If asked to name Notre Dame’s most often-played football opponents, Irish fans could probably come up with the top four easily: Navy (87 meetings), Purdue (85), U.S.C. (85) and Michigan State (77) head the list.
But when Notre Dame and the Pittsburgh Panthers meet for the 69th time this Saturday, the Panthers will further cement themselves into fifth position, well ahead of Army (50 meetings) whom the Irish play only episodically now. With both Pitt and N.D. in the A.C.C. (the Irish, of course, remain independent for football, but have agreed to play five A.C.C. football games per year), continued frequent meetings are certain.
While N.D. holds a 47-20-1 advantage in the series, the Irish and the Panthers have played memorable contests, sometimes with national championship implications.
Tony Dorsett’s exploits against Notre Dame are on every all-time Pitt highlight reel.
The high-water mark of Gerry Faust’s career at N.D. was a 31-16 stunner of a road upset in 1982 against top-ranked Pitt.
In 1987, Lou Holtz’s promising squad destroyed Michigan, M.S.U. and Purdue before finding itself desperately behind on a rain-slicked field in Pittsburgh. The Irish rallied behind a sophomore quarterback named Tony Rice, but fell short 30-22.
The next year, Pittsburgh nearly caught the Irish looking ahead to the Miami game, but N.D. hung on to win 30-20, and then beat Miami en route to the title.
Last year, Pitt nearly derailed Notre Dame’s drive to the national championship game. Coming off N.D.’s best performance of the year – a 30-13 road win over Oklahoma – the Irish nearly had the letdown to end all letdowns, but pulled the game out in three wild overtimes that featured an N.D. fumble at the goal line and a missed short field goal by Pitt.
Many of the central characters of last year’s drama are absent, however. Notre Dame’s defense this year has fallen from one of the best in the nation in 2012 to slightly above average in 2013. The Irish miss the playmaking ability and leadership of Manti Te’o at inside linebacker and Zeke Motta at safety. On the offensive side, Golson’s academic misconduct cost him the season, and – though Tommy Rees has played well — cost many Irish fans bottles of antacids as the 7-2 Irish have struggled to hold off opponents they were favored to beat easily, and have only two multi-score victories to their credit.
Notably missing from the Pitt sideline are running back Ray Graham and quarterback Tino Sunseri. Last year’s N.D.’s defense, which was nearly impenetrable to rushing offenses during the regular season, allowed Graham 172 yards, including 55 on his first carry. The highly efficient Sunseri was 19 of 29, with one touchdown and no interceptions in last year’s thriller.
Life of late has not been easy on Pitt football fans. Pitt has had a remarkable recent history of finding reasonably good coaches who got the program to the high end of respectability, only to send them packing. Former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is now at the helm, having led the Panthers to a 6-7 record last year and 4-4 thus far this year.
Both teams desperately need this game. N.D. finishes the year with two difficult opponents in B.Y.U. and Stanford. A loss to Pitt could easily send the Irish skidding to a 7-5 finish relegating them to a minor bowl and making last year’s run look more like an outlier and less like the leading edge of brighter days. A win, however, keeps N.D.’s slim B.C.S. bowl hopes alive, but more realistically gives the Irish a chance for an improved bowl match-up and a final record better than Kelly’s first two campaigns that ended at 8-5.
Pitt has suffered disappointing losses in its last two games – 24-21 to Navy and 21-10 to Georgia Tech – and is looking down the barrel of a bowl-less season. After N.D., Pitt has two winnable games, against North Carolina and improved Syracuse, before facing Miami in the season finale. But Pitt has no guaranteed wins left, and a loss to N.D. makes a 4-8 or 5-7 finish a realistic possibility.
Pitt’s Offense Against Notre Dame’s Defense
Both squads are probably happy to be done with two straight weeks of cut-blocking option teams. The last two weeks left N.D.’s front seven a veritable MASH unit. While not excusing the lackluster Irish defensive performance against Navy, it was hard to blame N.D.’s defensive linemen for keeping their eyes down to avoid cut blocks as they watched teammates hobble to the bench.
However, N.D. got good news as massive nose guard Louis Nix has been cleared to practice. Seldom-used but highly talented defensive lineman Jarron Jones looked good against Navy. Assuming N.D. has enough live bodies and doesn’t suffer any more bad injuries, the advantage here is with the Irish.
Chryst was hired to get Pitt back to its power-running roots, but it hasn’t worked that way this year. Pitt’s base offensive formations resemble N.D.’s – single back looks out of a shotgun or the quarterback under center with the tailback lined up very deep, though Pitt does line up in a traditional I, particularly on running downs.
