Irish turn win into a nail-biter

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Coach Brian Kelly has every right to feel good about Notre Dame’s 23-17 victory Saturday over Pittsburgh. And quarterback Dayne Crist certainly deserves a postgame celebration on his 21st birthday.

The Irish finally won a close football game. Now it’s a matter of preventing games from becoming close in the first place. Right?

“Again, got off to a pretty good start offensively,” said Kelly, whose team is now 3-3 with a softer stretch ahead. “But, as we’ve shown, we are really good at stubbing our toe, whether it be a penalty here or a drop here. But that’s us. So you’re going to have to get used to it, because I’m still trying to get used to it, or it’s going to make me look really old real quick.”

Maybe winning is all that matters, no matter how ugly it got for an Irish offense that was extremely attractive in the first half and pedestrian in the second. Notre Dame enjoyed a 17-3 halftime lead but managed to add just two field goals in the final 30 minutes, leaving the door ajar for the outmatched Panthers.

“It’s not a beauty contest yet for us,” Kelly said. “There’s something that they’re starting to develop and that is they believe they’re going to win. That’s starting to change -- how they come to work every day, how they play the game now.”

Here’s how things played out Saturday:

Kick in the pants ND needed

Who is David Ruffer? No, really? Sure, we’ve heard his story: The kid who dreamt of playing for Notre Dame but couldn’t even cut it at William and Mary, where he never saw a second of game time. Then, in 2008, he transferred to Notre Dame, where word spreads that the intramural player has quite a leg. Former coach Charlie Weis slaps a jersey on the walk-on and now he’s the starter.

But it’s still hard to believe, especially after his performance against Pitt. Ruffer connected on all three field-goal attempts Saturday, including a 50-yarder, improving his streak to 16-for-16 in his career. The 50-yard kick is the longest since Nick Fitzpatrick made one from the same distance in 2003.

Perhaps Ruffer inspired punter Ben Turk to turn things around. The sophomore entered the game ranked 85th in the country with a 36.5-yard average but pushed his mean to 47 on five attempts.

“It was huge,” Kelly said of the kicking game. “I mean, we flipped the field position today. Ben Turk was outstanding punting the football. Ruffer is obviously doing things that obviously not many people, including myself, thought he could do. Nobody would have thought 50 yards was like automatic. He kicked that thing into the net. [I] had to look twice that it was 50 yards. He’s just been outstanding.”

Crist continues to develop

This was no quarterback sneak. Crist rolled out to the right sideline, hesitated, then zipped 10 yards midway through the second quarter for his third rushing touchdown of the year. It’s further proof the junior understands his mobility is crucial if Kelly’s spread offense is going to be effective. After throwing for 242 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 24-of-39 passing, the junior QB addressed his maturation process through the first half of the season.

“It’s still a work in progress, I would say,” Crist said. “It’s still continuing to develop. We did some good things today and did some things that we’d like to correct. But the best part was we got a win while doing it. [The rushing TD] was just an opportunity that presented itself. When the play broke down, it was huge, and it just kind of happened.”

Red zone defense

Out of 19 attempts, Irish opponents have made good on just seven trips to the red zone this season -- only three of which have resulted in TDs. The Panthers pushed deep into ND territory three times in the first half and netted only a field goal.

In general, the Irish defense continues to improve. Safety Harrison Smith intercepted Pitt's Tino Sunseri and now has two picks in as many weeks. The junior had none entering the season and finished with a team-high 11 tackles. Sophomore linebacker Carlo Calabrese shined again with nine total stops and OLB Darius Fleming put some hurt on all five of his sticks Saturday as Pitt managed just 110 net rushing yards.

Ball control is in Kelly’s vocabulary

In the first quarter, Notre Dame answered Pitt’s field goal with a 13-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that lasted 4:50 -- the longest scoring drive of the season. The next time the Irish got the ball, they marched 80 yards on 15 plays and chewed up 6:23 en route to another touchdown. In terms of the number of plays, it was the longest scoring drive since 2006.