a Pitt defensive back out of the back of the end zone.
Senior Javon McKinley had issues getting off the line for much of the game, and he must start doing a better job of using his hands and feet to win more battles at the line. He’s too big and strong to get jammed as much as he does, but his release technique needs work, and that is true for the entire position group.
McKinley blocked well, and when he was given a chance to make a big play he did, turning a pass behind the line into a 41-yard gain.
Senior slot receiver Avery Davis also played a quality football game. Davis doesn’t get targeted much, but when he does he makes plays. He turned a pair of short throws into quality gains, and he did a good job working the middle of the field.
Junior receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. wasn’t targeted much, but I thought he played well when he was in the game. He probably got as much separation as any receiver for the Irish.
Overall, the wide receiver group still doesn’t get much separation. Pitt’s cornerbacks were their weak spot, and outside of a few snaps the Irish wideouts didn’t get the kind of separation I’ve seen past receiving units get. The struggles of the Irish wideouts off the line is a major problem and has been all season. It also puts them behind the eight ball when it comes to secondary moves to get separation.
TIGHT END — B+
Notre Dame’s tight ends are without question the best skill group on the Irish roster, and they showed that against Pittsburgh.
Freshman Michael Mayer caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, and he came up in big situations. He moved the chains on third-down, he got into the end zone and his overall play could and should have resulted in even more production.
Mayer has been a strong blocker all season, but he had a rough go of it against the Panthers. He had a hard time handling the backside and got beat inside on far too many snaps. He battled, but the talented and veteran Pitt defensive line gave him some problems.
Junior Tommy Tremble wasn’t used much in the pass game, but he continued being a strong blocker in the run game. Notre Dame seems to be mostly using him as a blocker in recent games, which makes sense based on how well he blocks, but I’d like to see the staff do more to move him around and get him going in the pass game. There was one snap, for example, where Tremble stayed in to block while Brock Wright was sent on a vertical pass route. It should be the other way around.
OFFENSIVE LINE — B
Grading is always relative to the quality of the opposition. There have been games where the Irish put up strong numbers but didn’t play all that well. Against Pitt, the offense didn’t run for many yards, especially on designed runs, but I felt the overall play was quite good.
When you play a front four as good as Pitt’s you are going to win some battles and lose some battles. The Irish line lost some battles, but they won a lot more than they lost, and that’s how you achieve success against this kind of defense.
Notre Dame’s line was physical and they got movement in key situations. Even when they got beat, either on the edge or in gaps, they did a great job staying engaged and keeping a body on a body. This played a big role in Book’s ability to step into the pocket and either get throws off, or to take off running so that he could move the chains.
Were they perfect? Far from it, but they battled and stepped up in the biggest moments.
Left tackle Liam Eichenberg played a strong game for the Irish. He got called for a personal foul that was questionable, and he had two misses in pass pro. Eichenberg was late getting over to a looping linebacker and he stopped his feet and lunged at an end, which allowed the rusher to beat him outside.
Beyond that, Eichenberg was outstanding. His overall pass protection grade was high, he did a good job picking up rushers and he was physical in the run game.
Right tackle Robert Hainsey had impressive moments in the run game. He got good movement on stretch plays and was effective getting movement on down blocks. His pass protection was up-and-down, but he kept hands on and competed. Pitt was lining up wide on the edge and attacking wide. That allowed them to get up the field on the edge, but Hainsey did a good job getting wide, getting a body on the edge rushers and riding them outside. This is why Book was able to step into the pocket so freely and make throws or run.
There were a few snaps where Hainsey stopped his feet and lunged, and that’s when he got beat, but overall he had a solid performance.
Left guard Aaron Banks had a quality performance, both in pass protection and in the run game. Eichenberg and Banks had a number of strong combo blocks where they drove Pitt defenders off the ball, which opened up cutback lanes. He and Tommy Kraemer’s overall quality pass protection helped open up inside run lanes for Book. Kraemer got beat on two snaps when he stopped his feet, but overall his protection was solid. Even when he got beat, Kraemer kept a body on and allowed Book to avoid the rush.
Center Jarrett Patterson had the lowest graded performance. His snapping was good, but he struggled at the point of attack in the run game, and he was beat into gaps in the pass game far too often. There were just too many snaps where Patterson’s hips were turned and he was struggling to keep a defender from getting up the field.
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