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  • Irish Wary of Pitt-Fall

    by John Vannie

    Notre Dame returns home on Saturday following its most impressive win of the season to host long time rival Pittsburgh. The 8-0 Irish dispatched Oklahoma in convincing fashion to vault into serious BCS contention, and hope to maintain the focus and momentum that has built steadily during a challenging but successful October. November’s schedule does not appear as daunting, but the stakes are considerably higher now that other national championship hopefuls have fallen by the wayside, and the Irish cannot afford even the slightest misstep. Kickoff is at 3:40 Eastern time with national television coverage by NBC.

    The 4-4 Panthers are coached by Paul Chryst, who is in his first season as a head coach after spending the last several years as the Offensive Coordinator at Wisconsin. Pitt is lead by senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, a very efficient passer who has 34 consecutive starts under his belt. His supporting cast includes a pair of quality receivers in Devin Street and Mike Shanahan, and two productive running backs in Ray Graham and freshman Rushel Shell.

    Quarterback Everett Golson will try to build on a breakthrough performance last week against the Sooners. Although his passing statistics were relatively modest, Golson threw the ball accurately, hit his first 50-yard pass of the year to freshman Chris Brown and did not turn the ball over. Coach Brian Kelly’s offense is still a work in progress, but the unit has made strides each week against several quality defenses.

    Notre Dame enters the contest in relatively good health, while recent injuries have taken a toll on Pittsburgh’s defense, particularly at linebacker. Don Mason and Manny Williams suffered season-ending injuries, while middle linebacker Shane Gordon has missed the last two games with an ankle sprain that is still not fully healed. Weak side backer Todd Thomas is rounding into form after missing the first month due to off-season knee surgery.

    NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. PITTSBURGH’S DEFENSE

    The Panthers switched back to a 4-3 front this year and have new faces along the line of scrimmage. Tackles Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell have moved into the starting lineup and performed well. Ends T. J. Clemmings and Shayne Hale are solid players, but each has been battling injuries of late. The Irish offensive line should match up well with this group, particularly in the second half as the Panthers do not have much depth.

    As noted earlier, Chryst will have to cobble together a group of linebackers from the walking wounded. Eric Williams and Thomas will flank whoever is able to answer the call in the middle. Pittsburgh has a pair of very good veteran safeties in Jarrod Holley and Jason Hendricks, the team’s top two leading tacklers. The temptation will be to bring them forward to slow down Notre Dame’s ground attack, but that has become a pick your poison proposition now that Golson has established himself as a competent downfield passer. Kelly and Golson will obviously test them early to see how they will choose to defend the Irish.

    The cornerbacks are junior K’Waun Williams, who played well last season, and first time starter Lafayette Pitts, who has drawn praise from the Panther staff as both a defensive back and kick returner. The secondary is above average and has performed reasonably well this season, although the group lacks size and may have difficulty handling the likes of Tyler Eifert or DeVaris Daniels.

    Pitt’s front seven will most likely have trouble stopping the Irish rushing attack by itself, so they will try to bring strong safety Holley forward before the snap at various times. This cat and mouse game with Golson may work from time to time, but it’s not a winning strategy. The Panthers will need help from Notre Dame in the form of turnovers, penalties and mental errors that were not in evidence last week. The question is whether the Irish can continue that high level of play or if they will regress against a less formidable opponent despite Kelly’s insistence that they focus on each game as it comes up on the schedule.

    PITTSBURGH’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE

    Pitt’s offense is in good shape at the skill positions. Sunseri has not received the level of national acclaim afforded to Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, but his numbers are quite similar. The senior has completed 69% of his passes with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Street and Shanahan are not extraordinarily fast, but are tall, rangy receivers that manage to get open and can turn a short catch into a long gain by breaking the initial tackle. Cameron Saddler is much smaller in stature but is very quick out of the slot. Hubie Graham and freshman J. P. Holtz are capable tight ends. The sum of these parts is a 281 yard per game aerial attack that is very efficient when Sunseri is not under pressure in the pocket.

    The offensive line is anchored by center Ryan Turnley and left guard Chris Jacobson. Right guard Ryan Schlieper went down with an injury last week and will be replaced by Arthur Doakes. Two new tackles, Corey King and Matt Rotheram, have the requisite size but not necessarily the athletic ability to hold up against the Irish. Graham is the featured tailback, although Shell’s size provides an excellent complement to Graham’s elusiveness. Both are effective pass receivers and are targeted frequently by Sunseri.

