Welcome to the PSN Film Study. In this space, we’ll break down some of the big plays and tactical mismatches from each Pitt football game.
If you’re new here, I tend to build onto concepts I’ve already explained in the past at times, so if you feel like you’re missing something, the archive is a good place to check.
There’s a lot that happened that caused Pitt to lost to Notre Dame by a lopsided margin on Saturday.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Notre Dame is simply the better team, even if Pitt had been relatively healthy coming into the game, and without starting quarterback Kenny Pickett and a half-dozen other expected contributors, the talent gap was made even wider than it already was.
Pitt’s coaching staff also repeatedly dropped the ball by failing to take advantages of the opportunities presented to the underdogs, which led to the game getting out of hand and the second half resembling a well-organized scrimmage.
Essentially nothing that happened after the Pitt coaches quit on the game late in the second quarter is worth analyzing. But there was plenty that happened from and X’s and O’s standpoint in the first half that was notable. A lot of it was good.
Until Pat Narduzzi’s conservative decision making backfired in perhaps the most spectacular possible fashion, Pitt was actually doing a fair job of limiting the Notre Dame offense. The Panthers had allowed 21 points to that stage of the game, and if not for a 73-yard touchdown pass on a 3rd and long, would have done even better.
That’s actually what we’re going to dive in on in today’s Film Study. Notre Dame converted 11 of 18 third downs in the game, and had a notable level of success against the Pitt defense, even when they were in third and medium or long.
The first time the Irish found a third-down situation, it was a 3rd and 6. Notre Dame sent four receivers into routes, holding a running back in to help protect quarterback Ian Book.
Pitt covers it up well down field, but Book eludes spying linebacker SirVocea Dennis and scrambles for the first down. This is a fairly conservative call from Pitt, with just four pass rushers and seven players dropping into coverage against four receivers. The whole reason to leave Dennis in the middle of the field is to prevent Book from using his athleticism.
Here, Pitt is in its base defense on a 3rd and 4, as Notre Dame has a heavy package in the game with just two receivers. But the Irish do a good job of putting pressure on the Pitt scheme with alignment, not personnel. Both receivers are to the wide side of the field. Pitt doesn’t travel cornerback Jason Pinnock to the field, leaving him in a zone to the boundary, where tight end Michael Mayer is aligned.
Linebacker Cam Bright has the same zone on the near side of the field, with Damar Hamlin providing deep help on his receiver. Phil Campbell is reading the back, while Chase Pine is over the near-side tight end in the middle of the field.
When the tight ends cross, Pinnock stays in his zone and passes Mayer over to Pine, but Pine doesn’t react quickly enough and can’t stay with him. You can even see Pinnock raise his hands in a “what happened” pose.
Bright, who gets driven deep by his receiver, can’t come forward quickly enough to make a stop before the first down line, then gets beaten, giving Notre Dame extra yardage.
The next time Notre Dame faced a third down, it was a 3rd and 27 and they called a give-up run. Then, they had a 3rd and 1 and converted on a line plunge.
Next up is a second-quarter 3rd and 7. This time, once again, Pitt is in its base defense and rushes four. This time, Dennis is able to keep contain on Book and Rashad Weaver smokes his tackle to the inside with a spin move to flush Book and force a throw away.
The next third down was the big one, as Notre Dame converted a 3rd and 14 into a 73-yard touchdown. How can that happen on a play where the defense should be attempting to minimize a long gain?
Well, Pitt sent a blitz at Book, with five rushers coming at the snap and a sixth joining when the back stayed in to block. That left only five Pitt players in coverage against four receivers, and Pitt played a Cover 3 zone with Erick Hallett in the middle third of the field and the corners deep on the outer thirds. Safeties Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford had underneath coverage in the middle.
Deep on the left side, that means that Marquis Williams has short help. Hamlin is right on the hash marks at the stick. If receiver Ben Skowronek were to run any kind of stop, in or out route, Hamlin would be able to read the quarterback’s eyes from his zone alignment and break on the ball.
The only thing that Williams can’t do is get beaten deep, and he turns and runs instead of backpedaling at the snap in order to make sure that doesn’t happen. When the ball is thrown, Williams is three yards ahead of the receiver, running the route for him. Skowronek makes a better adjustment on the ball in the air and leverages his greater physical size to make a great catch. Hallet is late getting over to help and can’t make the tackle, which turns what would have been a 40-yard gain into 73-yard touchdown.
Once again, we’ll skip over a 3rd and short rush and come to a 3rd and 12 deep in Notre Dame territory.
This time, Pitt again rushes just four, and though no one gets home, Weaver’s hands getting into a passing lane late cause an altered throw that goes off the hands of its intended receiver.
Again passing over a 3rd and 1 rush, the next Pitt defensive opportunity to stop a drive came on a 3rd and 9 at the Pitt 14, as Notre Dame was attempting to capitalize on a bad interception thrown by Joey Yellen.
Here, Pitt is in its Delta 3-3-5 formation, but once again rushes just four players. Pitt is in quarters zone with safeties Ford and Hamlin rotating to the field to deal with the crossing receiver. That means the corners do have help on the inside, but do not have help on the outside.
To the field, Notre Dame’s tight split puts young corner AJ Woods in a tough spot. He can’t use the sideline to aid his jam. He tries to stay outside his receiver, but is beaten physically on the line and holds on for dear life down the field.
This is a good call against this defensive alignment, and Woods probably prevented a touchdown by taking the penalty.
Book has plenty of time to throw because Notre Dame left all five of its linemen to deal with the three Pitt defensive linemen and had a back tangle solo with Phil Campbell III coming off the edge. Campbell is the only player rushing with a 1 on 1 block, and the only one that had a chance to prevent Book from getting the pass off.
Outside of Woods on the final play, most of Pitt’s third-down defenders were put in schematic positions where they were able to win, they were just unable to.
Notre Dame also converted easily on a lot of third and short opportunities on the ground, which is easy to do with an offensive line full of future NFLers. Pitt knows all too well it’s not always that easy.
But when a team goes into a game with a talent gap compared to its opponent, things like that are going to happen. The Panthers didn’t do a good enough job on the things they could control, which is what let Notre Dame use that third-down success to build a big lead.