5 Things I Liked: Notre Dame v. Pitt ’18

Notre Dame survived the first upset Saturday of the college football season on Saturday with a come from behind win over unranked Pitt.  While no Irish fan likely walked away from yesterday’s game feeling anything other than a sigh of relief, Notre Dame did hold on to win and walked into their bye week 7-0 and firmly in the playoff race.  After a few weeks of these columns being a ton of fun, this one took a little more work this week as the Irish did more to not like.  Even in a close victory though, there were plenty of good things done by Notre Dame.

1. Winning ugly vs. the alternative

Winning ugly is always better than the alternative.  In this case the alternative would have essentially ended Notre Dame’s season in mid October since there is almost no way for Notre Dame to sneak in the playoffs this year with a loss.  So from that perspective, yesterday’s ugly win is monumentally better than anything else.  Penn State, Miami, Wisconsin, and Georgia all would have loved to win ugly yesterday.  Instead three of those four are out of the playoff mix – Georgia being the lone exception.

In past years, Notre Dame might have lost this game.  The 2016 Fighting Irish probably lose this game by two scores.  Winning these ugly games is a testament to the players who fight til the end.  That said, if Notre Dame wants to make the playoff and do more than just make an appearance, this has to be the last such ugly win now that there are three on the schedule already this year.  Navy, Syracuse, and Northwestern all have the same type of ability to give Notre Dame fits and Florida State and USC have the talent to play with the Irish.

For now though, I definitely like being undefeated, ranked 4th in the country and pretty much in the driver’s seat for a playoff bid if the Irish win out.

Side note: Notre Dame had been just 7-23 in games in which they trailed at half time under Brian Kelly prior to yesterday.

2. Julian Okwara’s game, possibly season, saving tackle

I said it at the time it happened and it held true.  Julian Okwara‘s open field tackle on 3rd and 2 with 8:00 to go may have saved the game and the season for Notre Dame.  Pitt needed just two yards and got a completed pass to a running back in isolation in the open field versus defensive end Julian Okwara.  Okwara made the stop for a loss of three.  That is not an easy tackle for a DE in the open field, but Okwara stuffed Darrin Hall.

Okwara was a monster all game though.  He was credited with 7 QB hurries officially but unofficially it felt like a lot more.  He might not be piling up sacks this year, but he is making his presence felt and the constant pressure he is generating is helping fuel Notre Dame’s four man pass rush.  If Okwara can bulk up just a bit this off-season and add a power move to his arsenal, he could be an absolute terror next season.  As is, he is playing some pretty lights out football right now and if Notre Dame does indeed end up making the playoffs this year, we will look back at this play as one that saved the season.

3. Ian Book’s response after his 2nd INT

Ian Book did not have his best game.  In fact, for two and a half quarters of football he was having a pretty bad game.  Midway through the 3rd quarter Book had two interceptions and Notre Dame had a grand total of 6 points as the Irish trailed Pitt 14-6.  After his second interception – which occured at the Pitt 7 yard line –  Book came alive.

Book finished the game 10 for his last 10 for 134 yards and two touchdowns to give Notre Dame a 19-14 lead that ended up being the final.  Book, Chip Long, and Brian Kelly will have plenty of time during the week bye to breakdown everything Pitt did to confuse Book and to get him better prepared for the kinds of looks that opposing DC’s will be looking to replicate over the final five games now.

Book ended up still completing 26 of 32 passes and is now the nation’s leader in completion percentage so it wasn’t his accuracy so much as it was his indecisiveness and decision making early that had Notre Dame stuck in neutral.  More on that in the 5 things I didn’t like column tomorrow though.

4. More Notre Dame wide receivers getting involved

While looking for some silver linings in an otherwise uneven offensive performance, one of the hidden positives, was the involvement of more Notre Dame receivers and less of a reliance on Miles Boykin.  Over the last two weeks Notre Dame was overly reliant on Boykin as Book’s go-to target.  This week though Book spread the ball around a bit more and got both Chase Claypool and Chris Finke more involved.

Claypool had a season high five receptions and 61 yards while scoring his 3rd touchdown of the year.  Chris Finke added a season high 6 receptions for 62 yards (his second highest total of the season).  Alize Mack had his third game with 6 receptions since Book took over command of the offense and now has 19 receptions in Book’s four starts.

Getting Claypool involved on the slant route was really big because it’s a play Notre Dame hadn’t been running with a ton of success this year.  It was open all game long too.  If Notre Dame wanted to, they probably could have dialed that up five more times and been successful all five.  If they can get Claypool going like this every week, the offense could take another step forward.

5. The play of freshmen Houston Griffith and Tariq Bracy

Notre Dame’s entire defense played pretty well on Saturday.  Pitt’s 14 points can all either directly, or indirectly, be attributed to the special teams.  Two freshmen in particular though stood out in a very good way – Houston Griffith and Tariq Bracy.  With Troy Pride Jr banged up with an ankle sprain and not playing, Notre Dame turned to junior Donte Vaughn.

Pitt alertly targeted Vaughn all day and after surrendering multiple third downs, Vaughn got benched for Bracy.  The true freshman came in and more than held his own.   Vaughn struggled inside with press coverage all game long but Bracy came in a shored that up while finishing second on the team with 7 tackles – 6 solo.  It was the first extended period of playing time for him and the frosh passed this exam with flying colors.

