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.
Julian Okwara might just have saved the season with that play.
— UHND.com (@uhnd) October 13, 2018
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.