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.
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.
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?
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