Notre Dame football: Tuitt’s night comes to early end

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH -- Stephon Tuitt technically is playing without a safety net this season, and seemingly couldn’t care less.

The Notre Dame junior defensive end and projected top 15 pick in May’s NFL draft if he makes the leap revealed last week that he is playing without an insurance policy to protect him financially against a career-ending injury.

“Never really considered it,” the 6-foot-6, 322-pounder said with a smile heading into Saturday night’s clash at Heinz Field between the 24th-ranked Irish and host Pitt. “Just play football.”

Even that has been a challenge this season for Tuitt – first with the lingering effects of offseason sports hernia surgery earlier this season, then Saturday night because of a rulebook interpretation.

Tuitt was ejected from the game seven seconds into the second quarter for targeting. The penalty carries both a 15-yard consequence and an automatic ejection.

Because the infraction occurred in the first half, Tuitt’s status for the first half of the BYU game, ND’s next matchup — Nov. 23, will be unaffected.

It’s the second time an Irish player has been the target of the new targeting rule. Outside linebacker Ben Councell was tossed from the Oklahoma game Sept. 28.

At the time of Tuitt’s ejection, the Irish led 7-0 and had held Pitt to 53 net yards on 14 plays. Pitt then easily covered 46 yards on eight plays to complete the drive and tie the game at 7-7.

The play that led to Tuitt’s ejection was a second-down scramble by Pitt quarterback Tom Savage. Just as Tuitt was coming up to make the tackle for what amounted to a two-yard gain, he lowered his shoulder, but so did Savage and their helmets smacked together.

The key to the targeting rule is implied intent to injure the offensive player, an interpretation the ACC officiating crew evidently made twice. The play was reviewed in the replay booth and the interpretation upheld.

True freshman Isaac Rochell replaced Tuitt. Already thoroughly depleted on the defensive line, the Irish later employed weakside linebacker Carlo Calabrese as a nose guard in nickel coverage.

On one possession in the first half, the defensive line consisted of fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton, senior Justin Utupo and Rochell, who came into the season with one career tackle combined among them.

Insurance talk

Kelly was asked Thursday night if defensive tackle Louis Nix, also a top NFL prospect who is considering early entry, had insurance, and the coach wasn’t sure. A source close to Nix believes he does not carry a policy.

Nix returned to action Saturday night after missing the past two Irish game with what has been described as knee tendinitis.

The NCAA introduced the Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability program in 1990 to specifically provide football players some protection toward potential future earnings, up to $5 million in fact.

Later, men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and baseball were added but the majority of the clientele remains football players. Student-athletes are able to take out loans through the NCAA to pay for the premiums.

Unsung hero

The member of the Irish coaching staff who may consistently had the toughest logistical assignments during Kelly’s four seasons at Notre Dame might be defensive line coach Mike Elston.

This season, it’s been navigating a tsunami of injuries. In the past, it’s been navigating fragile egos and inflated expectations, including those surrounding D-line defection Aaron Lynch, now at the University of South Florida.

“He probably has one of the most challenging job when you talk about defensive linemen and the kids that he has in particular,” Kelly said of Elston. “If you take Lynch and Tuitt and Nix, these are guys that are going to be next-level guys, and he’s confronted with developing their talent level here as well as keeping them grounded as they play for Notre Dame.

“I mean, that’s a complex situation, (including getting them to) go to class, because he’s responsible for both on the field and off and hitting them with the stick when they’re not going to class and doing those things.

“So there’s a lot on his plate other than getting them lined up right and executing pass-rush techniques. He’s done a great job of having these young men assimilate and grow here at Notre Dame.”

Irish personnel matters

*Junior safety Eilar Hardy made his first career start Saturday night, and in the process became the 17th different player to start for the Irish this season.

*Sophomore slot receiver Will Mahone, who played his high school ball roughly an hour away from Heinz Field at Austintown (Ohio) Fitch, was left off the travel roster because of an injury.

By the numbers

*Notre Dame freshman wide receiver’s first collegiate catch, in the first quarter Saturday, went for 23 yards and a first down.

*Kelly, whose kickoff coverage team has been hovering in the bottom 10 nationally for most of the season in that category, vowed schematically and personnel-wise that the Irish would improve this weekend.

Kelly avoided testing it initially by electing to receive when the Irish won the coin toss. But on Pitt’s first kickoff return following an Irish score, Lafayette Pitts ripped off a 50-yard kickoff return.

Squibs

*The Yankee Pinstripe Bowl was one of a handful of non-BCS bowls who scouted Saturday’s game – the others present strictly for Pitt, which because of its conference affiliation has a large array of bowl options than do the Irish.

The Pinstripe, Dec. 28 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, pits a team from the American Athletic Conference against the seventh-place Big 12 team. For the Irish to have a chance at taking the Big 12’s spot they likely would need West Virginia to lose to either Iowa State (1-8, 0-6 Big 12) or former Irish coach Charlie Weis’ Kansas team (2-7, 0-6) or both.

*Four NFL teams, including the hometown Steelers, had scouts in attendance at Heinz Field. The other teams were Seattle, Kansas City and the New York Jets.

*Sign seen in the Pitt student section: “Rudy was offsides.”

*It’s not often a home fan base will boo its own punter but that’s what happened to inconsistent Pitt punter Matt Yoklic late in the first half.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, left, lays a hit on Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage (7) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Tuitt was flagged for targeting and ejected from the game. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER