SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Xavier Watts had two of Notre Dame’s four interceptions, Audric Estime rushed for 114 yards and three touchdowns, and the 14th-ranked Fighting Irish overwhelmed Pittsburgh 58-7 on Saturday.
Watts and the Notre Dame defense made life miserable for Pitt quarterback Christian Veilleux, a redshirt sophomore making his third start. The Fighting Irish (7-2) scored 23 points off five Pitt turnovers — including a fumbled punt that Ramon Henderson recovered in the end zone or a touchdown — and have won seven of their past eight meetings with the Panthers (2-6).
Watts, who began his Notre Dame career as a wide receiver, now has six interceptions this season, the most in FBS. He also had two picks in Notre Dame’s 48-20 win against Southern California two weeks ago.
Jaden Mickey had a 43-yard pick-6, and Christian Gray made an acrobatic pick for the dominant Fighting Irish defense.
“It’s a bunch of coaches and players that aren’t satisfied that constantly are striving to improve,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said. “That’s the sprint. That’s the sense of urgency we have to improve. It’s not to just win. It’s not to, you know, all of a sudden get this outcome. It’s really to improve, and we’re getting closer and closer every week to reaching that full potential.”
Sam Hartman threw interceptions on Notre Dame’s first two possessions, but Pitt couldn’t take advantage either time. After the Panthers’ first pick, they went three-and-out, and Chris Tyree returned the punt 82 yards for a touchdown to put Notre Dame on the board.
Notre Dame struck quickly after Watts’ first pick. Estime had three carries for 51 yards on the ensuing four-play drive, which ended with him dashing to the end zone from 15 yards out.
The Fighting Irish poured it on in the third quarter. Hartman connected with Rico Flores Jr. for a 60-yard pass play, setting up a 10-yard scoring run by Jadarian Price that made it 24-0.
Veilleux then threw the pick that Mickey — who got an opportunity to play because Ben Morrison was sidelined with a quad strain — returned for a score.
After Notre Dame scored again on Henderson’s fumble recovery, Estime scored his second TD late in the third quarter on a 3-yard run to make it 44-0.
“The offensive line is led by the strong,” Estime said. “We’re led by those big boys. They’re the hardest workers on the team, I feel like. Every week, Monday through Friday, they’re bringing the juice. That’s all a championship team needs, to be led by the strong.”
Hartman shook off his early woes to throw for 288 yards on 18-of-25 passing before he was replaced late by backup Steve Angeli, who went 6-of-7 for 92 yards and a touchdown. A dozen receivers had at least one catch for Notre Dame.
Veilleux finished 14 of 29 for 127 yards. Nate Yarnell took over and connected with Konata Mumpfield for a 25-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Veilleux was named Pitt’s starter after former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec was benched following a 1-4 start. He led Pitt to a surprising win over Louisville — a week after the Cardinals knocked off Notre Dame — but has lost two straight since.
“I didn’t play the type of football, the level of football that I want to play,” Veilleux said. “I definitely have to go back and watch the film. I made too many mistakes. A lot of it, I should have either just taken a sack or scrambled. It’s all on me. I take full responsibility.”
Brandon George and Phillip O’Brien Jr. had Pitt’s interceptions.
“Obviously, the team is going through a tough situation right now,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We’re not playing as good. We’ve got a lot of young football players out there. We’ll stick together as a football team and lock back in.”
Pitt: Missed opportunities haunted the Panthers in the first half before they fell apart in the third quarter, allowing 27 points and 158 yards of offense.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have been led by their defense since the loss at Louisville. Notre Dame has forced 10 turnovers in its last two games.
Pitt: Hosts No. 4 Florida State next Saturday.
Notre Dame: At Clemson next Saturday.