Notebook: All you need is Love when talking about Notre Dame's midseason MVP

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Somehow Bruce Springsteen’s name came up in coach Brian Kelly’s latest press conference more than Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love’s.

Which might make more sense if Kelly’s fifth-ranked Irish football team (6-0) were competing with Pittsburgh (3-3) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in a karaoke contest. The 71st-ever football matchup between the two schools, incidentally, unfolds at 2:30 p.m. (NBC-TV).

What does make sense is naming Love ND’s midseason MVP, at least the Tribune’s version of it. Not that there aren’t plenty of candidates from which to choose.

Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, defensive end Khalid Kareem, and even two offensive players late to the party — quarterback Ian Book and running back Dexter Williams — belong in the conversation.

And the conversation may look different in December, when a real MVP is named officially to succeed 2017 winner, offensive guard Quenton Nelson. Then again maybe not.

Love affects games in so many ways, and he does the big things and the little things well. Starting with the big, the 5-foot-11, 193-pound junior is tied for the national lead in fumbles recovered (3), tied for the national lead in total passes defended (12) and second in pass breakups (11).

Love is tied for the top spot with Iowa State senior Brian Peavy for career passes defended among active players, with 39 (34 breakups, five interceptions).

He can play both corner spots and nickel when needed. He can play safety as well, and may be the best player on the Irish roster at all of those things.

His 24 tackles are more a product of his physical game in run support than receivers catching the ball downfield on him.

Perhaps the most impressive number is a team stat linked to Love. Notre Dame’s best national statistical ranking in any offensive, defensive or special teams category is pass-efficiency defense, at No. 15.

The most recent QB to go against Love and the Irish defense, Virginia Tech’s Ryan Willis, saw his pass-efficiency ranking drop 35 spots after facing the Irish, from 17th to 52nd.

Here are the other Tribune midseason award winners:

• Most improved: Junior defensive end Ade Ogundeji narrowly over rover Asmar Bilal, and perhaps because Ogundeji had further to come (0 career tackles coming into this season to 14 at midyear).

Honorable mention goes to Williams in a small sample size (two games), Book, wide receiver Chris Finke, tight end Alizé Mack, Kareem and safety Jalen Elliott.

• Newcomer of the Midyear: Safety Alohi Gilman, and it’s not even close. The transfer from Navy is ND’s third-leading tackler with 35. Two of those tackles are for losses. He also has two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

• Freshman of the Midyear: Nickel Houston Griffith has gotten the most opportunity and may end up the December winner. and there are others on the rise, but the most consistent has been reserve defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (six tackles).

• Transfer of the Midyear: Running back Deon McIntosh. The redshirt sophomore is 11th in rushing yards per game (98.8) and first in the NJCAA in rushing TDs (11) for the top-ranked junior college football team — East Mississippi Community College (6-0).

Perhaps not the runner-up, but close, is quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, a grad transfer at FCS school Youngstown State. The former holder for kicker Justin Yoon is 90-of-165 passing for 1,148 yards and 10 touchdowns with five interceptions.

• Quote of the Midyear: “It’s going to be loud. Our stadium’s loud. I’m excited to go in there, kick the (expletive) out of them, get a win, and then get out of there.”

That was courtesy of Irish offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg Oct. 3, leading up to Saturday night’s 45-23 throttling of Virginia Tech.

• Quote of the Midyear II: “Nobody’s kicking the (expletive) out of anybody this week, Ok?”

The was ND coach Brian Kelly one week later, barging into the area where the ND players were being interviewed Wednesday night, with a big smile on his face.

Big blow for Pitt

A Pittsburgh team already laboring on defense lost perhaps its most valuable piece and lost him for the rest of the season this week.

The school reported that senior middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis underwent season-ending surgery Wednesday for a knee injury he suffered in practice on Tuesday.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder was leading the Panthers in tackles (41), tackles for loss (7) and sacks (3), and he shared the team lead in forced fumbles (2).

Wirginis is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by 6-2, 235-pound sophomore Elias Reynolds (10 tackles).

The Panthers enter the 71st-ever meeting with the Irish and first at Notre Dame Stadium since 2012 ranked 105th nationally in rush defense among the 129 FBS teams, 70th in pass-efficiency defense, 95th in total defense and 99th in scoring defense.

Another roster deletion

Pitt’s starting tight end, sophomore Tyler Sear, will miss the Notre Dame game Saturday and likely others after deciding this week to take an indefinite leave from the team for personal reasons.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was among the outlets to report the defection.

Sear had two catches for nine yards in a passing game that largely ignores the tight end. He was a valuable blocker, though, in both pass protection and the run game for the Panthers.

Revisionist history

The 2012 Irish getting taken to triple-overtime by heavy underdog Pitt, a week after a big road win against a top 10 Oklahoma team, wasn’t so much a dose of overconfidence by an unbeaten team as it was sloppy special teams play and being on the wrong side of a 3-0 turnover differential.

The Irish held a 34-13 command in first downs, a 522-308 advantage in total yards, a 5-1 edge in sacks, a 35:23-24:37 lead in time of possession (the overtimes are untimed), and were much better on third down — converting 10 of its 20 chances to Pitt’s one of 14.

When presented with similarities to his current Irish team playing Pitt after a big road win at Virginia Tech, Kelly pleaded ignorance or amnesia.

“Whatever I did, I probably didn’t do a very good job,” he said. “I’m not pulling anything that I did that week. I’m sticking with what our preparation has been, and the guys have done a really good job.

“Because it’s really how you reach the group you have in front of you right now, more so than thinking about what the group was about back in 2012. We’re going to stick with the group we have and keep working on what we’re doing now.”

Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) breaks up a pass intended for Ball State’s Riley Miller (86) during the Sept. 8 game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Who: No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. Pittsburgh (3-3)

When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 20 1/2