Pitt’s rushing statistics are anemic. The Panthers average only 3.6 per rush and just over 122 yards per game. Even those figures, however, may overstate Pitt’s prowess on the ground. Of Pitt’s 1266 total rushing yards through eight games, over 550 came against two teams – Bob Davie’s horrific New Mexico squad and FCS foe Old Dominion (though ODU actually outgained Pitt in a competitive 35-24 Pitt win). In last week’s loss to Georgia Tech, Pitt rushed for -5 total yards. While Notre Dame ran essentially at will against Navy, Pitt managed only 135 yards on the ground in a disappointing last second loss to the Midshipmen.
Though the loss of Graham hurt, the issue is Pitt’s patchwork offensive line. Pitt has two legitimate backs in junior Isaac Bennett and highly recruited freshman James Conner. Bennett is faster and shows better ability to cut back, while Conner at 230 pounds is a load. Pitt seems to have settled on Bennett as the primary back. Conner, after 100 yard performances early against New Mexico and in a wild 58-55 shootout won by Pitt over Duke, has seen his production and carries drop.
Even against middling foes, Pitt’s offensive line generates very little push and struggles to create running lanes between the tackles. Bennett’s ability to make himself small in the hole and to cut outside has made him Pitt’s primary back.
Most of Pitt’s offense comes through the air. The Panthers’ signal caller is the well-traveled Tom Savage. Savage, a prize recruit, landed at Rutgers in 2009 and started nearly the entirety of his freshman year. He played reasonably well, completing 53% of his passes with 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions. The next year he appeared to regress, was benched and transferred to Arizona, only to have Arizona hire Rich Rodriguez, whose offense fits poorly with a drop back passer such as Savage. Savage then paid his way to Pittsburgh, had to sit out yet another year, and is finally getting his chance this year.
Savage will remind Irish fans a bit of Dayne Crist. Like Crist, Savage has excellent size at 6 foot 5 and 230 pounds and possesses an NFL-strength arm. Savage has played well this year, completing just over 60% of his passes with 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions, averaging about 222 yards per game. His passer rating of 143 is essentially identical to Tommy Rees’s 145, though Rees has thrown for considerably more yards and touchdowns.
Savage has two fine wide-outs whom he employs as his primary targets. Devin Street, a wiry and strong 6 foot 4 and 190 pounds, led Pitt in receiving last year, and leads in yardage this year with 690 yards on 40 receptions. On the other side is highly recruited freshman Tyler Boyd. Boyd is a bit smaller at 6 foot 2 and 185 pounds, but possesses very good speed, and leads the team in number of receptions (45) and touchdowns (6).
Street and Garner account for almost three quarters of Pitt’s receiving yardage. Pitt’s three top tight ends have only 25 catches between them. Passing to running backs is almost non-existent with leading rusher Bennett credited with just five receptions for nine yards.
The real story, however, is the pounding that Savage has absorbed. He has been sacked 29 times already, including five at the hands of Georgia Tech last week and eight by Virginia Tech earlier this year. Pitt’s passing offense appears to give the quarterback “long to short” reads, which requires time for the play to develop and which Pitt’s ragged offensive line often cannot provide. Pitt fans complain that Savage is indecisive in the pocket and the fastballs he throws on short routes are difficult to catch, leading to a lack of an underneath passing game.
Unfortunately, the defensive prescription for this game runs counter to Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s instincts. Diaco’s desire to play three man fronts and “bend but don’t break” could give Savage the time he needs to get comfortable and into a rhythm. Pitt, however, is vulnerable to A gap blitzes by inside linebackers. Notre Dame would be best served by lining up in four man fronts and bringing pressure from a middle linebacker position, because lacking time and touch Savage has difficulty finding soft spots in the middle of the field.
Notre Dame’s defense, even in its depleted state, has the personnel to make life extremely difficult for Pitt’s offense. The Irish coaches must deploy a game plan that exploits favorable match-ups.
Notre Dame’s Offense Against Pitt’s Defense
Pitt’s defense, which returns nine starters from 2012, was projected as one of the best in the A.C.C. While the better of Pitt’s two units, the defense has been a disappointment to most Panther fans.
Admittedly, Pitt got a very bad draw facing Florida State in the opener, and the Noles’ quarterback Winston made the game look like a seven on seven competition, completing 27 of 29 passes for 385 yards and four touchdowns in an F.S.U. rout. Pitt’s rushing defense has also struggled at times, allowing 4.2 per carry and 165 yards per game for the year.
