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'D' steps backwards; dangerous Pitt tonight

Published November 09. 2013 09:00AM

After showing improvement for the past three weeks the Irish defense took a giant step backwards last week.

The Irish had enough offense to stay ahead of Navy, a 17-point underdog, to win 38-34. The win put the Irish at 7-2 but that might not mean anything the rest of the way.

The Navy win was very costly injury-wise for the Irish defense, and that could mean a lot as ND heads into the final three games of the season and a quest to get into a high level BCS bowl game.

I will detail the injury problems facing the Irish later in the column.

The defense looked absolutely horrible against Navy. Despite playing Navy every year and the Middies running the same triple option every year, the Irish still struggle. Sure they won in a walk a year ago, but that was a young Navy team.

Brian Kelly said on Sunday that the injuries his team sustained so far is the most he has had to face in his coaching career. Kelly even went as far to say the injuries sustained by nose guard Kona Schwenke, outside linebacker Ishaq Williams, and defensive end Sheldon Day are directly related to playing Air Force and Navy the past two weeks. The two teams use the rarely used technique of cut blocks that take out would-be tacklers' legs.

I always thought such blocks are illegal but apparently not. At least the all Big East officiating team didn't think so as Navy played the entire game without a penalty, or a turnover.

At any rate the win might be the last of the season with Pittsburgh today, BYU next week in South Bend, in the last home game, and then to Stanford. With a defense so battered with injuries, ND will struggle to get another win this year.

Seldom used backup safety Eilar Hardy and freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith saved the day in the Navy game when they stopped Navy's surprising end around on a fourth and four from the ND 31 with about a minute to go. Hardy made the first penetration and Smith finshed off receiver Shawn Lynch for no gain giving the ball to ND. The Irish then ran out the clock.

Navy racked up 28 first downs, the most ever in the 87-game series history. The Middies had 207 rushing yards in the first half alone. Navy finished with 331 yards on 70 carries and converted 10 of 16 third-down opportunities against a ND defense that had been surging in recent weeks.

But enough about the game. The Irish were fortunate and the victory was costly.

The Irish are at Pitt today. The game time was set for 1 p.m. two weeks ago and changed again on Sunday when ABC-TV decided to make it the Saturday night game of the week with a 8:12 p.m. start.

The Panthers enter the game at 4-4 with wins over New Mexico, 49-27; Duke, 58-55; Virginia, 14-3; and Old Dominion, 35-24. The losses have been to Florida State, 41-13; Virginia Tech, 19-9; Navy, 24-21; and last week to Georgia Tech, 21-10.

The Panthers are led by outstanding running back Ray Graham, who has 1,077 yards this season on 222 rushes and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 36 passes for 240 yards and two scores. Backing him up is Rasheu Shell with141 carries and 677 yards and four TDs. QB Tino Sunsesi is a veteran. He has completed 256 passes for 3,288 yards and 21 TDs with three interceptions this year. Top receivers are Devin Street with 73 catches for 975 yards and five scores and Mike Shanahan, 62-983-six scores. The top two on defense are Jason Hendricks with 59 tackles and Jared Holley with 43.

ND leads the series, 47-20-1. ND won last year in three ovetimes, 29-26.

IRISH NOTES:Tommy Rees was 12 of 20 passing for 242 yards and two TDs, but also had two interceptions, one of which led to a Navy score. Top rushers were frosh Tarean Folston with 18 carries for 140 yards and a score, with George Atkinson getting 74 yards on seven carries and a score, and Cam McDaniel, 52 on seven. Top receivers were T.J. Jones with four catches for 111 yards, and a score, Troy Niklas, two for 44, Ben Koyack, two for 34, and DaVaris Daniels, two for 33. Defensively Kona Schwenk had 11 tackles before leaving injured, and Carol Calabrese 10....Now the injury report, and its not good. Junior backup outside linebacker Ben Councell is done for the season with a knee injury suffered in the game. Councell's injury leaves frosh Smith with no full-time backup at drop linebacker. Sophomore Romeo Okwara, who made his first start last week, will have to back up Smith. Schwenke has a high ankle sprain and won't be back until the BYU game. He has been filling in for Day at end and Nix at nose guard. Williams is out until at least the BYU game. Day has a chance to see some action tonight. Safety Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck strain which got worst on Sunday. A MRI showed no serious problems. Latest word is he will be available to play tonight. Left guard Chris Watt, who missed the Navy game, had his 34 consecutive start streak ended. He will return tonight. Some good injury news. Safety Elijak Shumate, who missed the last three games witn an injury, will return tonight. The biggest plus news is at nose guard Louis Nix, who has missed the last two games, will play tonight....Despite the unimpressive win the Irish jumped into the AP's top 25 at number 24 and are 25 in the USA Today coaches poll.....Fifth year Irish senior Zack Martin made his 48th career start last week tying him for second-most in school history with safety Tom Zbikowski and linebacker Maurice Crum. Martin could pass the school record of 50 set by Sam Young by starting the last three games....TJ Jones caught a TD pass for the sixth consecutive game and is two games away from tying the school record shared by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate....Junior tight end Ben Koyack had his third TD in the past four games Saturday after going scoreless for his first 29 games....Pitt has had two games in which they've rushed for more than 260 yards, but three games in which they amassed fewer than 25 yards on the ground (Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia Tech). They are also 118th in sacks allowed....The bookies have installed the 7-2 Irish as only four point favorites against the 4-4 Panthers. In my preseason picks I had Pitt upsetting the Irish today. There is no reason to change that prediction. I don't feel confident for this game. Just hope ND can keep it close.

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