    The Panthers have the ability and offensive balance to challenge Notre Dame and put a few points on the board. Chryst will try to stick with the running game as long as possible, and Pitt will remain competitive well into the second half if Graham and Shell can move the chains. The Irish did not allow a rush of more than seven yards last week, but it will be difficult to repeat such a dominating performance.

    Nevertheless, Notre Dame’s plan will be to force third and long situations and apply pressure to Sunseri, who has been sacked 20 times and is not a threat to scramble. In Norman, the Irish were able to put Jones under duress and tackle his receivers immediately. A similar approach should be effective against the Panthers if the Irish can maintain a high level of intensity.

    SPECIAL TEAMS

    George Atkinson is back from his sickbed to return kickoffs this week, and it would be helpful if his blockers also recover from whatever has been ailing them. The Irish need to improve their overall return game from woefully inadequate to at least mediocre. Kyle Brindza bounced back beautifully last week after missing a short field goal. His 46-yarder in the fourth quarter was particularly impressive, and his kickoffs were also strong. Finally, Notre Dame’s coverage units performed well against a dangerous opponent, but the team still seems to lose ground whenever there is an exchange of punts.

    The Panthers have above-average return men with Saddler handling punts and Pitts as the primary kickoff returner. Senior Kevin Harper is 10 of 15 on field goals, but most of the misses occurred early in the season. His range is about 45 yards. Punter Matt Yoklic and Notre Dame’s Ben Turk have very similar statistical averages.

    SUMMARY

    Pittsburgh’s offense has realized some success this season against fair but not exceptional competition. They are improving of late and could pose problems for the Irish if the hosts suffer a letdown. Notre Dame did have more trouble than expected against BYU after an emotional win against Stanford, and Pitt is not going to roll over. The Panthers have a stronger offense and a weaker defense than the Cougars, but are capable of staying with the Irish if Golson is not sharp and the defense is lethargic.

    Notre Dame is stronger in the trenches and must use this advantage to take control of the game as early as possible. A fast start will make it difficult for Pitt to play catch up, but a close game at halftime could turn into another unwanted nail-biter in the final minutes. The Panthers front seven should not be able to stop the run, so the Irish will prevail if they do not punish themselves with unforced errors.

    Here are a few questions that will weigh into the outcome:

    Can the Irish secondary hold its own against the tall Panther receivers?

    Will Sunseri be able to maintain his 69% season completion rate?

    Which team’s running game will gain traction in the second half?

    Will Golson demonstrate improvement in his ability to find open receivers?

    Can Notre Dame repeat its error free performance against Oklahoma?

    Will TV viewers miss Tom Hammond in the broadcast booth?

    PREDICTION

    The expression “trap game” is overused, and Notre Dame has too much incentive to come out flat in any of its remaining contests. More importantly, the outstanding leadership on this team will prevent that from happening. The Irish could score more than 30 points if they are able to build off last week’s success in the passing game and are humming on all cylinders, but it’s just as likely that their performance won’t be a work of art. Rather than opt for a prediction of either a blowout or a close game, I’ll split the difference.

    NOTRE DAME 27 PITTSBURGH 13

    37 Responses to “Irish Wary of Pitt-Fall”

    1. ND 42 Pitt 13
      Irish come out on fire. Golson throws a couple long td passes and running attack is unstoppable.

    2. Good summary and prediction on this one. I too don’t see them breaking away for a blowout win, but the Irish should keep themselves far enough ahead in the third to negate any 4th quarter comeback by the Panthers. 38-24 Final

      • Come on…Oklahama #8 scored 13 on us…and then you say pitt will score 24? I don’t think so…Irish 42-6

        • I totally agree!! 24 points… no way! Our defense has too much pride to allow them that much success. The ND defense will porbably end up scoring! Irish 42 – Panthers 6! No way they even score touch down!

    3. Informative and balanced insights, as usual, John. I will be at the game, my first trip back to the Stadium since the bizzarre and discouraging USC loss last season. What a difference a year makes. Coach Kelly insists the team is not interested or motivated by history, but I am. I can’t help it. I also attended the BC game in 2002–at the exact same point in that schedule, 8-0, and another bizzarre and discouraging loss. Jeez, just writing this gives me second thoughts about going to the Pitt game for fear of jinxing the Irish. Nah…nothing can stop this team. Your remark about exceptional leadership is spot on. Thanks, and GO IRISH!

