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Brian Kelly sees lack of 'urgency' as No. 3 Notre Dame heads to Pittsburgh

Will Graves
Associated Press

Pittsburgh – Brian Kelly needs more. Too often during a lackluster victory over Louisville last week, the Notre Dame coach watched the third-ranked Fighting Irish going through the motions.

“They have to play with a bit more sense of urgency,” Kelly said. “Sometimes the clock’s ticking and you need to play with that sense of urgency from the very first play. You learn about those things as we move along.”

Brian Kelly

Kelly hopes it’s a lesson that only needs to be taught once. A lethargic performance against Pittsburgh on Saturday and Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) could find itself quickly ushered out of the College Football Playoff conversations. While the Panthers (3-3, 2-3) have dropped three straight following a 3-0 start, they feature one of the best pass rushes in the nation and have developed a habit under sixth-year head coach Pat Narduzzi of pulling off the occasional stunner. Narduzzi is the former Michigan State defensive coordinator.

In 2016, it was a victory on the road at Clemson. In 2017, it was a decisive win over then-second-ranked Miami. Last season it was a heart-stopping last-second triumph over Group of Five darling and 15th-ranked UCF.

“I wish I could tell you I had my magic wand underneath here,” Narduzzi said while playfully reaching under the dais. “It’s not here … I mean, there’s no magic to it. It’s getting your guys prepared mentally, physically.”

Doing both has become a bit of an issue for Pitt during its current slide. A pair of one-point losses to North Carolina State and Boston College cooled Pitt’s early momentum, and senior quarterback Kenny Pickett sat out last week’s loss to Miami with an ankle injury.

Pickett is likely out again, meaning freshman Joey Yellen will have to face a defense that’s allowed all of five touchdowns in four games. Yellen threw for 277 yards and a touchdown in his Pitt debut but also absorbed three sacks and lost a fumble that led directly to a Hurricane score. A little help from the running game would take some of the pressure off. It hasn’t come so far this season for the Panthers, who managed just 22 yards on the ground in Miami.

Still, Kelly is wary.

“They didn’t cash some drives in and they had to settle for some field goals, but was very impressed with the way he played as a young player going in there,” Kelly said. “The moment didn’t look too big for him.”

Pitt has sometimes beaten itself during its three-game slide. The Panthers have committed 27 penalties for 215 yards over the last three weeks and are among the most penalized teams in the ACC.

“Some of them aren’t penalties, I can tell you that,” Narduzzi said, later adding, “It’s tough to make all those calls out there. I’m not whining.”

Notre Dame, by comparison, has been flagged just 13 times all season, fourth-fewest in the nation.

“We’ve been able to stay away from key penalties late, early or late,” Kelly said. “It’s benefited us, obviously. I think it’s the way our kids handle themselves off the field. I think it’s the expectations that we set in the program, and I think it’s having veteran players.”

While Notre Dame has won five of the six meetings with the Panthers under Kelly, the games have been remarkably close. Five have been decided by a touchdown or less, including a 19-14 victory by the Fighting Irish in 2018 in which unbeaten Notre Dame trailed the 3-3 Panthers all afternoon until Ian Book’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin with 5:43 remaining.

“They’re always going to play Notre Dame hard,” Kelly said. “They’ve got some game wreckers on defense. They’re going to get after the quarterback and play physical. … That’ll keep you up at night.”

Jordan Addison

The trip to Pittsburgh will be a homecoming of sorts for Notre Dame nose tackle Kurt Hinish and offensive tackle Robert Hainsey. Hinish won a pair of high school regional titles at Heinz Field while playing for perennial powerhouse Central Catholic. Hainsey began his high school career at Gateway High in the eastern suburb of Monroeville before transferring to the IMG Academy.

“The game means everything to me,” Hinish said. “I’m good friends with Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford (Pitt’s starting safeties). We actually played paintball with each other during quarantine, so we got to hang out with each other. It’s friendly competition, but once we step on the field, we mean business.”

Pitt freshman wide receiver Jordan Addison’s 38 receptions are tops in the ACC. Notre Dame had Addison in its sights coming out of high school but wanted to transition him to cornerback. Addison chose the Panthers and his play has been one of the few constants on an offense that ranks 12th in the 15-team league in yards and eighth in points.

“We thought early on in our recruiting efforts that he would be a guy that would do well at the cornerback position because of his length,” Kelly said. “That’s kind of stood out to us but, obviously, he can play other positions as well. We’re finding out he’s going to be one of the top receivers in this league for a few years.”