Notre Dame still in playoff hunt with win over Pitt

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Matthias Farley (41) celebrates after his interception on the 1-yard line in the second quarter against Pittsburgh on Saturday. | Jared Wickerham/Getty Images


For the Sun-Times

PITTSBURGH — Notre Dame completed a sweep of Pennsylvania and passed another pop quiz with its 42-30 dispatching of Pittsburgh on Saturday before 68,400 fans. It was the Panthers’ largest home crowd since 1938 and their biggest at Heinz Field.

But with a final exam looming in three weeks at Stanford, the Irish must be wondering whether a debilitating plague of injuries ever will subside.

Already down a starting quarterback, tailback and tight end, Notre Dame stood fifth in the College Football Playoff standings this week and remains a viable playoff contender with its 8-1 record. But the sense of ‘‘here we go again’’ was almost palpable on the Irish sideline when star running back C.J. Prosise left for the locker room in the first quarter and didn’t return.

‘‘It’s head, shoulder, neck, upper body from contact with the ground,’’ Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ‘‘He’s been through the concussion protocols. He’ll continue to be evaluated.’’

DeShone Kizer continues to embody Irish resilience. Now 6-1 as the starter since taking over for injured Malik Zaire in the second week of the season, Kizer threw five touchdown passes and ran for a sixth score as Notre Dame amassed its second-highest point total of the season. A lone turnover became a garbage-time touchdown for Pitt with 1:44 left.

‘‘It wasn’t a pretty sight when C.J. left, but we’ve been rotating backs all season,’’ Kizer said. ‘‘When a true freshman [Josh Adams] goes for 147 yards, you know it’s going pretty well. The offensive line was phenomenal, the game plan was perfect and we executed.’’

First-year Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi was the brains behind Michigan State’s well-earned reputation for aggressive stinginess as the Spartans’ defensive coordinator. Absent MSU-level personnel, Pitt employs a high-risk, high-reward style of defense that belted Kizer around, sacked him three times and belabored him often while still allowing him room to throw those five touchdown passes.

Three of them, covering 47, 46 and 14 yards, went to speedster Will Fuller, a home-run threat who becomes the centerpiece of the Irish offense if Prosise is gone for any length of time.

Fuller averages 20.5 yards on his 44 receptions and has 12 touchdowns, but he’s not Notre Dame’s only weapon. Torii Hunter Jr.’s three catches produced a touchdown and an important first down on a third-quarter scoring drive. Adams did a pretty fair impersonation of Prosise, averaging 7.3 yards on his 20 carries and catching a touchdown pass.

‘‘He’s a big, physical kid who’s tough to tackle because he keeps his feet moving,’’ Kelly said of Adams. ‘‘If DeShone distributes the ball and gets it in the hands of our playmakers, he’s going to look pretty good.’’

Narduzzi is the third coach the Panthers have employed in the five years since old friend Dave Wannstedt was dumped rudely after the 2010 season. Todd Graham parlayed one 6-6 season into the job at Arizona State, and Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin after going 19-19 in three seasons.

Wannstedt, a former Pitt tackle who blocked for Heisman Tophy winner Tony Dorsett, was 42-31 in six seasons and embraced the concept of restoring Dorsett-era glory at the school. That is said to be the goal of the current administration. To that end, former Bears standout Jimbo Covert had his No. 75 jersey retired at halftime. Dorsett, former Bears coach Mike Ditka, Dan Marino and Bill Fralic were among the Panthers luminaries who took part in the ceremony.

Marino addressed Pitt’s players at their pregame breakfast.

‘‘I told them we made our history,’’ he said. ‘‘Notre Dame, home game on national television — this was their opportunity to make their history.’’

Maybe next time. The Irish have the playoff in their sights.

‘‘We need to win three more games,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘That’s all we can do.’’

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