Notre Dame Football: Tino Sunseri

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As a placekicker, Justin Tucker abides by the philosophy of focusing on the action and not the consequence. On Thanksgiving Night 2011 in College Station, Texas, as he lined up with a one-point deficit and just three seconds left in the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry as all knew it, Tucker couldn't help but betray that creed.

"I can tell you in that particular situation it was very difficult to put those emotions into the back of my mind and just focus on the task at hand," said Tucker, now with the Ravens. "But we were able to do it, and I'll tell you what: That place shut up real quick; 88,000 people -- you could probably hear a pin drop in there."

This is the lasting memory of one of several college football rivalries that has gone by the wayside in the era of realignment. This is, on a smaller scale, the opportunity that awaits Michigan and Notre Dame on Saturday night in their final scheduled meeting.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesEverett Golson can etch himself further into Notre Dame lore if he leads the Fighting Irish to a series-ending victory over Michigan on Saturday.
Brian Kelly said the first thing he thinks of regarding the Wolverines is that he's lost to them three times. That image can change in a hurry with a signature blow in one final matchup under the lights.

Just ask those from other dormant rivalries, Pittsburgh-West Virginia among them.

"When I think back of all the frustrating losses of my career, and we had a few, that's the worst by far," former Panthers defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said of the 2011 finale of the Backyard Brawl.

Pitt entered Morgantown looking to upset the eventual Orange Bowl champs. The Panthers were ACC-bound in two years; the Mountaineers Big 12-bound the next fall. Todd Graham, in his lone year coaching Pitt, relayed how he'd been told he could lose 11 games in a year so long as he beat WVU. Former players talked to the team about how important it would be to end the series on top.

A 13-point Pitt lead eventually gave way to a 21-20 defeat, punctuated by a Tino Sunseri fumble on the last play.

"I just remember as the clock ran out I just fell on my face, I just hit the ground for about 30 seconds, man," Alecxih said. "I just remember that agony, and just knowing that that was going to be the last game, and we were always going to say we lost the last Backyard Brawl."

All this from a player and program that, four years earlier, had been part of an upset that changed the college football landscape.

WVU was a four-touchdown favorite and a win away from a BCS title-game berth when the three-win Panthers visited to close 2007.

"It was just so gloomy, and all I really remember is just getting whacked with beer cans," then-freshman quarterback Pat Bostick said of the bus ride in. "I go, 'OK, this is everything people say it's going to be.' There weren't necessarily batteries being thrown or nickels or dimes being thrown, but there were certainly some obscenities."

Bostick threw a wrench into the Mountaineers' plans, orchestrating a 13-9 win that knocked WVU out of title contention. Coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan less than three weeks later.

For the entirety of the hour-plus ride home, Bostick and his teammates sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads," the official song of the state they were departing.

"To be honest with you, I don't know if I can count on one hand how many people I actually saw after the game," Bostick said. "It was like the place died. It was just a ghost town after. I don't know where they all went, how fast they (left), but they got out of their quick."

Bostick was at the 2011 finale in his current role as the team's radio analyst, and he joked he wasn't sure he'd make it down to the locker room alive in his Pitt polo.

The intensity was considerably less hostile the last time Missouri and Kansas faced off, a 24-10 Tigers win in 2011. Part of that can be attributed to the neutral-site atmosphere at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, where the game was played from 2007-11. Part of that can also be attributed to the overall apathy of Kansas fans, former Missouri receiver TJ Moe said.

"They were so horrible in those days," Moe said. "We were trying to get a win and move along there. We certainly didn't like those guys, but they came in so defeated after losing nine games before they even got to us that it really wasn't that bad."

An O'Fallon, Mo., native who grew up on the Border War, Moe said it still remains a point of pride that he went 3-0 against the Jayhawks during his career. He finds it hard to believe the game is no longer played after the Tigers moved to the SEC. From his perch, the ball is in Kansas' court.

"We just want to play you guys because the rivalry is fun, so if you don't want to play, fine, we'll get somebody else," Moe said. "It's a rivalry that's a big deal to fans on both sides. Everybody at Kansas is saying, 'You guys left us. You screwed us. We're not playing you anymore.' Which is fine."

