SOUTH BEND – In its first six games of the season, Notre Dame trailed for all of two minutes and 13 seconds. Against Pittsburgh, the Irish were behind for more than 40 minutes, but still a found a way to win.
That was the story of the Irish's win over a plucky Pittsburgh team that ran the road upset playbook to near-perfection: Notre Dame made plenty of mistakes and put itself in danger, but never panicked and was able to escape with a win. Not every week can be a three-touchdown triumph over a Top 25 team. Sometimes, a championship team has to slog through against a .500 opponent and find a way. The Irish did that Saturday.
"We obviously can't play like this week-in and week-out and feel like we're going to win every game we play," Brian Kelly said. "But you're going to have some of these. You gotta grow from them. I really like our football team. They'll grow from this, they'll learn from it."
The biggest play of the game came late in the fourth quarter with Notre Dame trailing 14-12 and the ball at the Pitt 35. Quarterback Ian Book dropped back and found a clean pocket, allowing his receiver time to get open. Miles Boykin did so on a post route, leaving the corner behind despite getting held, and Book found him with a perfectly-lofted throw for the go-ahead touchdown.
"He was playing press-man," Boykin said of the corner. "I don't know if they brought pressure or not, but finally Ian had time to throw it up there and I just had to go up there and make a play. I didn't even see him throw it, I just saw the ball in the air and thought, 'Oh, I gotta catch up to this.'"
Arguably the second-biggest play of the game came on the previous Pittsburgh possession. On 3rd-and-3, the Panthers tried to a swing pass to the outside, but Julian Okwara shed a block and was there to make a powerful open-field tackle that forced a punt. It was fitting that Okwara made a potentially game-saving play, because he was the best player on the Notre Dame defense, hurrying the quarterback a whopping seven times and helping other Irish defenders rack up sacks. For his effort, Okwara earned the game ball from Kelly.
"He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable," Kelly said of the junior defensive end. "They move their feet. They change their launch point, their eyes drop.
"His ability to drop out of coverage and make a play like that on a running back (on the 3rd-and-3), he's a pretty special player. He does a lot of things that sometimes don't show up on the stat sheet, but he's one dynamic player."
The entire Notre Dame defense was dominant following a 17-play, 88-yard touchdown drive the Panthers put together to start the game. Those were the only points the Panthers offense would score all night and Notre Dame held the powerful Pitt rushing attack to just 3.9 yards per carry. The Irish insisted that they didn't make any adjustments to their defensive gameplan after that opening touchdown drive, they simply started executing better.
"We believe we have a championship defense," Drue Tranquill said.
For those looking to compare this year's Notre Dame team to the 2012 version that went undefeated during the regular season, tonight's game will provide another data point in that direction. A dominant defense supported an inconsistent offense and the Irish survived to play another week.
The difference to my eyes, however, was Ian Book's performance in the second half. After he got a little jumpy in the pocket in the first 30 minutes, he was able to settle down and make all the throws the Irish needed to win. He threw just one incompletion (though that was an interception in the red zone) in 14 second-half attempts and finished with 158 yards, including touchdowns to Boykin and Chase Claypool. The offense wasn't good for 60 minutes, but it was explosive when it needed to be and that was enough to get the Irish to 7-0.