Notre Dame enters its bye week with a 7-0 record and its playoff dreams fully intact. They almost limped into the bye week though asking themselves “how” and “why” after trailing for the majority of the game on Saturday in a narrow win over Pitt. The Irish were fortunate to leave Notre Dame Stadium as one of just eight undefeated teams remaining in the country so there was obviously quite a lot to not like in this one.
1. Ian Book’s “happy feet” in the pocket
From the first series of the game, Ian Book was uncomfortable in the pocket and it wasn’t just from Pitt’s pressure. Book took a 16 yard loss when he spin into a Pitt defender when he had a clean pocket to step into. It was a sign of things to come for the next two and a half quarters. Even when Pitt wasn’t generating pressure, Book was feeling it and the offense was stuck in the mud.
Then the actual pressure came and the mistakes started to pile up. Book ended up throwing two interceptions because of the pressure but amazingly, he still completed 26 of 32 passes in the game even with the pressure. Some of that is due to Book tucking and running with the ball early instead of throwing it though.
Still, this was the first time we really saw Book uncomfortable since he took over for Brandon Wimbush. Up until this weekend, Book seemed unflappable. Considering this was only his 5th career start it’s perfectly understandable for this to happen. What will be important now, however, is if Book learns from it. If he does, he will be better for it. If he doesn’t, opposing defensive coordinators know how to rattle him.
The good news – maybe even great news – is that Book turned things around miraculously in the 4th quarter. After his 2nd interception, he went 10 for 10 for 134 yards and two touchdowns. If that is how he responds to similar slow starts in the future, the Irish should be just fine.
2. Special teams
It looked like Notre Dame had this fixed at one point, but special teams have been a problem the last two weeks. This weekend though was the worst we’ve seen from the special teams since Brian Polian was brought back to Notre Dame last year. Pitt’s first touchdown drive was only possible because Nicco Feritta jumped offsides on a punt on 4th and 4 after the Irish defense had Pitt stopped. The drive stayed alive and the result was seven points for the Panthers.
Pitt’s second touchdown opened the second half when they took the opening kickoff of the half 99 yards for a touchdown. It was the second kickoff for a touchdown Notre Dame has surrendered already this season. The other coming week one against Michigan. That return is what ignited a lifeless Wolverine squad up until that point.
Add in a punt into the endzone when Notre Dame needed to pin Pitt deep late in the 4th quarter and you have the recipe for a special teams disaster. This was precisely the same type of performance that was common under Scott Booker that Polian was brought in to fix. Polian does not have a position assignment on the coaching staff. He is solely assigned to special teams. He has a lot of work to do in the bye week.
3. Book’s slide short of the 1st Down
It amazed me how many people defended this play on Twitter during the game, but Ian Book’s slide on 3rd and 6 late in the game that resulted in a 4th and 1 was an error that almost cost Notre Dame dearly. No one is suggesting that Book take on defenders head on, but if he had dove forward instead of slide, he still could have avoided major contact and picked up the first down. Had he picked up that first down, Notre Dame might have been able to run out the clock or at least tack on some more points.
Brian Kelly alluded to it after the game as well. “I think he had one incompletion, and if we can work on his sliding skills to get the ten full yards, he’d be flawless in the second half,” Kelly said.
In the end, Notre Dame still won the game, but if there was ever a time when it would have not only been perfectly acceptable – but maybe actually preferred – for the QB to dive for the first, this was it.
4. Notre Dame’s inability to run the football
Notre Dame struggled to run the ball in the first half of the Virginia Tech game before Dexter Williams ripped off that 97 yard run on Notre Dame’s first series of the second half. That opened up the running for the rest of the game. Notre Dame never got a play like that this weekend, and ultimately the Irish totaled just 80 yards on the ground this week. Pitt was hellbent on taking away the running game for the Irish, but for a team that prides itself on running the football, they needed to do a better job running.
Notre Dame really missed Alex Bars this weekend against Pitt’s defensive front and it’s clear why the staff is working in Aaron Banks along with Trevor Ruhland to replace him. Ruhland has been great, but Notre Dame needs someone with size like Banks long term at left guard to get where they want to go.
Brian Kelly and Chip Long have the bye week to figure things out in the running game, but after the last two weeks it’s clear that there is work to be done since 97 yard runs won’t be happening every week. Amazingly, this was the first game since 2014 in which Notre Dame ran for 80 or fewer net yards and still won.
5. Three straight sacks in the redzone
Keeping in the theme of the struggles of the offense, one series in particular stands out in summing up Notre Dame’s bad day on offense. Late in the second quarter after a 4th and short conversion, the Irish looked poised to finally score their first touchdown of the game. Faced with a first and goal, Ian Book dropped back to pass and was sacked. Then he was sacked again. And then he was sacked again. From first and goal at the 9 to fourth and goal at the 24.
The series had a little bit of everything. Some real pressure that forced Book out of the pocket, some pressure Book felt that wasn’t quite there, and then Kelly and Long inserting their least experienced running back – Avery Davis – to pass protect on 3rd and long. No one should fault Davis there for not picking up the blitzer, the kid was a quarterback not too long ago and isn’t experienced in pass protection yet. That one falls on the staff.
It was just one series of plays, but it perfectly encapsulated all of the struggles of the Notre Dame offense pretty perfectly.