    4. Pitt is one of those mediocre teams like Purdue or Miami, two games that had very different results (nail biter / blowout). While I’m hoping for the blowout, I’m expecting something closer to the Purdue nail biter. We don’t really blow out teams this year, with a couple of exceptions. The 17 point OU win was very close until the last 5 minutes. I think Golson is “due” for a couple of turnovers. He was waving that ball all over the place as he ran. Kelly pointed that out in his press conference – he is working with Golson on ball security. I don’t think we’ll be as focused as last week and we’ll have a few more penalties.

      I expect the Irish won’t run too well in the first half, have a turnover, and take a 13-10 lead into half. It stays close in the second half until the defense makes a key sack, gets the crowd fired up, the offense hits a big play to extend the lead, and then late in the game our running game takes over to grind out the win.

    5. Last week I said Notre Dame had to go into Norman with a nothing to lose attitude. I think it might be obvious that they may have done that considering the outcome of that game. A huge win!!!! This week it’s a complete 180 going against a team that the Irish should beat and record wise is inferior. It’s quite clear after eight weeks that BK has embraced the running game and it’s no secret that it’s the strength of the offense.
      Notre Dame has to run, run, and then run some more. Establishing the run game again is going to set them up for another win. If the Irish can get 4 or 5 yards a run I would keep running the ball until Pitt stops them. Throw in some play action as they did last week and ND will be in good shape. There is however another element Pitt should be wary of. Not only do they need to worry about Wood, Riddick and Atkinson running the ball, Golson has certainly shown that he is also capable as well. Once again Golson doesn’t have to win the game for them he just has to mangage it. He has enough weapons at his disposal to keep the pressure off of himself and most importantly…..no turnovers.
      Another 200+ yard day on the ground will result in the following:
      1. Keep our defense off the field and fresh.
      2. Keep Pitt’s defense on the field.
      3. Keep Pitt’s offense off the field limiting their opportunities.
      I don’t care if they run the ball 50 times. If they’re gaining yards and putting points on the board it’ll be a great day.
      “GO IRISH”

    6. Cool Breeze (PV1x) says:

      There’s definitely more and more at stake with each victory since the Irish are on a roll, however we fans are now showing more fear over teams we heretofore weren’t overly concerned about. I like BK’s approach to this, prepare as well as we can for the things we can control each week, and don’t be concerned about a big picture like winning an NC. Listening to the noise will cause us to lose games. Like the words of the prayer (paraphrased)…accept the things I cannot change, and change the things I can. Just do it Irish; one hard nosed scrappy play at a time until they break.

    7. Ghost of Joe Moore says:

      Irish will thump the Panthers! Tribute to Mark Mays day…payback is a strange bedfellow…GO IRISH!

    8. ND will be able to sack the QB several times. 42-10 Irish.

    9. algoldendomer says:

      Pitt has given up 20 sacks against mediocre competition, including 5 last week against Temple. Unless they don’t show up, the Irish D-line should have a field day against their banged up O-line. And on offense, I think ND is going to have their pick of either the smashmouth running game (we may see both RBs go over 100 yards again) against their banged-up D-line or a deep aerial game, or both.

      Unless ND comes out flat, or makes a ton of turnovers/mistakes, I don’t see this being close. I fully expect a focused, business-like ND team on Saturday – Notre Dame 44 Pitt 10

    10. Professor K says:

      I watched an interview of Manti Teo on ESPN some time after OU had been put to rest. The sportscaster- interviewer made some comment that the next 3 games were going to be relatively easy, and perhaps the real focus would be on SC.
      Teo’s responded first with, “That’s dangerous talk.” (i.e. taking Pitt, BC, and Wake for granted). He went on to say that we’d be alert to any let down and planned to help our attitude focus on a one-game-at-a- time mantra.
      That sounds trite, but coming from our Heisman nominee, it felt good. On the sideline & on the field he’s the Big Kahuna.

      • blazelikeachampiontoday says:

        I’m not suiting up on Saturday so permit me to get a little bit ahead of things here– if the Irish get in a blow out/comfortable win situation, does it make any sense to throw in Manti on a gimmick offensive play designed for him? A goal-line run a la William Perry or maybe make use of his nice hands?

        Not that he doesn’t deserve the Heismanti on his own merits, but that might be the type of gimmick that puts him over the top.

    11. irishhawk50 says:

      Hopefully the Irish are on a roll and improving each week. I don’t think its fair or logical to compare this team to the Whittingham coached team of 2002. I think playing against a decent 5th year senior in Sunseri will give the secondary some additional needed play and experience for down the road. This team has not peaked yet. Golson still is growing and his growth is what will carry ND for the rest of the year, not to slight the running game. The Irish have been able to survive and win with mediocre QB play.I would love to see the results as the QB play gets better and better. Go Irish

    12. This is a very different team than in (too many) years past. Not only in quality of play, but also in attitude and desire. I think this team is relentless, on a mission. I don’t expect a let up. I think this could be something similar to what I witnessed in Chicago. A gut feel aided by what we’ve witnessed to date.

