Notebook: Clark Lea shows his ability to adjust his Notre Dame defense, Kelly's mood

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the past three games, the Notre Dame defense has allowed a total of one offensive touchdown after halftime.

Saturday, in No. 5 Notre Dame’s 19-14 comeback victory against Pittsburgh at Notre Dame Stadium, the Panthers’ only second-half points came on a 99-yard kickoff return by Maurice Ffrench.

It’s a tip of the cap to first-year Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to make mid-game adjustments, not to mention the effect he has had on head coach Brian Kelly.

“He keeps me calm,” Kelly said with smile. “You know, I'm like, ‘Hello? Is there somebody up there in the press box on defense?’

“That's Clark. He just has a steady sense about him. He's calling defenses and putting our kids in good position.”

Book to Boykin

The longest play of the day turned out to be the biggest play of the day as well.

Ian Book’s 35-yard scoring pass to senior wide receiver Miles Boykin put the Irish ahead for the first time and for good Saturday with 5:43 left.

“I didn’t even see (Book) throw it,” said Boykin, who caught four passes for 84 yards. “I just saw the ball in the air. I was like, ‘Oh, I have to catch up to this.’ (The defender) was kind of holding me, too, a little bit, so I had to get through it and just make a play.”

Math schmath

With Notre Dame trailing 14-12 with 10:38 in fourth quarter, Kelly left his offense on the field to convert a fourth-and-2 from the Pitt 49-yard line.

Then Pittsburgh called timeout, and Kelly sent out punter Tyler Newsome.

“Well, I'd like to say that I forced them to take a timeout, because, you know, I was going to go for it,” he said. “I was. Our analytics tells us to go for it, so I'll get a note from our analytics people on Monday telling me that I was incorrect and that I should have gone for it.

“The sense I had in the game, however, is that they weren't going to go 80 yards on us, so I was not going to give our defense a short field to operate. So I went against our mathematicians in that situation.”

Pitt ended up eventually punting after getting its hands on the ball, and the Irish scored the go-ahead TD on their very next offensive possession, with 5:43 left.

Kelly did listen to the analytics suggesting he go for two after the Irish closed to within 14-12 on a Chase Claypool 16-yard TD reception with 2:09 left in the third quarter. But Book’s conversion pass to an open Boykin was slightly overthrown.

Personnel matters

Kicker Justin Yoon had a new holder Saturday, with starting quarterback Book ceding those duties after six games to walk-on Nolan Henry.

Henry is a 6-foot, 202-pound senior quarterback from Vancouver, Wash., and Yoon didn’t seem to mind the switch. He converted both of his field goal attempts (22 and 41 yards) against Pitt and his only extra-point try.

• Drue Tranquill fired off answers to X-and-0 question in the postgame until someone finally pressed him about his casted left hand that was wrapped in ice.

Tranquill suffered a broken metacarpal bone in the hand in the 38-17 win over Stanford on Sept. 29. Saturday against Pitt was his second game playing with the cast. He recorded six tackles, including one for a loss, and a pass breakup against the Panthers.

“Feels great,” he said with a smile, then paused. “Feels broke.”

• With junior cornerback Troy Pride Jr. being held out with a sprained ankle suffered last Saturday night at Virginia Tech, junior Donte Vaughn made his fifth career start but the first since his freshman year.

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett picked on Vaughn with both regularity and success, so the Irish coaching staff replaced him with freshman TaRiq Bracy. The 5-10, 170-pounder finished with seven tackles.

“I saw he made some plays down the stretch for us,” Tranquill said. “Next-man-in philosophy — a freshman jumping in there in a big-time game, crunch moments in the fourth quarter. He stepped up for us.”

Squibs

• Five NFL teams had reps scouting the game Saturday: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

• Saturday was Notre Dame’s first comeback win when trailing at halftime since its 34-27 victory at Virginia in the second game of the 2015 season, a game in which DeShone Kizer took over at quarterback for an injured Malik Zaire.

• If you extract games against triple-option offenses and the 2016 N.C. State game played in the outer bands of a hurricane, Pitt’s 6.63 yards per completion Saturday was the lowest average put up on an Irish defense since at least 1996.

• Senior slot receiver Chris Finke didn’t start (the Irish went with two tight ends) but he finished with a career-high six receptions on the day, good for 62 yards.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea hugs Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes (9) following ND’s 19-14 win over Pittsburgh, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.