Michigan-Notre Dame lacks the longevity of the others, as it has been played just 41 times, thanks to several interruptions. The Backyard Brawl was played 104 times, the Border War was played 120 times and Texas-Texas A&M was played 118 times before the Aggies' SEC move.

Realignment might have other ideas, but everyone interviewed for this story expressed hope his rivalry would return.

"What is truly lost at its core is a great football matchup between two -- I won't say two 'great' teams -- I'll say one great team and their little brother," Tucker said, laughing.

For now, he has his forever moment in rivalry lore, and that could be at-stake again this weekend should the Michigan-Notre Dame matchup resemble those of recent past.

"The fact that we got to end it with a bang, the Texas Longhorns got to put the dagger in that 118-year rivalry," Tucker said, "that's a great feeling."
Devin Street is coming off a career best 140-yard receiving day in Pitt's 47-17 rout Saturday against Temple. The redshirt junior has team bests this season of 50 catches, 695 yards and four touchdowns.

Street brings the Panthers into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday with the chance to knock off the nation's No. 3 team. Here, he talks about that opportunity, along with what has been working so well lately for Pitt's offense.

Note: Street spoke with ESPN.com on Wednesday. On Thursday, he and two other teammates were charged with simple assault and conspiracy in connection with an incident last month. All three will play Saturday at Notre Dame.

Saturday was a career day for you numbers-wise. What was clicking for you and how do you try to build off that this weekend?

Devin Street: Just comfortable with the offense. Little concepts. Definitely our offensive line protecting Tino [Sunseri] and giving him time. We had a great scheme going into Temple and attacked some of the holes in their defense, and I think we were pretty successful in the passing game.

That's three out of four weeks now that you've had at least 100 receiving yards. Is this as good as you've felt in your career?

[+] EnlargeDevin Street
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAn inexperienced Pitt offense will be counting on receiver Devin Street for guidance in 2013.
DS: Yeah, I think so. I'm the most confident at this point. There's a lot of things thrown at me, different concepts, moving in the slot and everything like that. But the coaches are calling upon me and I just know in my mind I have to respond. But yeah, I'd say I definitely feel really comfortable right now.

When Tino Sunseri is playing the way he is, how much easier is it for you and everyone else?

DS: I think it is easier for everyone else. I think Tino's more confident in me, but he's also confident in the offense, which allows us to click. And he has targets to throw to, especially with Mike Shanahan, too, throwing to Ray [Graham] out of the backfield. I just think we're all really comfortable with the new system, and I think it's coming together.

Is that as good as the offense has performed? What's the next step this week?

DS: I think we definitely did some things well against Temple, but going back and watching the film I feel like we can improve on some things. I think we definitely are doing that this week, too, moving guys around to help, putting Mike at different spots and doing all different types of things. I think we can definitely do some different things, but at the same time I think we did a lot of things well against Temple.

It took longer than I imagine most fans and people outside the program probably wanted or imagined it would, but you guys are starting to click under a new coach right now. What has Paul Chryst done that has helped you guys ease into the flow and made the transition smooth?

DS: Just with any coach I think it's different coming in with a new concept. And going out there and playing it and seeing it during the game is going be hard to adjust. Things are coming along, coach Chryst has put an emphasis on the little things and concepts -- we just keep going over and going over. Concepts that we need to refine, to think, our go-tos. We don't have a bunch of plays but we have a lot of plays that we're getting good at, so I think he's just definitely harping on that.

Notre Dame's defense is one of the best country. What do you see in the secondary that makes them so effective?

DS: I think they're great athletic-wise. I think they have a great safety in Zeke Motta. He's a pretty good captain back there, doesn't let anything get behind him, can definitely come up and slow the run. I feel like their corners are definitely aggressive and athletic. I know they have a young corner [KeiVarae Russell], and he plays tremendously, like a veteran out there. I think they definitely do some things well. They're just a great group to complement their front three, who's tremendous.

What's the balance mentally for you guys as you go into a historic venue with the chance to ruin a team's national title hopes? How do you embrace that opportunity while sticking with the game plan?

