Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi on fake punt call: 'That certainly was not the game'

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Missed field goals could have been the difference from Pittsburgh upsetting an undefeated Notre Dame football squad.

Sound familiar?

Alex Kessman’s misses of 47 and 36 yards influenced Notre Dame’s 19-14 victory on Saturday. Nearly six years ago, Kevin Harper’s botched 33-yarder allowed Notre Dame to pull off a 29-26 triple overtime win.

The Panthers’ (3-4) biggest special team blunder, however, might not have come from their kicker. Facing fourth-and-4 at its own 45-yard line with 3:34 remaining, Pittsburgh opted to go for it.

With its punting unit.

Pitt’s punter stood 11 yards behind his snapper, giving away the trick play. Even worse, lined up at punter was Jeff George Jr., Pitt’s third-string quarterback. Any conversion was doomed from the start, as George’s intended receiver slipped at the line of scrimmage.

Coach Pat Narduzzi played coy following the game: “To get a first down,” he said on the reasoning for the play call.

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, who grew up as a third generation Irish fan, watched on the sidelines as Pitt wasted its second-to-last possession. Khalid Kareem’s 14-yard sack began Pitt’s next possession — a three-play, minus-19 yard drive.

“Whatever he thinks is best, is best,” Pickett said of Narduzzi’s decision. “Everyone else wants to be the football expert when they have no clue what in the hell they are talking about. No offense to any of you guys, but sometimes it is you guys, too. That’s just the flat out truth of it. So that’s the coach’s call, and I back him 100 percent.”

The Irish (7-0) entered the contest having trailed for 2:13 all season. Notre Dame’s first lead came with 5:43 left — when Miles Boykin hauled in a 35-yard grab. Chase Claypool caught quarterback Ian Book’s first of two touchdowns for a 16-yard score.

Without middle linebacker and top tackler Quintin Wirginis (out with a knee injury), the Panther defense flustered Book. The junior’s deep ball failed him against Virginia Tech. This time, it was his impatience. His happy feet stalled drives and resulted in two interceptions.

Book’s four career starts produced enough film from which to scheme upon, defensive end Rashad Weaver said.

“We had tendencies on him,” Weaver said. “We knew he likes to roll out to his left a lot, which he showed. He also likes to roll to the right, but he likes to run. He’s a faster guy and not very big, so obviously he’s quick.

“We had plenty of film on him, and we knew that if we got enough pressure on him, sometimes he would miss throws. But sometimes he would make good throws, which showed. He also showed that he could run if we were not gap sound.”

In the game’s first drive, Book’s impatience caused him to escape backward in the pocket. Weaver shook off his blocker and dropped Book for a 16-yard loss.

Facing a cover four look on the following possession, Book evaded the pocket again but telegraphed his pass. Cornerback Jason Pinnock undercut the intended receiver for an interception.

Book’s 26-of-32 passing line (for 264 yards) continued his four-game streak with at least a 70 percent completion rate — a school record. Book threw just one incompletion all second half — an interception on a batted pass.

The stat sheet did not tell the fully story. Book's two picks, 31 rushing yards on 16 carries and discomfort in the pocket and when under duress cannot be overlooked. The Panthers also coerced Book to keep it on power reads, which limited running back Dexter Williams to 13 attempts for 31 yards.

“He would look the roll out,” Weaver said. “When he would see that he could not roll out deep, he would get flustered and try to look for something inside. Our defensive tackles did a great job of closing out the pocket.”

Notre Dame’s defense pitched another impressive second half. The Panthers amassed 159 yards on 43 plays and registered six plays or fewer in their final 7-of-9 drives. Irish defensive end Julian Okwara wreaked havoc with seven quarterback hurries.

Pitt’s lone offensive touchdown came on its first possession. Notre Dame’s Nicco Fertitta sustained the eventual 17-play, 88-yard drive when drawn offside on a punt. Running back Qadree Ollison capitalized with a nine-yard rushing touchdown. 

Maurice Ffrench returned the second half’s opening kickoff 99 yards for Pitt’s other score.

“I knew I had it,” Ffrench said. “They did not have the right angle on me, so I knew I had to just keep running as fast as I could to the end zone.”

Pickett’s minimal success through the air seemed to come at Donte Vaughn’s expense. Vaughn, replacing injured cornerback Tony Pride Jr., was pulled in the third quarter for freshman TaRiq Bracy, who shined.

Pickett finished 19-of-26 for 126 passing yards.

“We all knew it. It was in the back of our minds,” Pickett said of Pride’s absence. “It was something I kept in the back of my mind. We had things clicking in the middle of the field. Slants, some of those dig routes coming over the middle, were working.”

Okwara and Co. left no margin for error. Kessman’s first miss came after Book’s second interception in the third quarter. Kessman’s second botched attempt occurred on the ensuing drive, which was wiped out by a holding penalty.

Pickett did not blame his coach for the fake punt decision. And he was not about to critique his kicker.

“The noise factor had nothing on our offense,” Pickett said. “We were moving the ball really well. In the passing game, we were moving it. In the running game, we were moving it. It really just came down to those two possessions.

“We needed a touchdown, and it did not happen. It is not (Alex) Kessman’s fault at all. It is on us. The offense has to put that in.”

His coach was not going to pin it on the fake punt call, either. 

“Yeah, we had our quarterback in the game making the call," Narduzzi said. "That certainly was not the game, I can tell you that."

Notre Dame’s Chris Finke (10) gets brought down by Pittsburgh’s Dennis Briggs (20) Phillipie Motley (32) and Damar Hamlin (3) during the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.