Josh Adams steps in as Notre Dame rolls Pitt

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Josh Adams cradled the game ball Brian Kelly had just bestowed upon him as the Notre Dame freshman running back emerged from the locker room Saturday afternoon and into his first taste of media overload.

The person charged with getting the latest next-man-in prodigy into the optimum spot to be mobbed with questions, politely asked the media to clear the way … as if anyone at Heinz Field, reporters or otherwise, could have stopped him.

“He’s a big, physical kid,” Kelly, ND’s sixth-year head coach, beamed when speaking of the Pennsylvania product after CFP No. 5 and AP No. 8 alternately overwhelmed and survived Pitt, 42-30.

“(He) keeps his feet moving, as you saw. He’s very difficult to tackle. Again, leg drive. The physical characteristics of this kid are such that he’s only going to get bigger, faster and stronger. It’s going to be exciting to watch him develop.”

Kelly, whose Irish are 8-1, may have to have the microwave handy.

More concerning long term than the late-fourth-quarter sloppiness that allowed Pitt (6-3) to shave 13 points off what appeared to be headed for a rare blowout in the series, was the loss indefinitely of starting running back C.J. Prosise.

Kelly was optimistic Saturday that the head/neck/shoulder injuries that knocked the nation’s 18th-leading rusher out of the game late in the first quarter would be short term. And the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Adams, with a career-high 147 yards on 20 carries and a five-yard TD on his only reception of the day, eased his mind in case it isn’t.

This from a player who in June was considered ND’s fourth-best running back option, at best — before 2014 leading rusher Tarean Folston tore an ACL three carries into his junior season; and before No. 2 option in 2014 Greg Bryant was first suspended for four games, later fell off the roster due to academic shortcomings, then transferred to ASA Miami, a first-year Florida junior college program.

The largest crowd ever to see Pitt play at Heinz Field (68,400), which included former Irish standouts Tyler Eifert and Kapron Lewis-Moore, looked on as Prosise exited with 28 yards on five carries, deferring his quest for 1,000 yards for another week.

He now sits at 975, 25 away from becoming the 18th Notre Dame player in history to hit that milestone. The converted wide receiver also had two catches for 29 yards.

“We’ll have to play Dexter as well,” Kelly said of freshman Dexter Williams, whose cameo Saturday was his third of the season and who now has amassed 17 career carries. “Dexter is going to have to get up to study real quick.”

Adams, meanwhile, didn’t forget to repeatedly credit his offensive line in his first chance publicly to do so. In this instance, it really wasn’t from the cliché machine.

“I think that was the best performance of our offensive line to date — most consistent, I would say, for four quarters,” Kelly said.

And particularly in the run game.

Saturday marked the first time in eight games the Irish rushed for more than 3.6 yards per carry against a Pat Narduzzi defense. The first seven of those games came when the first-year Pitt head coach was Michigan State’s defensive coordinator (2007-14).

The Irish bulled for 4.2 per carry against the nation’s No. 37 run defense and No. 26 defense overall, and finished in a dead heat in the rushing battle 175 yards-175 yards.

That was enough to open up opportunities in the passing game for DeShone Kizer and Will Fuller, in particular, to put up monster numbers.

Kizer just missed tying Brady Quinn’s school record of six touchdown passes. The redshirt freshman quarterback threw for five along with 262 yards on 19-of-26 accuracy with no interceptions. He might have had seven TDs had he not overthrown junior receiver Fuller a couple of times deep.

“We talked after the Virginia game, and I thought there was no way we could overthrow him,” Kizer said with a laugh, recalling the first time the two hooked up on a long TD on Sept 12.

“But the ball jumped out of my hand pretty well. There were a couple of times where I misread his timing and threw the ball a little early. Those are things that can’t happen, moving forward, because some of those plays are going to be plays that determine whether or not we win.”

As it was, Kizer finished with a 221.2 pass-efficiency rating, by far his career best and roughly 70 points better than his 152.1 rating that ranked 20th nationally coming into the weekend.

