NCF Nation: Heinz Field

Irish recruiting update

September, 29, 2011
Things have been relatively quiet on the Notre Dame recruiting front the past two weeks with the Fighting Irish away from home. And they will likely stay that away until the week of Oct. 16, the Sunday before the Irish host USC at night.

For now, it's worth taking a look at what other potential Notre Dame prospects are doing in their time before then.

William Mahone, the highly touted four-star running back from Austintown Fitch (Ohio) High School, will be joining prep teammates Demitrious and Chris Davis at Heinz Field tonight for Pitt's game against South Florida, according to our guy Jared Shanker.

Shanker says this is the last shot for Pitt to make a strong impression on Mahone, who will likely choose between the Panthers, the Irish and Michigan State. The Davis twins have already committed to Pitt.

Still, Shanker said, it would be surprising if Mahone didn't end up in South Bend, Ind. He visited Sept. 17 for the Irish's win against the Spartans, and he liked it so much that he is paying his own way back for the Irish's Oct. 22 game against the Trojans.

Until then, however, don't expect much movement from a Notre Dame 2012 recruiting class 15-deep, one that moved up two spots to 11th overall in the nation in ESPN's latest rankings, released Wednesday.

Prediction: Notre Dame Week 5

September, 29, 2011
Notre Dame's 15-12 win at Pitt wasn't exactly easy on the eyes, but it was enough to get the Fighting Irish to .500. To leave West Lafayette with a winning record, the Irish will have to effectively do some of the things that helped them escape Heinz Field victorious.

The pass rush, for one, was able to replicate its Week 3 performance and make life miserable for Tino Sunseri in the backfield. Expect a carryover for the Irish on Saturday against a Boilermakers team allowing nearly three sacks per game.

Also, it's tough to imagine another defense negating Michael Floyd the way Pitt did. It's more perplexing given the fact the Panthers entered the game 119th nationally against the pass, and it's tough to gauge Purdue's 60th-ranked pass defense because of the light schedule it has faced so far.

But therein lies the big difference between these two teams. Notre Dame's schedule through four weeks ranks as fifth-toughest, according to statistician Jeff Sagarin. Purdue, which has played just three games, has had the easiest schedule among FBS schools. The lights will be on and Ross-Ade Stadium will be rowdy for what Brian Kelly said will be his opponent's Super Bowl, but Tommy Rees and the Irish's experiences in worse conditions so far will make it less intimidating against an inferior opponent.

Prediction: Notre Dame 24, Purdue 13

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

September, 26, 2011
It wasn't easy on the eyes, but it's time to look back at the weekend that was for Notre Dame, which improved to .500 with a blue-collar 15-12 win over Pitt at Heinz Field.

The Good: The Fighting Irish had trouble converting short-yardage situations in the fourth quarter two weeks ago at Michigan, but those troubles were washed away with Saturday's performance. Notre Dame was 2-for-2 on fourth downs and 6-for-6 on third downs with three yards or less to go.

The Bad: The Irish committed eight more penalties for 85 yards, including a costly -- and controversial -- roughing the kicker call on Austin Collinsworth early in the second half. That gave Pitt new life, and the Panthers answered with a 19-play touchdown drive. With 7.75 penalties per game, Notre Dame is tied for 107th-least in the nation.

The Ugly: Did you not watch the game? Seventeen combined flags, a missed field goal, a 15-12 final -- in short, it was not a pretty sight. Whether the noon kickoff played a role in any of this is up for debate, but the Irish for now can be happy to escape on the winning end of this schoolyard brawl.

Turning point: Tommy Rees completed all eight of his passes on the Irish's second-to-last drive, hitting Tyler Eifert the final three times, including for the go-ahead score. He hit Eifert for the two-point conversion, too, and rewarded Brian Kelly's faith in him after uninspiring play through three quarters.

Call of the day: How about Kelly sticking defensive end Stephon Tuitt in at the nose guard spot? The pass rush was on in full effect with the freshman there on Pitt's final drive, as the Irish sacked Tino Sunseri twice and set up a desperation fourth-and-26 situation that the Panthers couldn't convert.

Next up: Notre Dame will head to West Lafayette, Ind., for its second of five night games this season. The Irish will face their third and final Big Ten opponent in a Purdue team that has had two weeks to prepare since a 59-0 win over Southeast Missouri State. The Boilermakers rank second in the Big Ten in total offense and rushing offense but, like the Irish, have accumulated plenty of penalties, averaging 7.67 through their 1-2 start.

Notre Dame helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 24, 2011
PITTSBURGH — This wasn't a shellacking of the reigning Big Ten champs, but it was enough to move the Irish to .500. Here, we reward those who played big roles in the win.

Tyler Eifert: Game-highs of eight catches and 75 yards will get you credit, as will four catches on the go-ahead drive, including the touchdown and two-point conversion receptions. On a day Notre Dame's biggest threat couldn't get anything going, Eifert stepped up in a big way.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray: This wasn't the way the Irish drew it up, but it was successful nonetheless. Wood, the starter, was a force throughout, carrying it 23 times for 94 yards. Gray, who was supposed to wear defenses down, carried just three times for 84 yards, with his 79-yard touchdown proving huge in a close, low-scoring game.

Manti Te'o: Te'o once again paced the defense, recording a game-high 10 tackles, notching one of the Irish's five sacks and accounting for one of their four quarterback hurries. Tino Sunseri had to earn every yard he got in what turned into an old-fashioned brawl at Heinz Field.