DS: I think we had a taste of it going into Virginia Tech, so we kind of know what it's like. That was another big opportunity, ranked opponent. So I feel like we know what it's like. We're just going to go out here and prepare -- not get too high, not get too low, like we always do. Just go out against Notre Dame and give them all we got. We know we have to play assignment football and can't get outside our element and start doing anything we want. We know we have to stick to the gameplan and give it 110 percent against those guys.

Did you know? Notre Dame vs. Pitt

November, 2, 2012
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Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information, along with sports information departments, for these:
  • Notre Dame is the only team in the nation to not allow a touchdown drive longer than 75 yards. The Irish have allowed just six offensive touchdowns over 92 opponent drives all season, the fewest touchdowns and lowest percentage in the country. The key has been in the red zone. Notre Dame's opponents have scored a touchdown on 21.7 percent of their red zone possessions, the lowest percentage for an FBS defense in the past nine seasons.
  • The Irish have allowed the fewest offensive touchdowns in the country (six). They have allowed just three offensive touchdowns in their past six games. The only other FBS team to allow single digits in offensive touchdowns this season is Alabama (seven).
  • The Irish finished 118th in turnover margin last season. They are tied for eighth this season.
  • Notre Dame is 6-1 in November under Brian Kelly.
  • The Irish are 8-0 for the first time since 2002. They have not been 9-0 since 1993, when they started 10-0.
  • Tino Sunseri is completing 61.9 percent of his passes (26 of 42) thrown more than 15 yards downfield, the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in a BCS conference. In the past six weeks, Notre Dame’s opponents are completing 34.1 percent of their passes of that distance, with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
  • The last time Pitt faced a team in ranked third or better in the BCS was in 2007, when the 4-7 Panthers won at No. 2 West Virginia. The Panthers have also split their past six games against AP top-five teams.

What to Watch: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

November, 1, 2012
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Here are three key storylines heading into the Irish's contest with Pitt:

(1) QB play. Everett Golson has seemingly been great every other game. I think that will change Saturday, when he finally puts his home demons behind and has a great, complete start.

(2) Sacks. Aaron Lynch got too much undeserved heat last season for predicting the Irish could sack Tino Sunseri 10 or more times. Pitt's offense is a much more cohesive unit this season under first-year coach Paul Chryst, but when the protection is bad, it is bad. Sunseri has turned into a very good quarterback, but he has had nowhere to run several times this season, going down six times against Cincinnati and five times against Syracuse and Louisville. None of those defensive lines compares to the Irish's.

(3) One team with names on its jerseys. Pitt went the no-name rout for the start of the Chryst era. He told his players last week that they would get them back on their jerseys if they beat Temple. They beat Temple.
Please, anything but last year's 15-12 contest.

When Notre Dame has the ball: Don't get cute, but don't be afraid to loosen the reins a little. No, Everett Golson has not finished a game inside Notre Dame Stadium that he has started, but he showed Saturday that with the right game plan and productive weapons around him, he can be more than just a game manager under center. Pitt's linebacker depth has taken a beating, as the Panthers last week lost Dan Mason and Manny Williams for the season, so running the ball should be no problem for an Irish squad that has eclipsed the 200-yard mark on the ground in each of its past two games.

When Pitt has the ball: Pitt is coming off a 47-point output against Temple. What does that mean? It means the Panthers are the seventh team this season to score 40 or more points in its game prior to facing Notre Dame. Those previous six teams? None eclipsed 17 points against the Irish. The Panthers must do everything in their power to establish some sort of threat on the ground with Ray Graham and Rushel Shell. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is playing the best ball of his career, and if Pitt can open things up, it has receivers in Devin Street and Mike Shanahan who are capable of making big plays. But those are big ifs.

Intangible: The word "trap" has not been thrown around much this week, probably because a simply awful Boston College team awaits one week later. Pitt is the closest thing to a threat of ruining a perfect record before the end-of-season USC trip, and I think the Irish realize that and won't let up.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Pitt 6. The Irish must leave little doubt in games such as this for the potential beauty pageant that might come at season's end.
Watching his brother Rick play baseball at Notre Dame three decades ago has dampened whatever mystique this weekend's trip could bring for first-year Pitt coach Paul Chryst. But he knows a visit to the nation's No. 3 team is a big opportunity for his players, and he is hoping the Panthers don't take it for granted.

