It fun while it lasted.
Through eight games of the 2012 season, Bob Diaco's Irish defense had yielded just one pass in excess of 40 yards (41 vs. Navy in the season-opener). It likewise had surrendered but one run of more than 30 yards (31 yards by Michigan's Denard Robinson, of course).
Saturday against Pittsburgh, both categories endured new season highs allowed as Pittsburgh gashed Diaco's defense for gains of 55 and 48 yards via the rush, and 43 through the air.
Junior nose guard Kona Schwenke started in place of ill classmate Louis Nix and the Panthers hit the Irish backup -- along with star linebacker Manti Te'o -- from the outset. On Pittsburgh's first offensive snap, Schwenke was sealed to the middle, Te'o took a path too far inside, and sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt was sealed to the perimeter affording Graham a gaping hole over left tackle. The gifted 'back then ran through a diving attempt by safety Matthias Farley before cornerback Keivarae Russell's raw speed and hustle resulted in a diving tackle 55 yards downfield.
End Result: A Panthers field goal to tie the game at 3-3 late in the first quarter.
#2 -- Holtz (seriously) for 43
Leading 10-6 early in the third quarter, Pittsburgh dialed-up its second middle screen of the contest to tight end J.P. Holtz. Unlike the first stuffed after two yards, the second offering was a beauty, with Holtz running untouched for 43 yards before Russell again saved a touchdown with a diving stop, 43 yards down field.
Beaten on the play were inside 'backers Carlo Calabrese who sprinted across his teammate Te'o's back to chase decoy target Ray Graham in the right flat. Te'o too two false steps in Graham's direction as well before being cut down in space as Holtz lumbered by. A poor angle by Farley allowed for another 20 yards to the Irish 9-yard line before Russell saved the score.
End Result: A 9-yard touchdown pass to Holtz one snap later and 17-6 Panthers lead.
#3 -- Graham for 48
Leading 20-6 with 3:58 remaining in the third, Graham struck again, ripping over left tackle as Tuitt is moved from his gap while Te'o is caught too far inside and thus easily blocked on the play. Calabrese took a shot to the chin at the second level, removing him from a potential run fit and when Graham turned safety Zeke Motta around in space then slipped past a flat-footed Bennett Jackson on the flank, it was off to the races down the Irish sideline.
A hustling Motta fought through two blocks including one nearly 50 yards downfield to take down Graham with a diving sideline tackle at the IRish 13-yard line.
End Result: The Irish goal line defense held, keeping the Panthers' lead to a manageable 20-6 with less than a minute remaining in the third.
TDs give Irish D Fits
In addition to yielding three chunk plays, Notre Dame's defense was guilty of poor fits on both touchdown scores allowed as well as a preceding pass play that set-up the Panthers initial touchdown of the game.
1A.) No-Man's Land: Trailing 6-3 late in the second quarter, Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri uses play-action from the Notre Dame 34-yard line. The run-fake froze boundary outside 'backer Ishaq Williams (who chose to cover no one) while Calabrese simultaneously broke forward assuming run. The result was a vacated left side of the Irish defense and an 18-yard in-route by Devin Street down the right side.
1B.) First Mental, then Physical: The Panthers capitalized one snap later as Graham took a toss right through an outside running lane, then through one-handed safety Matthias Farley (see note below), and into the end zone, the second rushing score allowed by the Irish defense this season and in as many weeks.
Key to the score was a bad angle by inside 'backer Dan Fox who tried to go under a pulling block by Panthers center Ryan Turnley on the right edge. Had Fox taken on Turnley head up or to the outside, Graham would have been forced to cut-back inside (Te'o had filled in pursuit) or ventured to the sidelines where Russell was stationed.
The bad run fit by Fox was exacerbated by a no-wrap up tackle from Farley on the sideline as Graham ran through the redshirt-freshman safety and scooted down the sidelines for a score.
(Farley had surgery on his hand on Tuesday and played with two plates and six screws in his hand, along with a cast.)
2.) Holtz strikes again: One snap after his 43-yard screen reception detailed above, tight end J.P. Holtz scored from 9 yards out to extend the Panthers lead to 17-6. Sunseri pulled strong side linebacker Danny Spond two steps forward as Holtz slipped inside the Irish junior 'backer and down the seam for an easy score. SUnseri's play-action also caught Te'o, who broke forward to stop the run while Calabrese was caught guarding empty space inside.
Whether the fit was Te'o's or Spond's, or Calabrese's job to drop into coverage was unclear. Each was fooled by the run-fake for the second time in as many plays with Holtz the beneficiary of both.
The Panthers second touchdown score of the day came three snaps after Tommy Rees through an interception near midfield.
Sacked and Hurried
Notre Dame's defense recorded 13 sacks + pressures on Sunseri including nine in the second half and overtime sessions. Three of the four sacks/pressures recorded by the Irish in the first half occurred on the Panthers' first series:
- Pressure by Tuitt on a Sunseri bootleg to the right forces an incompletion out of bounds…
- Pressure up the middle by freshman Sheldon Day at the Irish 15-yard line allows Spond to make a hit on Holtz for a two-yard gain on a middle tight end screen…
- Kapron Lewis-Moore and Prince Shembo execute a stunt in which the former looped from the inside around left tackle (with Shembo pressing the pocket inside after aligning on the end) allowing Lewis-Moore to record the sack, limiting the Panthers threat to a field goal…
- 3rd and 6 on second series: Te'o and Ishaq bring edge pressure and Kap ankle tackles Sunseri to save scramble up gut for first down. The latter an issue for ND last year and early this year.
Notre Dame's only second quarter pressure occurred when Ishaq WIlliams applied front side force to Sunseri as Shembo came around the backside late, the result a 5-yard swing to Graham…
2nd Half Pressures: The opening pair occurred in the third quarter with the remainder in the fourth and overtimes:
- Shembo sacks Sunseri on 3rd and 8 after bad snap...
- An unblocked Shembo buries Sunseri over boundary edge on ensuing series as Sunseri releases just in time to avoid the sack…
- Faced with 2nd-and-Goal at their own 4-yard line, a pair of cornerback fires off the edge by Russell and Jackson force Sunseri to throw early to the corner (broken up by Shembo)…
- Trailing 20-6 early in the fourth quarter, Sunseri is sacked on 3rd and 6 at the ND 40--yard by Lewis-Moore and Tuitt…
- On the final drive of regulation, Tuitt and a blitzing Te'o combine for a sack of Sunseri as Te'o dives over the left guard and rolls into Sunseri's feet to cause the take down…
- On snap later, Shembo's hurry off the edge results in a pass of no gain to Graham as Te'o nearly intercepts the ill-advised offering…
- After false start on 3rd and 4, Williams pressures Sunseri, delivering an old-school face mask to the quarterback's sternum forcing a throw incomplete…,
- Tuitt and Nix combine for a sack on 2nd and 6 in the third overtime.
- Lewis-Moore loops around the pocket to key a 3rd and 12 incomplete to flat. There was no blitz involved, just four man pressure and it saved Te'o/Spond who had allowed the tight end to escape on the edge.
I noted 11 blitzes from the Irish including six involving Te'o, two involving Fox, two from Motta, and one from the CB tandem of Jackson and Russell at the goal line. Russell blitzed on another snap off the corner but the Panthers were whistled for a false start…
(In all but one of Te'o's blitzes, Ishaq Williams brought pressure as a standup linebacker from the opposite edge.)
Part II will include personnel notes vs. the run and pass and general observations from a contest that is believed to tie as the biggest fourth quarterback comeback win by the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium history.