Darius Fleming: Fleming had two of Notre Dame's five sacks and recorded three tackles for loss, pressuring Sunseri all afternoon. He had one quarterback hurry, too, and is elevating his status after Brian Kelly's "good not great" comment about his performance two short weeks ago.
PITTSBURGH -- An early wake-up call in the Steel City gave way to 17 total penalties, two more head-scratching Tommy Rees turnovers, a missed field goal and, perhaps most fitting, 666 combined yards of offense.

[+] EnlargeGray
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicNotre Dame running back Jonas Gray, center, celebrates with teammates Tyler Eifert, left, and Braxston Cave after his 79-yard touchdown run against Pittsburgh.
But Irish coach Brian Kelly and his team were more focused on Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12, the luck of the Irish turning after two mind-boggling defeats to open the season.

"It was a tough, blue-collar kind of day, and that's what was required of everybody, and that's what we got from our team," Kelly said, "enough to get the win and get outta here."

That result is all that matters for a Fighting Irish team that has churned out far prettier performances in early-season losses. Notre Dame put up more than 500 yards of offense in two straight weeks, outgained South Florida by a 2-to-1 margin, and held a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter at Michigan.

And Notre Dame (2-2) lost both games.

On Saturday at Heinz Field, Rees fumbled deep in his own territory, leading to three points for the Panthers (2-2). He lofted a ball to the end zone that was easily picked off by Andrew Taglianetti. And Irish WR Michael Floyd, arguably the nation's best wideout, had just four catches for 27 yards, his worst statistical performance since his freshman campaign three years ago.

"It's not gonna be an instant classic," Kelly said, "but it certainly is, from a football standpoint -- games that you have to win on the road. And you're gonna be presented with some of these kinds of closely fought, last drive, come-up-with-a-big-stop-or-a-big-conversion [games], and that's what we saw today."

Like Floyd's aggressive downfield blocking on Jonas Gray's 79-yard touchdown run, the lone highlight of a rugged first half for the Irish offense.

Or the five times Notre Dame sacked Pitt QB Tino Sunseri, making him earn every one of his 22 completions and 165 passing yards.

And, of course, Rees' second-to-last drive, when he completed all eight of his passes after a rough 15-of-32 start and marched the Irish 85 yards on 11 plays to give them the lead with 6:48 to go.

"Like all the guys say, an ugly win is better than a pretty loss," Rees said. "So a win's a win, and on the road against a good Pittsburgh team here, that's all we can ask for, is coming out with a win."

Rees can thank Kelly's faith in him for that, along with the sure hands of tight end Tyler Eifert, who finished with a game-high eight catches for 75 yards, including three consecutive catches covering the final 27 yards on the go-ahead drive. His 6-yard touchdown grab capped the drive, and he also caught the two-point conversion.

And Rees can thank some of the little things Kelly pointed to afterward -- a potential saving tackle here, a few big plays by freshmen there, an ability to prove it can end up on the right end of one of these close contests.

"I think one of the key plays in the game was Prince Shembo running down Ray Graham, great hustle," Kelly said, recalling Graham's 42-yard first-quarter burst that looked like it could go all the way. "And I guess all those little illustrations are what I like about the team. They keep battling, they play every single play, sometimes maybe not as good as we would like, but it's a group that's learning. Had the big sack, Stephon Tuitt the end of the game there was huge, moved them back after they challenged the play. And some young guys getting in there are making plays for us."

This was supposed to be a breather after a gauntlet of an opening schedule, one that left the Irish with a 1-2 record and plenty of question marks given their perplexing performances.

Notre Dame wasn't supposed to face a serious challenge again until next month against USC, and after Saturday's win Kelly was asked what to make of his squad one-third of the way through its season.

"I told you this many a times, I like the way we compete," he said. "I'd like to have won 37-0 too, but you know what? Winning's winning. It's not easy. You go on the road against a BCS team and limit them to 12 points, and find a way to win, I like that development. We're developing an expectation with our guys that in a close game we're gonna win, and those are good dynamics.

"So we put this one behind us and, believe it or not, we have expectations that we wanna win every game."

Notre Dame's last game of September was an ugly start toward fulfilling that prophecy, but it was a start nonetheless. And after the way this month began, the Irish will surely take it.

What to Watch: Week 4 at Pitt

September, 22, 2011
Here are a few things to keep an eye on Saturday when Notre Dame invades Pitt:

  • An opening-drive score: Notre Dame has been nearly flawless on its opening drives so far. Of course, that one flaw ended up costing the Fighting Irish six points the other way. Regardless, the Irish have been efficient in the early going, scoring opening-drive touchdowns in their past two games and coming a yard shy in their first game before a goal-line fumble. Expect more of the same against a suspect Pitt secondary.
  • A few faces returning punts: We've seen Theo Riddick and John Goodman before, and we will likely see them in some capacity once again. But Brian Kelly said Robby Toma has been seeing action on the punt return team this week, and he even threw out Harrison Smith's name, as well, though it's likely that Smith would be used deep in Irish territory to guard against a fake.
  • Heinz Field packed for something other than the Steelers: Pitt is expecting its sixth sellout since moving into Heinz Field in 2001. Three of the previous five have been against Notre Dame. A building that's lacked some buzz through two Saturdays this season should resemble its rocking Sunday atmosphere a little bit more with the Irish in town.