Notebook: Notre Dame freshman TE Michael Mayer continues hot start in win over Pittsburgh

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Winning the one-on-one matchups looked routine for Michael Mayer, Notre Dame’s leading tight end who continues to redefine Irish true freshman standards.

In one instance, Mayer had Pittsburgh's Phil Campbell III fooled from his initial hesitation cut to the sideline. The senior linebacker committed to running toward the outside. Then Mayer slipped by him, darted to the middle of the field and caught a 14-yard pass from Irish quarterback Ian Book.

That connection converted a third-and-10 midway through the third quarter before No. 3 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) completed its bludgeoning of the Panthers (3-4, 2-4), 45-3, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Mayer produced plenty beyond that catch, recording a game-high 73 receiving yards and a touchdown on five receptions. It was that catch, though, that prompted notable praise from ABC sideline reporter Todd McShay.

“The most talented player on offense for Notre Dame is (Michael Mayer),” said McShay, one of ESPN’s lead analysts for the NFL Draft.

That’s quite the statement when considering the talent on this Irish offense. There’s left tackle Liam Eichenberg. He’s widely projected to be a possible first-round draft pick. There’s right tackle Robert Hainsey, another three-year starter. There’s running back Kyren Williams, who has 680 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns on 100 touches this season.

But through five games, Mayer has made 247Sports look smart for pegging him as a five-star tight end in the 2020 recruiting class. He has emerged as one of Book’s key targets on third down and in the red zone.

All five of Mayer’s receptions went for at least 10 yards. Two of them converted third downs. One of them resulted in a red-zone touchdown. Mayer caught a 14-yard strike in the end zone from Book while surrounded by multiple defenders. The play increased Notre Dame’s lead to 38-3 with 4:22 remaining in the third.

With fellow tight end Tommy Tremble “a little banged up,” per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, Mayer received a significant amount of action. He took advantage of those opportunities.

“I would say our red-zone philosophy in terms of getting the right players on the field and featuring them, but he’s now become a guy that we are featuring in third-down situations as well,” Kelly said of Mayer. “Ian knows where he’s going to be. They’ve built a real good rapport in a very short period of time. He’s a very important weapon for us.”

Book needed a reliable target like Mayer. He lost top wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. to a season-ending foot injury suffered during practice this week. Kelly confirmed Austin reinjured the foot he broke during preseason camp that held him out until the Florida State game on Oct. 10. Pitt also figured to present problems when coming into the matchup at No. 1 against the run and No. 2 in sacks nationally.

Among the 71 quarterbacks who qualified, Book ranked No. 44 nationally in pass-efficiency rating (133.9) coming into this weekend. Without much help from his receivers, Book posted his fourth-lowest passer-efficiency rating in last week’s 12-7 win over Louisville.

Graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek and Mayer were among those who stepped up against the Panthers. Skowronek caught two passes. One went for a 34-yard touchdown on the first drive of the game. The other also went for a score — a 73-yard reception that converted a third-and-14.

Book completed 16-of-30 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns and turned eight carries into 40 yards. He finished with a 173.7 rating.

“(Irish offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees before the game said, ‘I don’t care who’s in. Every single one of you guys out here is going to have to make plays today,’” Skowronek said. “Having so many guys who can make plays, it’s very hard for defenses. They can’t really single out one guy to stop him, because there are guys all over the field.

“You look at Kyren (Williams), he’s going crazy as a receiving back. Michael Mayer’s really stepping up big. (Tight ends) Brock Wright, Tommy Tremble and then obviously the rest of the receivers as well.

“Just not having one guy that defenses have to focus on is huge for our offense.”

Catching Rudolph

So far, Mayer has paced himself to join Kyle Rudolph as the two most productive true freshman tight ends in Notre Dame history.

Mayer leads the Irish in catches (12) and ranks third in receiving yards (153) with two touchdowns. Rudolph hauled in 14 passes for 166 yards and two scores through his first five games. With his career-high 73 receiving yards, Mayer nearly passed Rudolph’s best total as a true freshman (78 yards on four catches in a 49-21 bowl win over Hawaii in 2008).

A product of Park Hills (Ky.) Covington Catholic, Mayer had a decorated high school football career. As a two-way player, Mayer helped the Colonels capture two KHSAA Class 5A championships and total a 44-1 record since his sophomore year.

In his senior season, Mayer was named Kentucky’s Gatorade Player of the Year. He caught 50 passes for 970 yards and 15 touchdowns and turned 10 carries into 64 yards and two scores. As a defensive end, Mayer tallied 99 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and four interceptions in 15 games.

Squibs

• Notre Dame extended the longest active winning streak in the FBS to 11 games. The Irish are 5-0 for the fourth time under Kelly.

• The 42-point win marked Notre Dame's most convincing victory over a Power Five opponent since dropping Stanford 57-7 in 2003.

• Book joined Brady Quinn (11,944) as the only Notre Dame quarterbacks to surpass 8,000 total yards in a career. He tied Tommy Rees at No. 3 all-time in school history in 300-yard passing games with seven. He passed Rees in career touchdown passes (62), moving to No. 2 all-time in Irish history. Book leaped Ron Powlus to No. 3 in program history in career completions (574).

• The Irish defense has now allowed just 9.8 points per game this season. They have held 30 of 31 opponents to 30 points or fewer under coordinator Clark Lea.

• Excluding Pitt's one-play drive to end the first half, Notre Dame's starting defense lined up for nine possessions. The first series resulted in a field goal. The following eight ended with either a punt (five) or interception (three). They yielded just 126 yards and three points on 49 plays.

• Notre Dame's wide receivers had just three catches of at least 20 yards heading into Pitt. They had four receptions of at least 20 yards against the Panthers.

• Pitt was permitted to host fans for the first time this season, capped at 5,550. A total of 5,451 fans were in attendance and socially distanced in the fourth home game of the season for the Panthers.

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer, right, used stiff arms and hurdles to try to stretch his receptions into first downs last season.