"There’s great history there," Chryst said Monday of Notre Dame. "It's different, but it's just like we have great history. That’s one of the neat parts of college football. They have it and I give them a lot of credit for what they’re doing this year.”

Consecutive wins have Pitt back at .500 and looking more like the team that routed Virginia Tech at home in Week 3 than the one that dropped its opener by two touchdowns to an FCS team.

The biggest reason for that is the emergence of fifth-year senior Tino Sunseri, who has not tossed an interception since that win over the Hokies. He has thrown for 1,682 yards with 11 touchdowns and one pick in his last six games, and he leads the Big East in pass efficiency.

"Sunseri is playing the best football of his career at the quarterback position," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Sunday.

The chance to knock off an 8-0 team coming off its biggest win in recent memory speaks for itself, Chryst said, so Pitt is not embracing the spoiler cap that the nation has placed on it.

A 47-point outing this past Saturday has the Panthers feeling pretty confident, too, and they don't want to be overcome by the moment when they touch down in South Bend, Ind.

"You're going to play a game, emotion is a big part of it and keeping it in check is a big part of it," Chryst said. "I don’t think your approach is any different. Week to week you should be excited to play every game. Every game you need to know yourself well enough to be at that right level of excitement and control.

"I hope our guys are excited to play every week and I know you get an opportunity to play a good team like this and that’s special. You’re not going to minimize that either. That’s part of it. Guys have learned and guys need to learn how to approach it and how they individually prepare for games. That’s part of the process."
Week 9: Nov. 3 vs. Pitt (at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.)

Time/TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Series: Notre Dame leads all-time, 46-20-1

2011 record: 6-7 (4-3 Big East; tied fourth place)

Head coach: Paul Chryst (first year)

Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

QB Tino Sunseri, RB Isaac Bennett, RB Ray Graham, WR Devin Street, OG Chris Jacobson, DT Aaron Donald, LB Todd Thomas, S Andrew Taglianetti, S Jason Hendricks, S Jarred Holley, CB K'Waun Williams

Key losses

DE Brandon Lindsey, DT Chas Alecxih, DT Myles Caragein, LB Max Gruder, CB Antwuan Reed

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Ray Graham* (958 yards)

Passing: Tino Sunseri* (2,616 yards)

Receiving: Devin Street* (754 yards)

Tackles: Max Gruder (116)

Sacks: Aaron Donald* (11)

Interceptions: Jarred Holley*, K'Waun Williams*, Chas Alecxih, Brandon Lindsey, Andrew Taglianetti*, Todd Thomas*, Jason Hendricks*, Carl Fleming (1)

Three questions for ... Big East blogger Andrea Adelson:

With four head coaches in three years, it is safe to say that the Panthers' program has been far from stable. How will the team benefit from Paul Chryst's simplified approach in his first year at the helm?

Andrea Adelson: I think the potential is there for this team to stabilize itself in Year 1 for one big reason: Chryst likes to run the football, and Pitt has been a very traditional running team. Blue-collar, as they say. Last year under Todd Graham was an entire departure not just from the identity of Pitt football, but from the identity of Pittsburgh itself. Pitt has some quality running backs, so I think a emphasis on the ground game is much needed for the Panthers to return to any sort of normalcy.

It seemed like Tino Sunseri took the brunt of the criticism from all corners whenever things fell flat on offense last year. What does he need to do this year to make it all go away and become an effective leader on offense?

AA: Great question. Believe it or not, Sunseri is going into his third season as the starting quarterback despite being roundly criticized for all three seasons. I think going away from the spread hurry-up will help him. He never really got the timing down, and was sacked many times because he just wouldn't get rid of the football. Getting more of a run-heavy, play-action attack is certainly going to help him. He just has to manage the game and limit all his mistakes, something he failed to do a season ago when he had more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (10).

The defense is undergoing a bit of a makeover, especially in the front seven. How creative will new coordinator Dave Huxtable have to get to turn this into a solid unit?