    13. I appreciate the conservative approach, but if we can’t dominate an injury riddled 4-4 team at home then we don’t deserve at shot at the NC game. We should/must be dominant in the next three games. Nd 45-10

    14. 4 star Corner back Luke Cole just committed to be Irish!

      • Bob Howsam, Jr. says:

        Huge get that moves Irish up to #2 (Rivals) and #3 (Scout) nationally. The undefeated season is paying huge dividends in the recruiting wars.

    15. I was thinking the same thing while reading John’s analysis. What would the line be if Oregon was playing Pitt?

      Actually, I think his prediction is pretty spot on which is why I have not lost my mind about an undefeated ND not playing Alabama over an unbeaten Oregon.

    16. Bob Howsam, Jr. says:

      Excellent analysis as usual JV, but you fail to pose THE most important question that will impact the outcome:

      Will the Irish suffer a major letdown after the statement beatdown of the Sooners?

      I believe they will … but only on offense. Manti Teo and the fellows on the D side of the ball are simply too polished and generally make adjustments sufficiently quickly to avoid allowing the opposition to put too many points on the board.

      Having said that, I still think Bob Diaco has a tendency to think he can get pressure on the quarterback rushing three or four. That’s simply not the case. On obvious down and distances, he’s got to bring at least one backer and/or DB and who’s ever dogging needs to have to be a little more patient and aware of the time left on the play clock to better disguise who’s coming.

      Against Oklahoma, ND’s blitzes had a tendency to tip their hand. Landry Jones despite being a 9th year senior either didn’t see it or had no idea how to audiblize to exploit it, but Pitt undoubtedly will have seen it on tape and will do something to counter when they sense space will be vacated.

      On offense, I’m sticking to my guns. If Kelly consistently goes up-tempo and 4- and 5-wide, the Irish will rack points like a pinball machine and Woody, Cubed (GAIII) and Riddick will gash the Pitt D for huge gains.

      Kelly’s play-calling needs to continue to improve and the Everett’s training wheels need to go. If he struggles badly it won’t be because of execution it will be simply because Kelly creates down and distance nightmares for the kid do to poor play selection. I particularly loathe the slow developing sweep left. That play never works and should never ever be run again the rest of the season. And a few more reverses and misdirections would be nice. Rarely have a seen a team with this much team speed at the edge run so few reverses.

      At the end of the day, this team is a team of destiny … one for the ages … Pitt will put up a gallant fight, but have far to little firepower to match up with the increasingly potent Irish O.

      Irish 48 Pitt 24

      • John Vannie says:

        I believe I addressed that question quite thoroughly. You need to reread the last paragraph of my Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Pittsburgh’s Defense section. The subject of a letdown, particularly by the offense, is covered there as well as in the summary and prediction paragaphs. I did not feel the need to repeat myself in the list of pregame questions. Do you think Mike Mayock will enjoy the extra room in the broadcast booth now that Tom Hammond’s colossal noggin will be at the Breeder’s Cup races?

    17. Captain Jack says:

      Another potential trap game but I think now with the team being able to sit the light at the end of the tunnel and a potential 11-0 record heading in to SC, I really feel this is a time where they can once and for all shut the naysayers up. A big effort and convincing win would be important. I think we will see just that led by the Offense who is getting ready to pull their own weight. ND 34-10

      BTW I really think SC pulls off the upset and helps us tremendously. SC 34-31

      • Bob Howsam, Jr. says:

        I hope for our sake you’re right about SC but I doubt it. When you can’t seal the deal against the Wildcats, you’re not gonna beat the Ducks … even lame ones … and even in the Coliseum.

        Sitting Ducks 52 Trojans 48 2OT.

        • chrisnd93 says:

          How does a team win my 4 points in overtime? Is this like fantasy football whereby you get “bonus” points for interceptions, extra yards, and great defensive play?

    18. I am looking for ND to pound the next 3 teams into submission and get away from these tight close games and playing to the competition. With that said I am very wary of the Pitt and BC game. Tomorrow has me very worried. I’ll say Irish 28-16.