The star of the Panthers’ defense is Aaron Donald, a strong and quick defensive tackle. Donald is the NCAA’s active sack leader and under strong consideration for several major post-season awards.
Although, at 285 pounds, he lacks prototypical size, Donald is extremely disruptive of opposing offenses. Last week he had 11 tackles against Georgia Tech, with six of them going for losses and he forced two fumbles. However, unfortunately for Pitt, the contest was typical of the Panthers’ inability to capitalize as they put only 10 points on the board. With the game still close at 14-10 in the middle of the fourth quarter, Pitt surrendered a back-breaking 80-yard drive to make it 21-10, and then ended whatever remaining hope Panther fans had with an interception on the ensuing drive.
In any event, Pitt will surely move Donald around to attempt to take advantage of Notre Dame’s untested replacement offensive linemen. An obvious antidote would be to run N.D. backs Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston at Donald. Of recent developments, Folston’s 140 yards against Navy (more than the entire Pitt attack managed against the Midshipmen) is the most encouraging. If Donald has a weakness it is that he’s often so fast off the snap that, if he can be turned a bit, a powerful and decisive back can get by him and into the vacated area.
Unfortunately, this too runs against the N.D. coaching staff’s instincts, which gravitate toward a finesse game. If Donald can disrupt N.D.’s blocking schemes early, N.D. may revert to an underneath passing game in which Pitt will have the numerical advantage with seven defenders on at most five receivers. Notre Dame owned a huge statistical advantage last year (gaining 34 first downs to 13 for Pitt), but the 3-0 turnover advantage in favor of Pitt nearly turned the game the wrong way, just as last week’s 2-0 deficit nearly resulted in disaster until safety Eiler Hardy and phenomenal frosh linebacker Jaylon Smith sniffed out a Navy reverse on fourth down with about a minute to play.
Pitt’s defense, which is among the top half of defenses that N.D. will see this year, is good enough to make life miserable for the Irish if the N.D. attack becomes one dimensional.
Most people would write “special teams” here, but I refuse to do so. Both squads give up long returns at inopportune times. Both teams are losing the net punting battle. N.D. kicker Kyle Brindza has the stronger leg, having forced touchbacks on about 40% of his kickoffs. Field goal accuracy is roughly a wash with Brindza at 10 of 14 and Pitt at seven of nine for the year. Given the lack of attention these units apparently get, I will not write more than a paragraph about them.
Notre Dame is the more talented and complete football team, but can ill afford the mistakes it made against Navy, especially if Pitt executes nearly flawlessly as did the Midshipmen.
1. Can Notre Dame avoid the annoying trend of giving up a touchdown to the opposition on its opening drive? It has happened in five of nine games this year, including the last three in a row. The last thing the Irish need to do is give a struggling Pitt offense a jolt of confidence.
2. Is anyone involved in making the choice if Notre Dame wins the coin toss smart enough to defer until the second half? Several times N.D. has taken the ball to open the game, not scored, and then given up a touchdown on the ensuing drive, thus being behind and knowing that the opposition will get the ball to start the second half. There’s a reason that nearly every team besides Notre Dame defers if it wins the toss. Just sayin’.
3. Can a Notre Dame running back rush for over 100 yards in this contest? Right now Folston and McDaniel are the most promising candidates. If an N.D. back gets over 100 yards, the Irish will win this game.
4. Will the officials be brave enough to call any penalties against Pitt? Last week’s comical performance by the officials saw them never flag Navy (not even for the purpose of having the penalty declined), while calling a hold on Troy Niklas for burying a defender legally, all of which resulted in a 14-point turnaround as McDaniel’s touchdown was wiped off the board and Rees threw an interception on the next play. Fortunately, this game is on in prime time, meaning it will draw one of the highest graded A.C.C. crews.
5. Can Rees avoid turnovers? Rees has played very well in his last three games. Last year, however, Rees took over for Golson for some of the second half and threw a bad interception that sent him to the bench.
It is tempting to predict a comfortable Irish victory, as Pitt does not own a clear advantage in any area, while N.D. owns several. However, the last five games in this series have been one-score affairs, with Pitt winning the last two in the Weis era and Kelly posting three close wins. The last lopsided game in this series was Weis’s impressive 42-21 debut victory in 2005.
It’s a night game, so you’ll have plenty of time to get to the drugstore for antacids or to refill your anti-anxiety meds.
Notre Dame 27