Pitt ended its two-game losing skid Saturday with what could end up being a season-defining 28-21 win against Notre Dame. It might not have been as sweet as a win over the Irish last year would have been, but I'm sure Paul Chryst and company will take it. Most importantly, Pitt made plays in the fourth quarter to win the game when everything was on the line. Let's get to the positions...
Quarterback: Another steady, if not spectacular, game for Tom Savage. He completed 22 of 35 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't turn the ball over (though he did fumble once, it was recovered by Pitt) and was only sacked once. It certainly wasn't a perfect game from Savage, as he had some accuracy issues, especially early on, but, like pretty much all the Panthers, he made enough plays when he had to down the stretch to get the win.
Savage had more time than he did in recent weeks, and for the most part he used it well. The big play came on a 63-yard pass to Devin Street that tied the game late in the third quarter. Street was pretty wide open on the play, but Savage didn't panic and found him.
The one other criticism would be that Savage really needs to get better at getting down and sliding when he scrambles. Chryst and he sort of joked about it after the game, but it's definitely a problem. Savage getting seriously hurt on a two-yard scramble would be pretty disastrous for Pitt at this point.
Running back: This was probably the best combined game from James Conner and Isaac Bennett since the Duke win. Both guys ran hard and got quality yards against a good defense. Conner had two grinding short touchdown runs, and Bennett was the leading rusher with 57 yards on 17 carries.
For Conner, he seemed to run a little bit harder this week as he works his way back from the midseason shoulder injury. It seems like it was taking him a little bit of time to totally trust it again, and he's just back to doing that now. Also, with Conner, he did a much better job this week of hitting his holes and not trying to bounce everything outside for a big gain. Against Georgia Tech, he sometimes tried to do a bit too much and that led to a lot of rushes for lost yardage. Freshman running backs often have to learn that it's better to get four yards up the middle rather than try to get more by bouncing outside, because you're more likely to get taken down for a loss.
Wide receiver: Like the running backs, both of Pitt's primary receivers had strong nights, as well. Tyler Boyd finished with eight catches for 85 yards and Street had four grabs for 76 yards and two touchdowns. As they did the last two weeks, the Panthers worked Boyd a lot in short and medium crossing routes to get consistent chunks of yardage, and it worked. Those passes, combined with a more effective running game, are a large reason Pitt's offense was able to be more consistent and effective Saturday.
Coaches talked earlier this week about how most freshmen tend to hit a wall of sorts at this point in the season, but I think Boyd may be able to avoid that. He always played through December at Clairton in high school, so playing this many games is nothing new to him. The level of competition and intensity have certainly increased, but he won't be like most freshmen, whose bodies are telling them to shut down at this point in the season.
Tight ends: Another relatively quiet game from the tight ends in the passing game, and I think that's just sort of where the offense is now. Boyd and Street are the guys that need to get the ball in there hands, so any passes to the tight ends would take away from that. The one notable takeaway was that Scott Orndoff was injured in the game, and could miss some time. Chryst didn't elaborate on his injury Monday, so we'll just have to wait and see.
Offensive line: I think you could make a very strong case that this was the offensive line's best game of the season. They limited Notre Dame to one sack and ran the ball for 112 yards against a very good defense. The Irish were actually a pretty good matchup for Pitt, since Notre Dame mostly relies on brute strength up front rather than speed, which is what has given Pitt problems this year. That said, Pitt did handle the outside rush very well.
I also think it's an important caveat that this Notre Dame defensive line isn't the dominant unit it was last year. Stephon Tuitt's second-quarter ejection also had a significant impact on this game. Before he was out, Notre Dame was getting pretty consistent pressure on Savage. The Irish didn't have any sacks, but the pocket was collapsing around Savage a lot quicker in the first quarter than it did after Tuitt left the game. That loss further depleted an Irish defensive line that was already beat up, led by Louis Nix III playing on an injured leg.
Defensive line: Aaron Donald finished this one with only one assisted tackle, by far his lowest statistical output of the season. However, from watching the game, Donald was just as dominant as ever. The Irish regularly double- and triple-teamed him, and it was pretty clear that Notre Dame's primary goal on offense was to not let Donald beat them. Still, he was able to force some pressure on Tommy Rees from time to time and free up space for his teammates. Just within the game, Donald was far and away better than Nix, who most consider to be a top-flight NFL draft prospect. It was a relatively quiet game for the rest of the defensive line as well, as Notre Dame really didn't try to do too much between the tackles.
