PITTSBURGH – There has been no shortage of Notre Dame players that have emerged from the shadows of September because of increased opportunity as this football season has progressed. Mostly, those athletes have showcased their skills on the defensive side of the ball due to the inordinate amount of injuries that have plagued the Fighting Irish in that regard. However, tight end Ben Koyack has burst onto the scene of late not due to someone else's misfortune, but simply due to his ability.
“He's just been emerging and maturing,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
The junior has played in all 10 games this fall, and started four of them, but never really made his presence felt until mid-season.
After going five consecutive games without a reception, Koyack has nine catches over the past five games, including four against Pittsburgh on Saturday.
“He's a talented young man,” Kelly said. “But it's just been taking some time.”
Koyack's development has given a boost to the young Notre Dame receiving corps, which has centered on talented senior T.J. Jones, inconsistent sophomore DaVaris Daniels, and reliable junior tight end Troy Niklas. Together with Niklas, the Irish tight ends have combined for 23 receptions and five touchdowns since mid-October.
“Ben has gotten his confidence and he's certainly shown that he can be a big asset,” Kelly said.
Koyack totaled just three receptions for 39 yards as a sophomore, but racked up career-bests in receiving yards each of the past two games. After gaining 34 yards against Navy last week, Koyack totaled 76 yards against the Panthers. He also has scored a touchdown in three of the past four games, and nearly did on Saturday, but his knee was ruled down at the one-yard line.
Despite the increasing success, Koyack felt no need to talk about individual growth following his team's third loss against seven defeats on Saturday.
“To be honest, I can't speak for everybody, but I know that I probably could have blocked a couple of plays better and maybe ran some better routes, personally,” Koyack self-analyzed. “We executed pretty well, in general, it's just a couple of plays, especially in such a competitive game. That is all that it takes.”
Former Bishop Luers High School standout Jaylon Smith continues to make the transition from IHSAA Class 2A football to the BCS level look relatively easy.
For the third time in five games, the freshman outside linebacker led the Fighting Irish in tackles in Saturday's 28-21 loss at Pittsburgh.
Smith totaled 11 tackles (seven solo) and a tackle for a loss in the defeat.
For the season, he ranks fourth on the squad with 53 total tackles (30 solo), 6 ½ for a loss, one interception, a pair of pass break-ups, three pass deflections, one fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
Tuitt's absence not a factor
Early in the second quarter, Notre Dame's already decimated defense (by injuries this season) took another blow, as All-American defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt was ejected after being called for a targeting personal foul on a hit to Pitt quarterback Tom Savage.
“Letter of the law,” Kelly said of the explanation given to him during the game. “(The officials) were saying it was helmet-to-helmet contact. They were reciting the strict interpretation of the rule.”
Kelly wasn't happy with the explanation and let the officials know that, but he wasn't making excuses afterward and attributing the defeat to losing one of his top players.
“Stephon Tuitt not playing in this game, that's not why we lost this football game,” Kelly said. “That is not why we lost this game. That had nothing to do with this loss tonight.
“That's a question (regarding the call), and that whole rule, that's a time and a place that can be handled. This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense.”