AA: Well he has an excellent secondary, with some pretty good depth at safety. So perhaps that means he can take a few more risks up front, or feel more comfortable playing man. The front seven is a big concern, particularly the defensive line. Aaron Donald returns after getting 11 sacks a year ago, but he moves inside. Besides him, there is little in the way of experience. But I will say that Huxtable did some great things with the defensive line when he was UCF defensive coordinator. I watched him turn undersized Bruce Miller into the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. UCF traditionally played very well against the run, so that has to be encouraging for Pitt fans. Plus, a return to the traditional 4-3 will definitely serve this team better because it lacks depth and playmakers at linebacker.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With his defense needing one last stand at Pitt, Brian Kelly watched Aaron Lynch and Prince Shembo come up with huge sacks of Tino Sunseri to all but ice Notre Dame's second win of the year.

The Fighting Irish notched six sacks Saturday to improve to 23rd nationally with 11. They recorded four quarterback hurries to bring their season total to 15.

It's not just that Notre Dame is ahead of last year's pace, when it had eight sacks and 12 hurries through a 1-3 start. And to hear Kelly tell it, it's not just that freshmen ends Lynch and Stephon Tuitt have played such crucial roles in the pass rush so far, either.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicStephon Tuitt (7) has played a large role in an improved Notre Dame pass rush.
"I wouldn't just put it on the young guys," Kelly said. "I would put it on a balance of, you know, utilizing all of the resources that we have. Moving forward, obviously you feel really good that those young guys are gonna be here for a few years. But I think in the present I think we've got a good balance of youth with some veteran players."

At least one player from each class recorded a sack Saturday, led by senior Darius Fleming's two. Lynch's sack came a week after he hurried Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins six times and forced him to fumble.

Lost in the box score was Tuitt, who was officially credited with just one tackle despite teaming with Lynch on the fellow rookie's fourth-quarter sack.

Tuitt showed his versatility Saturday by seeing action at noseguard, creating a devastating rushing tandem along the line with Lynch, Fleming and Shembo on passing downs late in the game.

"Stephon, first of all, he has a lot of speed for a guy that size," said Manti Te'o, who notched a sack Saturday as well. "And he has a lot of natural strength, because he's very strong. And you combine that with his frame, that makes a very dangerous player. Stephon, he does a good job in there, provides a lot of energy, a lot of hustle. He and Aaron always show just a desire to get to the ball. They're always going hard, and they always want to make a play. So that's him."

The early production of Lynch and Tuitt should be enough to get Kelly excited thinking of the possibilities for the rest of this season and beyond, but he's maintained a cautiously optimistic approach, citing the duo's inexperience and vulnerability to freshmen mistakes.

After all, neither played Week 2 against Denard Robinson and Michigan. And on Saturday, Kelly had to burn a timeout after a third-quarter Pitt completion because of their confusion with signals from the sideline.

"There's a give and take there along the way," Kelly said. "But they're big, physical kids that can go in there and mix it up, and Tuitt is a guy that really at the point of attack is a difficult guy to block."

Prediction: Notre Dame Week 5

September, 29, 2011
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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

Sudden-change defense providing boost

September, 26, 2011
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Notre Dame committed two more turnovers Saturday at Pitt, which was actually an improvement after giving the ball away five, five and three times in its first three games, respectively.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicNotre Dame's Stephon Tuitt, 7, celebrates with Prince Shembo, 55, after sacking Pittsburgh's Tino Sunseri. The Irish defense has been at its best following a turnover by the offense.
Nonetheless, the Fighting Irish are tied with Tulsa for the nation lead with 15 turnovers, and they are all alone at the bottom in turnover margin, at -2.50.

The latter figure is of less importance to the Irish because of just how effective their defense has been. And, more specifically, because of how effective their defense has been once the offense turns the ball over.

Following Notre Dame's past four turnovers, Irish opponents have totaled just 12 yards on 14 plays, an average of just less than .86 yards per play. Two field goals are all the Irish have allowed during that stretch.

The sudden-change defense was at its absolute best in the first quarter Saturday, after Pitt's Andrew Taglianetti forced a Tommy Rees fumble on a third-and-12 at the Irish 26 yard line.