Linebackers: This was probably the best game Shane Gordon has had all season. He finished tied for the team lead with seven tackles and had half a tackle for loss. I initially thought he would have trouble defending Notre Dame's spread, but he actually looked pretty good in coverage too. Rees' second interception was caused mostly because of Gordon's excellent underneath coverage on Irish tight end Ben Koyack, which forced Rees to try and throw high, where Ray Vinopal picked it off.
Anthony Gonzalez also continues to show that he appears to have finally found a home at linebacker. He had two tackles, but also made the key pass breakup on fourth down in the fourth quarter when Pitt needed a stop to get the ball back and seal the win. He had airtight coverage on Irish receiver DaVaris Daniels and broke up the play. It's tough to ask a linebacker to cover a wide receiver, especially one as athletic as Daniels, but Gonzalez was spot on in his responsibilities.
Secondary: Well let's start with Vinopal, who had two interceptions and a forced fumble that were really the difference in the game. Neither interception was necessarily the most difficult play in the world, and Rees pretty much gift-wrapped both of them, but Vinopal was in the right place at the right time and made a play on the ball. On the first one, he was just sort of hanging back in zone coverage after his side of the field cleared out, and he picked up K'Waun Williams' man right as Rees was throwing it. Rees didn't see him, and the receiver fell down, allowing Vinopal to make the easy pick. As I said on the second one, Gordon had excellent coverage underneath, forcing Rees to throw high. He ended up airmailing it, and Vinopal made the play.
The more impressive play was the forced fumble on the Pitt six-yard line in the second quarter. TJ Jones had just hauled in a 34-yard pass from Rees and Notre Dame looked poised to go up 14-7, but Vinopal made a great play to catch him from behind and swing his arm up into the ball. Jones is a senior, and it wasn't like he was carrying the ball away from his body. It was an excellent play from Vinopal to knock it loose.
Not a whole lot from the rest of the secondary. Rees finished 18 of 39 for 318 yards and two touchdowns, and generally looked pretty inaccurate all night long.
The only distinctly negative play from the secondary came on Rees' 80-yard touchdown pass to Jones in the third quarter. Jones ran past Williams, and Pitt didn't have anyone providing safety help over top, giving Jones the easy score.
Special teams: No field goal attempts for Chris Blewitt tonight, but he was perfect on extra points. Lafayette Pitts had a nice 50-yard kickoff return in the first quarter, but that drive ultimately ended in a punt.
Speaking of the punts, Matt Yoklic's inconsistency this season has been somewhat puzzling. He had nine Saturday with an average of 41.9 yards per kick, but he had some really bad ones, including one 16-yarder. He also didn't show a ton of touch when punting towards the goal line, even though he landed two punts inside the Notre Dame 20-yard line. There's not a whole lot Pitt can do other than hope Yoklic becomes more consistent. They're not taking the redshirt off Ryan Winslow at this point, and you'd think Yoklic's experience would help him snap out of it. The punting already cost them dearly in the Navy game, though, and it could rear its head again down the stretch.
Coaching: It appears that all the motivational tactics — the Notre Dame fight song blaring at practice, the student manager dressed in a leprechaun suit — worked like a charm Saturday night. There weren't very many coaching points to take away from this one. The staff did a good job preparing Pitt for everything they were likely to see from the Irish on both sides of the ball.
In terms of play calling, it was fairly balanced with 40 runs and 36 pass attempts. The panthers were primarily run-heavy on first down and in second-and-medium situations. That indicates that the staff was insistent on sticking to the run, even when faced with those medium to-go situations, and it paid off with good offensive balance Saturday night.
The bigger challenge facing the coaches now is to turn this win into actual positive momentum for a football team that was in desperate need. If Pitt comes out and loses against North Carolina this weekend, the win over Notre Dame really won't matter too much in the long run. The challenge will be parlaying this win into a potential 8-4 finish and some really, really good momentum heading into the offseason.