PITTSBURGH — This should sound familiar: A star Notre Dame player gets injured, and his backup steps in and succeeds.
This should also found familiar: Will Fuller caught a touchdown, then another touchdown, then another touchdown.
And one more: Notre Dame’s offense was able to cover for its defense.
This is how Notre Dame built its playoff resume, on a combination of pure talent and a string of cliches that resonate inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. The No. 5 Irish improved to 8-1 with a 42-30 win over Pitt on Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, with next-man-in Josh Adams rushing for 147 yards in place of an injured C.J. Prosise, Fuller reeling in three touchdowns and DeShone Kizer playing arguably his best collegiate game, completing 19 of 26 passes for 262 yards and five touchdowns.
Another week of over-analyzing the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings awaits Notre Dame upon returning to South Bend. But as the cacophony of hot takes grow louder, Notre Dame will do its best to tune out the noise.
“We need to win three more games,” Brian Kelly said with a grin when asked about how Notre Dame positions itself for a playoff berth. “That’s all we can do.”
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What Notre Dame did against Pitt on Saturday, though, was put together one of its more impressive games of the season.
Against a Panthers program that nearly upended 2012’s run to the BCS Championship, Kizer and Fuller landed an early haymaker with a 47-yard touchdown only 71 seconds into the game. A 12-yard laser from Kizer to Torii Hunter Jr. converted Notre Dame’s first possession in the red zone — a nagging issue for the Irish this year — into a touchdown. A 46-yard strike to Fuller, against whom Pitt mostly played man coverage without safety help over the top, gave Notre Dame an 18-point cushion going into halftime.
“It’s just another day at the office,” Fuller said. “… We knew it was going to be one-on-one outside, we gotta bump up and get the job done. We got it done.”
Notre Dame’s defensive success, though, fizzled after the break. Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman, who completed a horrific 3 of 18 passes for 44 yards with an interception in the first half, engineered back-to-back touchdown drives of 75 and 77 yards, the Panthers’ first drives of 75 or more yards that finished in the end zone this season.
But sandwiched between those two drives was a 14-yard touchdown toss from Kizer to Fuller — who was still being single-covered — to help Notre Dame stem the tide. Pitt tried an onside kick after that second touchdown, though it was recovered by freshman linebacker Te’von Coney at midfield. A short drive ended with Adams taking a fly sweep five yards for a touchdown to put Notre Dame up 25 with just under six minutes left.
“We’re going to come out with W’s each week if we continue to trust in what the coaches are doing for us,” Kizer said. “They get paid lots of money to gameplan for these teams. As long as we continue to execute what they tell us to do, we’ll be fine.”
While Tyler Boyd’s 51-yard touchdown against blown coverage and Ejuan Price’s 32-yard score after recovering Brandon Wimbush’s fumble were lowlights, they came with Notre Dame holding a comfortable lead. Even with those late 13 points, the 12-point margin of victory was the largest in a Notre Dame-Pitt game since 2005.
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The College Football Playoff selection committee, if last week is any indication, will view Notre Dame’s road win over a 6-3 Pitt side favorably (wins over above-.500 teams seem to be weighted by group of 12 that appears scatterbrained at times). But between now and that season-ending trip to Palo Alto — No. 11 Stanford stampeded Colorado, 42-10, Saturday afternoon in Boulder — there’s going to be plenty of movement ahead and behind of Notre Dame in the rankings.
But Kelly’s message to his team is clear: That’s all stuff that can’t be controlled. What can be controlled is beating Wake Forest, then beating Boston College, then heading to Stanford with a shot at 11-1 and an awfully strong resume to present to the selection committee.
“You put yourself in a position to be a contender, you just have to play one play at a time — and I know it sounds like coach-speak — but all we can do is take care of what’s in front of us, and that’s Wake Forest.,” Kelly said. “The rest is out of our hands. We can’t control anything else but how we play against Wake Forest. And they get that, they truly do.”
The one-week/day/play-at-a-time mantra may be a cliche, yes. But Notre Dame’s already bought into the next-man-up cliche after suffering so many significant injuries in August and September. Why can’t they buy into another one, too?
“We’re really focusing week-to-week,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “Right now we have Wake Forest, and that’s all we can think about.”