    19. There’s a chance this game will remain close in the 1st half, but into the 2nd half I think our superior strength and depth will allow us to pull away. Pitt is a tad better than their 4-4 record might imply (especially offensively) but the Irish will find a way to get it done. As Captain Jack pointed out, Irish fans find themselves in unfamiliar territory this weekend, rooting for USC to win! And also lets not forget about LSU and Bama. It is Bama’s toughest challenge yet (even though I think LSU has been a tad overrated). Would love to see T’eo have another monster game. If he could find a way to score a defensive touchdown or 2 it would really bolster his Heisman chances!

      Irish 31- Pitt 13

      Go Irish!

    20. Good analysis by Vannie and Bob Howson, but I suspect Vannie’s prediction is closer to the final score. I can see some lapses and letdowns after OU, but not enough to lose this game. Have you looked at Pitt’s schedule? They may in fact be much worse than their record indicates.

      BK continues to focus on process and on execution – I get the sense that the players have truly bought into his system and would follow him through Hell. For the first time in years, I sense that they feel a real faith in their coach, their teammates and themselves.

      On a related note, how valuable is Tommy Rees? All he does is whatever he’s asked to do. He’s totally focused on the game, never whined about Golson being the starter, and comes off the bench ready to execute – he totally saved our bacon in the Stanford game. I seriously wonder how much of a positive effect his poise and attitude have on the whole team. He’s not a great athlete, but this kid is a winner.

    21. Even thought BK wont say it, we need some style points. We need to dominate some people to jump up in the AP and Coachs poll. Irish will come out firing, 42-10.

    22. I have the answer to the last question……NO!! NBC, please add horse racing to your network coverage (not to interfere with the game) for every home game in the fall. I loathe Hammond’s broadcasts of the Irish. Every year I hope he is replaced but no………
      Irish 38 Pitt 3 (10 if all reserves play the last quarter)
      Go Irish!

    23. Pitt did lose to Youngstown State, which is very difficult to do. Three players charged with assault that will play—hmmm! Game doesn’t need to be close if ND stays on task. Still, Graham is good and Sunseri, who was awful in the past, is throwing better this year. No D for Pitt so take the ball and run it down their throats and win 27-6 on another dreary weather day in South Bend (of which there is an unlimited supply).

    24. NDBonecrusher says:

      Many intelligent posts!

      I live in Pittsburgh and dear ole Dad is a proud Panther. The amount of optimism among Pitt fans is impressive. Impressive but ultimately, I believe, unfounded.

      Pitt is full of confidence after thumping the mighty Owls of Temple. Woo Hoo. They are in for a rude awakening when the Irish D comes crashing down, and when the running game starts to take hold. They might keep it interesting for a quarter and Pitt might not even be far behind at halftime. But I just do not see this team hanging physically with ND for 4 quarters. This brings me to my final point, and request for feedback: The past 3 games have not been “fancy” victories. No chicanery, no gimmicks, no razzle-dazzle. ND has won because they were stronger and meaner than their opponents. Period. The 4th quarter is when this team shines. Your thoughts?

      The only thing that troubles me is that ND seems to have played better away than at home thus far. Not sure I understand that, or if it’s even true. Hopefully the offense reverses that trend tomorrow.

      ND 38, Pitt 10. GO IRISH BEAT PANTHERS!!! (Sorry Dad…but not all that sorry.)

    25. Jack McGee says:

      The team that beat Oklahoma was a well lubricated machine managed by a leader who has a tight grip on the wheel. Kelly is not getting ahead of himself or ahead of the season. I imagine he ran a very grueling preparation for Pitt because he will presume nothing. He knows what potential he has here in the Irish team; but potential is just that…look for a very conservative ground game that will suddenly explode. I hope the third string gets to play, but not too much.

    26. i’m getting ahead of myself. Alabama hasn’t played anyone and the SEC is not that good this year. Irish will stick it to K sate or Oregon. Win out and lets see what happens. Only get 1 season to shock the word. This is it.

    27. If this team is for real, they better be able to take an flamethrower to a team like Pitt which lost to Youngstown St., got blown out by Cinnci and lost to Syracuse. They don’t need to be perfect to pound a team like Pitt.

    28. NDBonecrusher says:

      NWIFAN I hope you are right. I agree with you, but we will just have to see what the kids do. First game this year I have not had pre-game angina. Looking forward to a whoopin’ and hope they deliver!

    29. I think this game looks strangely close in the first half, and then in the second their complete inability to stop our run game after being hammered for the first two quarters shows. It has been our pattern since Miami, and I don’t see it changing now. You may be right on the scoreboard figure, but anyone watching the second half will know this was never in doubt.

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