Pitt took over at the 23, committed a false start penalty and, two plays later, lost five more yards when Manti Te'o sacked Tino Sunseri. The drive, which ended with a 45-yard Kevin Harper field goal to put Pitt ahead 3-0, totaled -5 yards on four plays.

A week earlier, following a John Goodman fumbled punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's defense responded three plays later by picking off Michigan State's Kirk Cousins in the end zone to seal the game.

"I think Coach [Bob] Diaco and the defensive staff do a great job of talking about it," Brian Kelly said of his defensive coordinator during his Sunday teleconference. "I think it's something that we coach every day and talk to our players about, and they then -- I think right now, any time you have some early success in that, it starts to build a confidence level where they are talking about it themselves, and I think we have got that going for us."

That's no lie. Just a week earlier, following the Irish's win against the Spartans, Te'o said being ready for such situations is part of the defense's DNA.

Fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith said the unit has come to enjoy being ready to get back out there, acknowledging the unusualness of the statement by adding, "as sick as it sounds."

Notre Dame's defense has just five takeaways on the season, but Kelly doesn't see that as a problem.

Given the circumstances the unit has been put in, it is doing just fine.

"Well, I think there's a balance there in terms of big plays," Kelly said. "We really have not let up any big-play runs, and if you are going to gamble a little bit and look to get that takeaway, there's a chance that you give up some more big plays.

"We are philosophically more in line with wanting to be gap sound and disciplined against the run game. I mean, we are doing pretty good this year relative to teams in running the football. I'm more interested in that right now than gambling on defense to get some more turnovers."

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

September, 26, 2011
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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.

What we learned about Notre Dame: Week 4

September, 25, 2011
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1. A win's a win: Cliche, I know. But a Notre Dame team that saw the football gods pull a couple fasts ones on it in Weeks 1 and 2 has to be thankful for escaping Heinz Field victorious with a 15-12 win on Saturday. The Irish are 2-2 with a favorable schedule the rest of the way, and they won't, nor should they, apologize for how they got there.

2. Tommy Rees has to minimize the mistakes: The sophomore quarterback has now accounted for nine of Notre Dame's 15 turnovers on the season, and he didn't even play the first half of the first game. His game-winning touchdown drive shows why Brian Kelly had so much faith in him, but he has to be more careful with the football, especially deep in opposing territory.

3. The pass rush is for real: A week after making life miserable for Kirk Cousins, Notre Dame's front-seven got to the Pitt backfield all afternoon, recording six sacks and coming up with four hurries. The group has proven to be a force to be reckoned with the past two weeks and should only continue to develop with a pair of talented defensive ends playing key roles.

4. Special teams, anyone?: There were at least no turnovers this week, but David Ruffer's missed 39-yard field goal -- due in no small part to a bad snap -- could have been costly in a low-scoring game. The Irish avoided a special teams turnover for the first time all season, but they still can't seem to bring it all together for four quarters without making one kind of blunder or another.

Notre Dame helmet stickers: Week 4

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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.

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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.

Halftime: Notre Dame 7, Pitt 6

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
1:38
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Here's a look at the first half, along with what each team can do to better its chances in the second half:

Turning point: Who knew? Jonas Gray, Notre Dame's change-of-pace back, took a handoff from Tommy Rees on the first play of the Fighting Irish's second drive of the second quarter and ran 79 yards for a touchdown, the first of his career. Thus far, it has been the difference.

Stat of the half: 10. Each team has committed five penalties, severely slowing down both offenses and making this game a bit uneasy on the eyes, despite 410 total yards of offense. Pitt has had two false starts deep in Irish territory.

What Notre Dame needs to do: Forgive me if I'm repeating myself, but limiting the turnovers would be a nice start. Rees' pick at the goal line was just a bad throw. A bad snap and missed field goal to end the half doesn't help matters, either.

What Pitt needs to do: Tino Sunseri has actually completed 8 of 11 passes and was able to get Pitt's offense moving a bit in the second quarter. The Panthers' line needs to continue to give him enough time. Nice field position from Notre Dame turnovers always help, too.

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