The Breakdown - Notre Dame

Written by Sam Werner on .

Really, where do you even start with this game? It had overtimes, questionable officiating decisions, missed field goals, turnovers and just about everything else you could ask for in a crazy football game. Ultimately, the Panthers fell just achingly short and can point to almost a dozen or so differed plays that could have swung the game in their favor. Here’s a link to my game story from Sunday, as well as today’s follow-up on just how Pitt moves forward from here. With that, let’s look at the positions...

Quarterback: It’s sort of a tough game to evaluate for Tino Sunseri. He played well for the most part, going 19 of 29 for 164 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over, which is absolutely essential for a team trying to pull off an upset like this. For three quarters, he made smart plays and did a good job getting the ball away under pressure to his check-down receivers.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Sunseri, though, is his inability to perform in “big game moments” and lead a game-winning drive. He had a golden opportunity to silence those critics Saturday, and couldn’t take advantage. Now, that’s not to say that Pitt choking away the 14-point fourth-quarter lead was all Sunseri’s fault. Far from it. But he took three sacks in the fourth quarter and overtime, all of which cost Pitt field position and scoring chances at a point where it was critical. Notre Dame did a much better job forcing pressure late in the game, but Sunseri needs to do a better job of knowing when it’s absolutely essential to get rid of a ball on a given play.
Sunseri also didn’t win many brownie points with his post-game comments saying, “We missed a field goal. That’s why we lost.” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said today that he didn’t agree with that statement and would talk to Sunseri about it.

Running back: If there were any lingering questions about whether or not Ray Graham is “back,” I think we can put them to bed now, yes? Graham rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown against arguably the best run defense outside of the SEC. He hit his holes hard and showed some impressive acceleration, especially on the 55-yard run he broke on Pitt’s first play from scrimmage. It’s hard to overstate how important that run was for Pitt coming out of the gates. That play, the longest offensive play Notre Dame’s defense had allowed this season, gave the Panthers belief that they could stick with the Irish and, more importantly, that they could run on Notre Dame’s defense. Graham was also Pitt’s leading receiver with six catches for 25 yards.
Graham had a slight mental hiccup in the second overtime when he cut back on third-and-short rather than just center the ball and take a short loss. He was trying to get the first down but, at that point, it was a safer play to just center the ball for Kevin Harper’s game-winning attempt.
Since Graham was so good, we didn’t see much of Rushel Shell Saturday. The freshman had just one carry for two yards.

Wide receivers: Sort of a quiet game for the wide receivers, just by the nature of the game plan and the way things played out against Notre Dame’s defense. Pitt did most of it’s offensive damage on the ground, but Mike Shanahan had four catches for 38 yards and Devin Street had three for 35. Shanahan had a key third-down drop in the first overtime that forced Pitt to settle for a field goal. Other than that, not a whole lot to look at here. Obviously, in a game where you have some long gains on the ground (and on screen passes) the receivers play a big role with their downfield blocking, something the group has prided itself on this season.

Tight ends: Pitt used a lot of two-TE packages with both Hubie Graham and JP Holtz Saturday, to both run the ball and throw to the tight ends a little bit more. As far as his presence as an offensive weapon, this looked like it was a breakout game for Holtz. Obviously, he had the big play on the 43-yard screen pass in the third quarter as Pitt was trying to put the game out of reach. On the play after that, Sunseri found him for a nine-yard touchdown. Also, at the end of the third quarter, Sunseri once again looked to Holtz in the corner of the end zone on second-and-goal from the Notre Dame 4-yard line. Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo broke up the play more with luck than anything else, and Pitt had to settle for a field goal. Still, it looks like Holtz may be ready to step in as a legitimate red zone receiving threat for Pitt. That would be a nice option for them going forward.

Offensive line: This group probably did more to keep Pitt in the game than any one other individual unit. After some up and down performances, they more than held their own against one of the most athletic and powerful defensive lines in college football. Much like against Virginia Tech, I was surprised how often Pitt was able to win the line of scrimmage, an area Notre Dame has dominated this season. The two tackles, Matt Rotheram and Cory King, did a fantastic job containing Irish pass rushers Shembo and Stephon Tuitt. I think the group got a little lucky getting away with some uncalled holds on more than a few plays, but that’s football.
Notre Dame started getting much more pressure in the fourth quarter and overtime, likely a result of Pitt’s line just wearing down a little bit. They gave up those three sacks late than ended up having a big impact on the way the final few minutes and overtime played out. Still, though, this line put together not only its most impressive performance of the season, but one of the best games of any offensive line against Notre Dame’s defense. It will be interesting to talk to offensive Jim Hueber and the linemen this week to see what their takeaways are from the game.

Defensive line: This is another unit that had an outstanding game Saturday. Notre Dame’s easier path to a big victory was on the ground, and they didn’t let the Irish running attack get started through the first three quarters. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly specifically pointed to Aaron Donald in his post-game comments as a guy that made things difficult for the Irish. Kelly said, “They were playing a lot of cover one, moving the front.  As you know we were having some problems inside blocking No. 97 in particular.”
The defensive line also struggled late in the game once Notre Dame decided to take the reins off quarterback Everett Golson a little bit. As has been a theme for Pitt in recent weeks, they struggled containing a mobile quarterback, and that ended up being the biggest thing the Irish got going offensively late that allowed them to put together their comeback. Golson had 59 rushing yards in the fourth quarter and overtime, and ended the game with his legs in the third overtime.

