Notre Dame didn’t need four quarters to make its statement against Pittsburgh.
The No. 3 Irish barely needed three.
By halftime of a 45-3 victory Saturday in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, Notre Dame clearly established its dominance over the Panthers.
In just two quarters the Irish (5-0, 4-0 ACC) showed they could move the ball and score on Pitt’s defense, make the Pitt running game non-existent and cash in on critical mistakes.
When sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey blocked a punt by Pitt’s Kirk Christodoulou and recovered the loose ball in the end zone to extend Notre Dame’s lead to 28-3 with 11 seconds left in the half, the Panthers (3-4, 2-4) could have been declared dead.
“Notre Dame has a great football team,” said Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. “They played like the No. 3 team in the country (Saturday). They made plays on the ball. We had three interceptions. We lost the field-position war big time.”
A week after the Irish made their fans sit through every minute of a 12-7 snoozer of a victory over Louisville, Notre Dame nation could have slept through much of the second half at Pitt with the outcome not in doubt.
“We needed to play fearless,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We needed to play with great energy. And we needed playmakers. We saw all those three things today.
“This is a very good glimpse of what this football team is capable of.”
Notre Dame put together the type of complete game that is typically reserved for blowouts against Group of Five programs — not a Power Five program with a highly ranked defense. The 42-point margin accounted for Notre Dame's most lopsided victory over a Power Five team since a 57-7 victory over Stanford in 2003.
Kelly challenged his team throughout the week to raise the standard from doing what’s required to win a game to doing what’s required to play its best.
“We need to elevate our compete level,” Kelly said of his message leading up to Saturday’s game. “We need to play better. We need to coach better. We need to play at an elite level, and it starts with playing at a level that allows you to not all of a sudden play your best when you have to, but have that ready to go because you are playing at a high level.”
Quarterback Ian Book answered the call for better play. He put together his best performance of the season with 16-of-30 passing for 312 yards and three touchdowns despite being sacked twice and hurried seven times. Book also rushed eight times for 40 yards with a team-high rushing average (5.0 ypc).
“He was so locked in this week,” said Notre Dame wide receiver Ben Skowronek. “It obviously paid off for him. He had a hell of a game."
Skowronek answered the call for better play. He brought firepower to the offense with his first two touchdown catches in a Notre Dame uniform. The Northwestern grad transfer, who was limited early in the season with a hamstring injury, made a pair of leaping catches and running finishes on his 34- and 73-yard touchdowns in the first and second quarters, respectively, for Notre Dame’s first two touchdowns of the game.
“Ben had not been healthy, but we knew what he was capable of,” Kelly said, “and he went up and took the ball away and set a great tone for how we were going to be moving forward.”
Notre Dame will need more of that from Skowronek moving forward after star-in-waiting receiver Kevin Austin Jr. re-injured his left foot Thursday. Austin, who had surgery on the foot in early August to repair a broken fifth metatarsal, will be out until the spring, Kelly confirmed after the game.
Fellow wide receiver Braden Lenzy, who did not record a catch against Pitt, needed assistance to leave the field in the fourth quarter after reaggravating a left hamstring injury that has limited him this season.
Freshman tight end Michael Mayer helped share the receiving load with a team-high five catches for 73 yards including a 14-yard touchdown in the third quarter to put the Irish up 38-3.
The entire defense answered the call for better play Saturday, too. The already strong Irish defense flexed its muscles in creating turnovers by way of interceptions from linebacker Bo Bauer, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and cornerback Nick McCloud. Notre Dame only intercepted one pass in its first four games and did so against Pitt without starting cornerback TaRiq Bracy, who Kelly said wasn’t feeling well this week with a non-coronavirus illness.
“Our DBs are tired of waiting for the ball to come to the receivers,” Irish nose guard Kurt Hinish said. “They’re just starting to take the ball now. That’s the mindset that we have and that’s the mindset they have.”
The Panthers only mustered 44 rushing yards and 118 passing yards without starting quarterback Kenny Pickett, who remained sidelined with an ankle injury. Redshirt freshman Joey Yellen, who finished 10-of-27 for 101 yards passing, was pulled after throwing three interceptions.
Notre Dame held its opponents to single-digit scoring in consecutive games for the first time since 2012. Pitt’s 162 total yards became the fewest allowed in the Kelly Era.
The stingy Pitt defense couldn’t match its season averages against the Irish. Pitt entered the week with the No. 1 rushing defense (61.5 yards allowed per game), No. 7 total defense (274.7 yards per game) and No. 16 scoring defense (20.3 points per game). Notre Dame tallied 115 rushing yards, 434 offensive yards and 45 points despite putting in its backups late in the third quarter.
Junior C’Bo Flemister led the limited Irish rushing attack with 13 carries for 48 yards with a two-yard touchdown for Notre Dame’s final score of the day in the third quarter. Starter Kyren Williams rushed 17 times for 38 yards with a two-yard touchdown run. Pitt had only allowed one rushing touchdown in the red zone in its previous six games.
Williams also caught three passes for 37 yards.
“This game plan centered around our ability to make plays down the field throwing the football,” Kelly said. “It’s difficult to run the football when there’s nine guys there and it’s man-to-man coverage, regardless of how good your offensive line is, because there’s free hats that they can’t block for you.
“If I could get our offensive linemen to block those guys too, I’d be fine, but they’re busy blocking the guy that they have to block and we can’t get to those safeties. So it was putting Mike Mayer on those safeties and exploiting those kinds of matchups and getting Kyren Williams one-on-one and getting those one-on-one matchups.”
With another victory, the Irish extended the longest active winning streak in the FBS to 11 games. For the fourth time in Kelly’s tenure, Notre Dame has started 5-0. Those wins will mean a lot less if the Irish can’t extend them through a Nov. 7 matchup with No. 1 Clemson (6-0, 5-0).
But first Notre Dame has to hit the road again next week to play Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Just like the Pitt game, it will be another opportunity to prepare the Irish to peak in time for Clemson.
“(Kelly) challenged us to elevate our level of play this week,” Hinish said. “That was something that we tried to do all week during practice. The other thing we talked about was bringing the juice, playing fun, being relaxed when you play and not being worried about making mistakes and just playing hard from start to finish.
“That’s what we did (Saturday).”