Beyond the Boxscore: Notre Dame’s Big Ben Tolls in Pittsburgh

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish got their first taste of road action Saturday and enjoyed it with a 45-3 victory over the Pitt Panthers. The victory kept them undefeated at 5-0, with only one more game standing in the way of the huge matchup against Clemson. The loss by the Panthers marked their four consecutive defeat and put them below .500 for the first time this season.

The Irish weren’t really challenged, in part because of the total lack of a running game by Pitt as well as the fact that the Panthers’ regular quarterback remained on the sidelines with an ankle injury. Still, Brian Kelly’s squad needed to deliver a strong performance and did.

Exploiting Opportunity

With just over five minutes left in the first half, Notre Dame led by a 14-3 score, with Pitt at midfield. That potential threat was quickly vanquished when Bo Bauer picked off a pass at the Pitt 30 and returned it 16 yards. A second-down completion took it down to the Panther 26 and a pass interference call at the two-yard-line allowed Kyren Williams to then extend the lead to 21-3.

Then, with just 20 seconds left before intermission, the Panthers’ punt attempt was blocked, with Isaiah Foskey recovering the ball in the end zone to push the halftime margin to 25 points. For all intents and purposes, those two scores turned the second half into garbage time, with two third-quarter picks tacking on the final two touchdowns.

Big Ben Tolls

When Ben Skowronek began the season, the graduate transfer from Northwestern was seen as an option as a possession receiver and had no catches after three games. His first two grabs on the year came last week in the tight 12-7 win over Louisville, gaining 28 yards.

Against Pitt, Skowronek emerged as a weapon for quarterback Ian Book, collecting his first catch on the opening series of the game and dashing 30 yards untouched into the end zone. The following quarter, Skowronek capped a quick four-play drive with a leaping catch that turned into a 73-yard score, which extended the Irish advantage to 14-3.

Sloppy Moments

While Notre Dame was able to coast to an easy win, it’s likely that Kelly and his staff aren’t totally pleased with the performance. The most glaring of the issues against Pitt were the seven penalties for 63 yards, a steep jump from the average of 3.3 for 27.5 yards during the first four games.

On each of the first two drives, the Irish were flagged for a 15-yard penalty. In the first instance, a face mask call against Aaron Banks ultimately didn’t prevent Notre Dame from opening the game with a touchdown. However, the personal foul against Liam Eichenberg stalled another promising drive, sloppiness that has to be cleaned up with Clemson only two weeks away.

Playing Keepaway

A simple premise of football is that a team can’t score if they don’t have the ball, and that was one reason why Notre Dame was able to hold Pitt to a single field goal. Over the 60-minute contest, the Irish had possession of the ball for 40:59, compared to the scant 19:01 for the Panthers.

Such dominance explains why Notre Dame held advantages in total yards of 434-162 and first downs of 28-11. Three Irish interceptions helped short-circuit a Panther offense that managed just 44 rushing yards on 20 carries for the afternoon and was even worse than Notre Dame with penalties, picking up 12 flags for 93 yards.

Mayer’s Court

Like Skowronek, true freshman tight end Michael Mayer was an offensive standout for Notre Dame, with five receptions for 73 yards and one touchdown. That nearly matched his season output of seven catches for 80 yards and one score, with the newcomer beginning to deliver some major impact.

That could be bad news for Tommy Tremble, who entered this season as the team’s starter at tight end. That said, it’s likely that Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will focus on ways to integrate both players into the lineup to help sustain the offense. It’s a nice problem for the Irish to have as they push forward.

Next Up

Notre Dame stays on the road next week with a trip to Atlanta to face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Tech is coming off a 48-27 loss at Boston College and holds a 2-4 record for 2020. The Irish have dominated this series that dates back to 1922, holding a 28-6-1 record over that 98-year-span. These two teams last faced each other in 2015, with Notre Dame winning 30-22, but the Irish haven’t faced Tech on their own turf since 2006 and haven’t lost there since the Dan Devine era in 1976.

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