Griffith meanwhile has been playing all season, but Saturday we saw him start to turn a corner.  Griffith had flashed his freaky athleticism all year, but had his struggles through the first few weeks.  He was much better in coverage this week and ended up coming up with a huge 3rd down pass deflection late in the game.

Very solid performances for both frosh DBs and very encouraging for the future of the Notre Dame secondary.

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  1. Well , with all the talk of Book not connecting on “long bombs” — his connect/perfect throw to Boykin in stride for TD perhaps will silence critics. Irish D are busti’n ass –and sure helps to have offense put up some points however/whenever to win game. On the cusp of an upset by Pitt doing their famous spoiler act on highly rated teams— Irish didn’t lose. I call it “The Day The Earth Stood Still” on this Saturday the 13th of numerous top rated teams that went into Black Hole. These teams perhaps will not see day light again in 2018. Our Fighting Irish Defense have overcome Close Encounters of The Third Kind too often this season. With bye week –they could use some healing time , and lot’s of work ahead to keep improving. Tough schedule ahead—every game here on out. Go Irish.

  2. Two concerns for me; are a lack of a running
    Game and of a fast wide receiver that can get open quickly when the pressure comes. Vs. a team like bama, LSU, or Clemson the pressure will come and It will be harder to establish the run. Defense is the best it’s been in years,
    Probably twenty years.

  3. Glad for the win. When they were still down going into the 4th quarter I was having visions of prior years where ND came apart at the seams. Thankfully the offense woke up. The defense was a bright spot for the most part. They continue to shine when it matters most. Special Teams, well that’s back to being a disaster again, and it’s been inconsistent pretty much the entire BK tenure. Pitt’s own ST woes cost them the game, thankfully, but ours tried to help them out as much as they could. The offsides on Pitt’s first possession would have been looked at as a key reason for the Irish losing had the score ended up the other way. That can’t happen. Yes, the defense gave up a TD, but I really don’t blame the defense because they ended up being on the field for about 3 months after that ST misfire.

    What’s interesting is this season it seems ND plays to the level of it’s opponents. Taking out Wake Forest, ND played well mostly against the 3 stronger teams on its schedule, Michigan, Stanford and VT. And they played poorly against Ball State, Vanderbilt and now Pitt. It’s almost like ND lets the opponents dictate how the game will be played out.

  4. NDCRAZYMIKE, I’m a lot less worried about NAVY now than earlier this year for a number of reasons…this “D” will handle NAVY like the 2015 “D” handled GT and NAVY, and Book will put up too many points too fast on their “D” for them to keep up. The wildcard though is in the “extra” boost they’ll get in front of their guys, and the NAVY families and retired in San Diego. This will be a VERY hard hitting game…but they won’t be able to hang with us on the board.

    I am more worried about Syracuse, and especially USC. I said a long time ago that if their freshman QB is still the guy in November, he will not really be what I call a freshman…he’ll have 11 games under his belt.

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. Right B G C watched USC Saturday nite they’ve really progressed since the start of the season, freshman QB looked a lot more relaxed!! Also COLORODO was a bit overblown at 5-0, our defense will apply a lot more pressure then they did!! I feel the same way about NAVY but after this PITT game all the games will b tough!! GO IRISH!!!

    2. He is really a Senior in high school, and believe me his high school team sure could have used him last week. Glad to know everyone knows of the ambush awaiting. Irish will be 11-0 going in and emerge victorious 12-0, BCS bound. Oh, by the way regarding Navy, it’s not the size of the dog, it’s the fight in the dog.

      1. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
        Ur welcome.

  5. 1 Thing I Don’t Like…

    Brian Polian As Our Special Teams Coach

    He’s A Great Recruiter…But His Special Teams Units Are Year After Year A Huge Disappointment

  6. Okwara dominates week in and week out. Didn’t hear much from the rest of the DL Saturday, other than Kareem’s late sack, but Tranquil and Coney were ever-present.

    DBs were solid. Love was dominant and the Frosh DBs made huge plays and tackles.

    Boykin’s catch preceding his TD catch was spectacular, setting up the post pattern that resulted in the winning score.

    Dougie Flutie did get one thing right. Pitt’s last pass-three man ND rush, “I’d rush five!” says Dougie.
    Speaking of Flutie:
    Can’t wait for the ND haters blogging: “ They only beat a 3 win team and without their leading tackler by 5 points, a team that got killed by Penn St. and Central Fla. And their kicker missed his FGAs.”
    More ND bias, Burgy!

  7. I’m pleased you highlighted the excellent play of the true freshman, Bracey and Griffin. I watched both closely and they plated like veterans. Bracey was a 3 star recruit who has played like a 4 star on special teams and as a back-up in the secondary.

  8. Frank, glad you covered the Irish corner situation. I mute so players come and go. Couldn’t help but notice Vaughn getting burned play after play. Then in 2nd half everything silent over there. The D line was hurrying Willits more. Of course the Mids pass what 2 times in a game. But, I’ll have to check Bracy out vs. Wildcats, Noles, Orange and see to see if He can hold His own at the Coliseum taking on pass happy Trojans.

    1. RIGHT GK looks like USC is getting better every week!! ONE GAME at a time we all know how NAVY gives us are hardest games every year! AT least we have 2 weeks to prepare for that option we struggle with every game!! GO IRISH!!!

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