Linebackers: As expected, Joe Trebitz got his first career start at middle linebacker Saturday. Todd Thomas stayed at the ‘Will’ position and Eric Williams held down the ‘Sam.’ Trebitz, a fifth-year senior, led the Panthers with 13 tackles and absolutely made the most of his opportunity. Pitt’s linebackers did a good job clamping down on the run, but also covering Notre Dame’s receivers in pass coverage. Williams had a key play in the third quarter with his interception of Irish quarterback Tommy Rees that made Kelly pull another switcheroo at quarterback.
Shane Gordon also made a cameo appearance Saturday, but it was a memorable one. He burst through the line on a Notre Dame 3rd-and-goal from the one to stop Theo Riddick for a loss of four and force a Notre Dame field goal attempt. Obviously, given how little he saw, Gordon still has some more work to do before he’s back to 100 percent, but it was a positive sign to see that Saturday.

Secondary: Another unit that had just a fantastic performance Saturday. Lafayette Pitts showed why he’s going to be a stud over the next four years. The biggest play from him that stuck out for me was his breakup of a long pass attempt from Golson to Chris Brown, essentially the same play that Notre Dame used to win the game against Oklahoma. He’s a great athlete and only getting better with his coverage skills.
K’Waun Williams also had a heck of a game. He got a little bit lucky when Golson made a poor read and Williams just had to leap up to make the pick. That’s one of those cases where the underdog just has to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. The other big play involving Williams was the pass interference call against him on 4th-and-4 with Notre Dame driving early in the fourth quarter. It was definitely a questionable call, and one that led directly to Notre Dame’s first touchdown on the next play. In general, Williams had a very good game when he had to match up one-on-one with Irish tight end Tyler Eifert. Eifert can be a matchup nightmare for corners, but Williams generally held his own when Eifert split out wide. He made one very unquestionable pass interference penalty early in the game against Eifert in the end zone, but that prevented a touchdown and Pitt went on to make a goal line stand and hold the Irish to a field goal.
Not a very eventful game for the safeties, but Jared Holley made a heads-up fumble recovery in the end zone in the second overtime to give Pitt a chance to win. Jason Hendricks was the man in coverage on the 45-yard bomb from Golson to DaVaris Daniels on Notre Dame’s game-tying touchdown drive, but on a busted play like that, Daniels just made a nice play coming back to an underthrown ball and there wasn’t a ton Hendricks could do.

Special teams: The big one here is obviously Harper’s missed 33-yard attempt in overtime. It would have won the game and sealed Pitt’s biggest win in five years, but it missed just barely wide right. It looked like the snap was high and that may have thrown off Harpers timing a little bit (or maybe he was distracted by the fact that Notre Dame had two No. 2s on the field). Either way, Harper did show some guts bouncing back nicely to make his attempt in the third overtime and keep Pitt’s chances alive. He also made his other three attempts, including a 41-yarder in the first overtime.
Should he have made it? Probably, yes. But college kickers are college kickers. Harper has been better recently than he was at the start of the year, but inconsistency is just something most college teams deal with at the kicker position (just ask LSU).
David Murphy seemed high on most of his snap attempts Saturday, actually. We’re not sure when Kevin Barthelemy will be back (he’s currently listed as second on the depth chart), but that’s an issue that will have to get correct. Even if the holder can do a good job getting the high snap down and placed (as Matt Yoklic did Saturday) it can throw off the kicker’s timing just enough to cause a miss.
Yoklic also did a nice job swinging the field in the punt game a couple of times Saturday, though Notre Dame’s punt return team is one of the worst in the country.
I also think Pitts is getting more and more comfortable returning kicks as the season goes on. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see him break one over the last few games.

Coaching: Not a lot to talk about here, right? Chryst is getting some criticism for his handling of Pitt’s drive after K’Waun’s interception in the end zone, and I think some of that is certainly fair. Rather than play to run out the clock, he stayed aggressive and wanted to keep trying to move the ball on offense. Basically, he wanted to do what he had done all game which is keep Notre Dame off guard. Unfortunately here, it didn’t pan out. The first play was an incomplete pass, and the second play would have been a pass, too (Sunseri fumbled the snap, but Graham was running out of the backfield). Finally, they dump it off on third-and-long and Graham goes out of bounds. On a series where Pitt had a chance to ice the game, they instead ate up just 56 seconds of clock and gave the ball right back to the Irish in good field position.
To limit the coaching analysis to that, though, would be doing Chryst a great disservice. For the most part, he called a pretty fantastic game. He kept the Irish constantly off-guard defensively and mixed in some really good play calls. The one that sticks out to me is the tight end screen pass to Holtz that Notre Dame was totally unprepared for and went for a big gain. Pitt was also able to run the ball well and Chryst wasn’t afraid to keep pounding it against a defense that has shut down the run all season. He’ll get some criticism for the end of the game, but Chryst’s playcalling and coaching was a big reason Pitt was even in that situation in the first place.
He also needs to get some credit for, however he did it, inspiring his team to the point where they believed they could win this game from the start. Maybe it’s the names on the back of the jerseys or just his consistent approach, but Pitt was an incredibly well-prepared team coming out Saturday.

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