He produced a sixth touchdown Saturday, via a two-yard run. But a week after coming within four yards of erasing the 36-year-old ND quarterback rushing record of 146 yards, Kizer finished with minus-10 on 16 carries, four of those carries as a result of Pitt sacks.

But Adams and the offensive line revived the traditional running game, shut down last week at Temple.

“It was very important to have a running game,” Kelly said. “If you have a running game that can keep you away from the third-and-long situations — where it gets a little scary against a Pat Narduzzi defense — you have a real good chance to hit some play-action shots.

“If it’s third down and just drop back, it’s a hit-and-miss proposition. So the run game is absolutely crucial against this kind of defense, so you get those shots downfield.”

Fuller was the biggest beneficiary. The junior caught seven passes for 152 yards. And his three TDs — giving him 28 for his career — leapfrogged him over former Irish All-Americans Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija and into second place all-time on the Irish career list.

Only another former All-American, Michael Floyd, with 37, remains ahead of him.

“It’s just another day at the offense,” Fuller said. “I’m doing what I have to do.”

The Irish defense did its job early in helping stake Notre Dame to a 21-3 halftime lead. And that’s with starting strong safety Elijah Shumate on the bench, sitting out by rule as his condition of a second-half targeting penalty last week against Temple on the other side of the state.

Grad Matthias Farley stepped in for Shumate in the first half, and recorded all seven of his tackles in the game’s first two quarters before Shumate relieved him. Farley also had an interception at the 1-yard line as Pitt was driving for a score, the eighth of his career.

In the second half on special teams, Farley recovered a Pitt onside kick attempt.

Wide receiver Torii Hunter played both ways Saturday for the first time in his career, jumping in a nickel back for a handful of plays. Kelly, who said Hunter had cross-trained for the past three weeks, could have played as many as 10-15 snaps on defense if needed.

“He just has the physical skills that translated to be able to play on defense,” Kelly said.

On offense his skill set translated into three catches for 37 yards and a TD.

Hunter was one of two surprise two-way players in the game. Pitt freshman safety Jordan Whitehead, the Panthers’ leading tackler Saturday (11) and for the season, got his first offensive snaps of his college career.

He ran the ball four times for 27 yards and two touchdowns. He was also targeted in the passing game, including the pass Farley picked off.

“Maybe we should have started using him (on offense) a little earlier,” Narduzzi said. “He can be electric on offense.”

Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman, a Tennessee transfer, found some juice himself late in the game after a 3-of-18 first half for 44 yards.

He led Pitt on a three-play, 76-yard drive to pull Pitt to within 42-24 with 4:44 left. The score came on a 51-yard pass to Tyler Boyd, Pitt’s all-time leading receiver, who had largely been bottled up to that point (two catches, 32 yards).

On ND’s next possession, true freshman backup QB Brandon Wimbush relieved Kizer. But on his fifth snap, he was sacked and stripped of the ball, and Panther defensive end Ejuan Price raced 32 yards with ND’s lone turnover of the game for a TD.

The two-point conversion attempt failed.

So did ND’s pass coverage on the TD play to Boyd, with cornerback KeiVarae Russell and safety Max Redfield appearing to get crossed up with one another.

“There’s some things they did pretty good and then there are some things they’ve got to get better at,” Kelly said of his defensive backfield. “But I’m not going to get too far into detail right now. We’re enjoying the win.”

So apparently is Adams, who never stopped smiling as he was being peppered with questions — whether that means he’s ready for the big step up if it comes to that or it hasn’t sunk in yet.

“I think we’re all ready,” said Adams, perhaps not realizing ‘we” may constitute just him and Williams for a while. “We all practiced hard to get each other better. That’s what we prepared for.

“The hardest adjustment is staying consistent, getting the plays. Staying focused and locked in is important. Basically, just trying to get better as a student of the game and learning from other players. C.J., Tarean, Dexter, we all learn from each other to make all of our games better."

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Josh Adams (33) runs the ball during the first half against Pitt at Heinz Field Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