PASS OFFENSE: D. The Irish needed a go-ahead score and instead Tommy Rees gave them back-to-back interceptions. Rees had been putting together a modest but solid performance highlighted by his 80-yard touchdown bomb to TJ Jones and his developing chemistry with tight end Ben Koyack. But when Notre Dame needed veteran leadership from Rees the most, the quarterback reverted to an uglier shade of his game: crunch-time turnovers. As many positives as you can glean from DaVaris Daniels scoring for the first time since September or Jones marking his seventh straight game with a touchdown catch, late-game interceptions quickly negate them. Turnovers aside, it was another abysmal completion rate for Rees, who hit the mark on just 46.1 percent of his 39 throws.
RUN OFFENSE: C. The average grade doesn’t come from average performances. In fact, Notre Dame averaged nearly 6 yards per carry on 24 attempts. But running back production all but halted in the second half. The Irish only ran the ball six times in the fourth quarter, even after Rees threw two interceptions and continued to struggle with accuracy. Jones made a nice contribution to the otherwise quiet running game. Jones registered his first-ever rushing touchdown and a 35-yard gain on third-and-2 early in the game. Tarean Folston, who burst onto the scene against Navy last week, touched the ball four times. In a so-called tailback derby where the lead changes every week, George Atkinson came out on top with six carries for 57 yards. Jones’s big run and a 33-yarder from Atkinson skewed Notre Dame’s final yards per carry stat pretty heavily. Without those two runs, the Irish averaged just below 3.2 yards per carry.
PASS DEFENSE: D-. For a full quarter, Notre Dame fans were treated with a healthy Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day and Louis Nix. The trio harassed Pitt quarterback Tom Savage and locked down the Pitt offense throughout the first quarter. Then Tuitt was ejected (a decision that deserves a grading category of its own) and Pitt drove 63 yards for a score. The pressure on Savage also all but stopped. A quarterback who had been sacked 29 times heading into Saturday was brought down once the entire game. Tuitt’s ejection wasn’t the sole reason Notre Dame lost the game, but the defense held the Panthers to 55 yards on 15 plays before the targeting call and 56 yards on seven plays after Tuitt left the game. Perhaps the most frustrating plays of the game was Prince Shembo’s strip-sack, which knocked the ball out of Savage’s hand and onto the ground in front of Sheldon Day. Inexplicably, Day and the rest of the defense ignored a live ball instead of scooping it up for a much-needed momentum change. The Irish secondary didn’t fare much better. Devin Street shook off Matthias Farley for a 63-yard touchdown to erase Notre Dame’s third-quarter lead.
RUN DEFENSE: B-. Like the run offense, the final numbers don’t tell the full story here. While Notre Dame held Pitt to 112 rushing yards and 2.7 yards per carry, the Panthers gained on the ground when it mattered. A defense that a year ago prided itself on its red zone stops gave up two goal-line scores to big back James Conner. Isaac Bennett led Pitt with 57 yards on 17 carries (a 3.4 average). Tuitt’s ejection and subsequent injuries to Day, Nix and Jarron Jones meant Notre Dame had to resort to using Carlo Calabrese at nose guard at one point. Let that sink in. Notre Dame’s 6-foot-1, 250-pound inside linebacker lined up where Nix usually does. The Irish held Pitt pretty well on the ground, except when it really mattered.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B. Kyle Brindza missed a 55-yard field goal that would have been the longest in Heinz Field history (professional or college), so it’s hard to dock him too many points there. Notre Dame also got burned on a 50-yard kickoff return. Beyond that, though, Brindza punted well, averaging 46.2 yards on five punts. Jones continues to do more things for the punt return game than the Irish have seen in years. That doesn’t mean Jones is breaking any school records, but the fact that he’s running the ball back for 13 yards instead of signaling for a fair catch or even dropping the ball is still a welcoming sight.
COACHING: F. If the grade seems harsh, consider what Brian Kelly himself said about the coaching Saturday. “I take full responsibility for it as the head coach. There’s no reason why we don’t execute at the level we should in November,” he said. “ Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired. That’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight. I’m responsible for that. That didn’t happen tonight.” I’m no head coach, but I can’t understand how Kelly could abandon the run game with seven minutes left in a game the Irish were only losing by one score. Other questionable calls also added up over the course of the game, such as Kelly’s decision to decline an illegal formation penalty that would have set Pitt up with a 1st-and-15 instead of 2nd-and-6. Pitt didn’t play its best football, but it was better prepared than Notre Dame. The Irish scored once the entire second half, while its usually stout third-quarter defense allowed two rare touchdowns. A BCS bowl was on the line, and Notre Dame wasn’t ready to fight for it. Notre Dame won’t be playing in January come bowl season, unless it’s a second tier New Year’s Day game. As much of that is on defensive injuries, it’s even more on coaching in this game.