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Duff wants to get physical to stop Fitzgerald

Joe Hettler | Friday, October 10, 2003

Vontez Duff knows about Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He knows the challenge Fitzgerald presents to the Irish secondary Saturday. He knows that Fitzgerald is one of the top offensive players in the nation.

But Duff also says he knows something else – how to contain him.

“I think most people try to get in great position to play him,” Duff said. “But I don’t know if anybody has gotten up in his face and been real physical with him. They just let him run down the field and run all over the place. I’m going to be a little more physical with him; that’s the type of person I am. We’re going to try to disrupt his timing a little bit.”

Notre Dame’s defense will need to hinder Fitzgerald’s performance if the Irish have a chance of upsetting No. 15 Pittsburgh on the road. The Panthers offense is one of the best in the nation, and Fitzgerald is a major contributory to that success.

The Irish have been able to contain other teams’ passing attacks, ranking 34th in the nation against the pass and allowing 192 yards per game.

But Fitzgerald brings something to this game that the Irish have not seen yet this season. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound sophomore has averaged 145 yards and eight catches in Pittsburgh’s first four games. He also has nine touchdowns and 583 receiving yards this season. He grabbed three touchdowns for the Panthers win over Kent State, took in 201 yards in a loss to Toledo and had three more touchdowns against Texas A&M two weeks ago.

“He is very consistent and spectacular,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “That is a very difficult combination for us to defense or even attempt to defense. As of right now, no one has really done a good job of doing that.”

Fitzgerald uses his size, quickness and speed to dominate games. During his freshman season, Fitzgerald caught 69 passes for 1005 yards, which broke Pittsburgh’s previous freshman records by Antonio Bryant. He was a first-team all-Big East selection and named the conference’s Rookie of the Year.

To stop such a force, Duff knows he must be physical and pressure him from the line of scrimmage.

“He’s a good receiver. He goes up and gets the ball. He’s the type of guy that always catches it away from his body,” Duff said. “That’s why I feel like you’ve got to get in his face, disrupt that and get him out of his game.”

The Irish did a decent job against Fitzgerald last season, holding him to only seven catches for 83 yards and zero touchdowns.

One of Fitzgerald’s best attributes is his ability to go up and get the ball in midair. He uses his jumping ability and good hands to take passes away from defenders.

Duff said stopping this aspect of Fitzgerald’s game may be the most important task the Irish defense must accomplish.

“He’s real good at catching the ball in traffic,” Duff said. “He’s real good at using his body, too. He’s always using his body to out-jump you or get in position to make the catch and be sure he’s the only one that can make the play.

“You’ve got to play him and the ball and the quarterback, as well. There’s times when you know the ball is coming, and you can see it, and you have to go up and be just as physical as him.”