Notre Dame earned an impressive 45-3 victory over the Pitt Panthers, and the win was primarily fueled by a brilliant defensive performance. There wasn’t necessarily one unit that played above and beyond; rather, the entire unit played at a high level and handled its business.
Here are my key takeaways from the Irish victory.
The Run Defense Is Legit
Following week eight action, the Notre Dame defense ranks eighth nationally in yards allowed among teams that have played more than one game. The Irish are giving up just 94.8 yards per game on the ground, and it ranks 14th at 3.3 yards allowed per rush.
By holding Pitt to just 44 yards on the ground, the Irish defense has now held three of its five opponents to less than 100 yards, and a fourth - South Florida - rushed for just 106 yards. Through five games Notre Dame’s “worst” performance was giving up 153 yards against Florida State.
Consider that from 2014-16, the Irish defense gave up an AVERAGE of between 159.5 and 182.4 rushing yards per game.
I don’t think Notre Dame even played great against Pittsburgh, but they got the job done and put up impressive numbers. What I mean by that is there weren’t a lot of tackles for loss (season low five stops behind the line), there wasn’t a single player I can point to and say, “Wow, that was brilliant” for the entire game. The Irish just played good team ball, and that’s meant to be a compliment. A brilliant individual performance or two is harder to repeat week to week, but the unit as a whole playing well together is far more repeatable.
The key was the play of the line, which did its job consistently throughout the game. On the outside, the defensive ends throttled the Pitt tackles and set the edge effectively throughout. Pitt could not get outside, and it couldn’t get any kind of outside push on its stretch plays, which forced early cut backs.
On the inside, the Irish defensive tackles were aggressive, they held up against double teams, they consistently reset the line of scrimmage in their favor, there seemed to be a good deal of penetration and they were gap sound.
The Irish starters up front played well, but just as important is the fact that backups like Justin Ademilola, Jayson Ademilola, Jacob Lacey, etc. also played quite well.
Overall I felt the linebackers played extremely well, but there were a few fit mistakes from the Buck spot that could prove problematic against a better rush offense.
Third-Down Defense Continues To Shine
Notre Dame continued its season-long brilliance on third-down, holding Pitt to just 3-of-13 in such situations. Notre Dame now ranks second in the country in third-down defense among teams that have played more than one game.
It didn’t look like this trend would continue, as Pitt converted its first two third-downs to start the game, and it allowed the Panthers to get into field goal range on its opening drive. In fact, Pitt converted 3-of-5 to start the game (if you include a penalty conversion), but the Panthers would not make another third-down conversion until it was a 45-3 score in the fourth quarter, and the offense never again sniffed the end zone.
A key to the third-down success was how good Notre Dame was on first and second down. The Irish held Pitt to just 2.2 yards per rush, and they dominated the Panthers in early downs in the run game. Notre Dame forced 21 Pitt incompletions, and the pass offense averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt.
Pitt was in a 3rd-and-10 or longer in six of their 13 third-down snaps, and two more times they were in 3rd-and-7. When you are facing third-and-long on over half your snaps against the Notre Dame defense you will not have much success.
Forcing Turnovers Changed The Game
The Notre Dame offensive players should be thanking the defensive players all week for the 45 points the team scored on Saturday against the Panthers. Three Irish turnovers in the second and third quarter broke this game open.
It was a 14-3 game late in the second quarter and the Irish offense was scuffling. An ineffective Irish drive resulted in Pitt taking over at its own 40-yard line. Three plays into the drive, linebacker Bo Bauer jumped underneath a Joey Yellen pass and picked it off. Bauer then reverted back to his Erie, Pa. high school running back days, running the ball 16 yards up the field to give the Irish offense a short field.
The offense responded with a 46-yard touchdown drive to make it a 21-3 game.
Early in the third quarter, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah picked off a downfield pass to once again give the offense possession in Pitt territory. Once again, the Irish offense responded with a short-field touchdown drive.
On Pitt’s very next offensive play, veteran cornerback Nick McCloud picked off another Yellen pass at the Pitt 35-yard line for the third short field opportunity for the offense. And once again, the Irish offense responded with a short-field touchdown drive.
Within a matter of of just 18 minutes of game time, a 14-3 game became a 45-3 game due in large part to the Irish defense and special teams. Of course, the special teams blocked punt was from a defensive player (Isaiah Foskey).
From a big picture standpoint, the Irish need to build on this performance. Notre Dame was a mediocre defense when it comes to forcing turnovers for much of the season. That changed against Pitt, and if it can become a bigger part of the defense in upcoming weeks the Irish will be very hard to beat.
Linebackers Thrive In Coverage
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea seemed to put a great deal of his game plan on the shoulders of the front four. Early on it seemed he was going to let that unit prove it could win the battle up front, and the pressures and blitzes were less frequent. The defensive line answered the challenge, and it had a big impact in the game.
The reason is it allowed Lea to use his linebackers more effectively in coverage, and the backers responded by making two of the three interceptions. There were also a number of impactful coverage snaps from the linebackers. Owusu-Koramoah did a great job taking away the perimeter short throws, and junior Shayne Simon had a number of quality pass coverage snaps.
Pass Rush Still Needs Work
Notre Dame’s defensive line did a lot of good things against Pitt, but there is still room for improvement from a pass rushing standpoint. This is especially true of the ends. Senior Daelin Hayes had a better pressure game than we’ve seen in weeks, but more is needed from the unit as a whole.
We saw a different look from the nickel defense up front, as Jayson Ademilola was used more frequently as a pass rusher in these situations. Ademilola had a sack and a pressure in the first quarter that ended back-to-back Pitt drives. If this continues it will certainly help the defense, but the edge players need to do more.
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