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Head-to-head: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh

Observer Sports Writers | Thursday, November 1, 2012

He may not be the top quarterback Notre Dame has faced all year, but redshirt senior quarterback Tino Sunseri has been a model of consistency for the Panthers. Sunseri has started 34 consecutive games for the Panthers and ranks fourth in Pittsburgh history with 7,501 passing yards. Sunseri has thrown for 2,199 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions this season. The redshirt senior comes into his second meeting with the Irish ranking eighth in the country and first in the Big East in pass efficiency with a 164.8 rating. Sunseri carries an active streak of 143 pass attempts without an interception. His last interception came in a 35-17 upset win over No. 13 Virginia Tech on Sept. 15. His 283-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Hokies earned him Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors. In a 47-17 win over Temple on Saturday, Sunseri threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns on 20-for-28 passing. In the last six games, Sunseri has completed 71 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and 1,682 passing yards, for an average of 280.3 yards per game.

Sunseri’s favorite targets are junior receiver Devin Street and redshirt senior Mike Shanahan. Street currently leads the Big East in receiving yards and receptions per game, averaging 86.9 yards and 6.3 receptions per game. Street has totaled 695 yards and four touchdowns on 50 receptions, averaging 13.9 yards per catch. Shanahan, a team co-captain, has recorded 37 receptions for 631 yards and three touchdowns. Shanahan posted back-to-back 100-yard receiving games earlier this season and ranks fifth in Panthers history with 134 career receptions.

Although it gave up 356 passing yards to Oklahoma senior quarterback Landry Jones, the Notre Dame defense held the former Heisman candidate to no touchdowns. In fact, the Irish defense has yet to give up a first-quarter touchdown all year. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o recorded his fifth interception of the season Saturday, putting him tied for second in the NCAA. Te’o also recorded his first sack of the season and led the Irish with 11 tackles. Freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell may have had his best performance this season, with nine tackles and steady pass coverage. Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt leads the Irish with 8.5 sacks.

Senior running back Ray Graham is the latest in prominent Panthers running backs in the last few years, which include LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis. Graham ranks fifth in career rushing yards at Pittsburgh wiht 2,851. Graham has rushed for 622 yards and seven touchdowns this season. In last season’s 15-12 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 24, 2011, Graham rushed for 89 yards on 21 carries.

Despite giving up its first rushing touchdown of the year to Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Blake Bell, the Irish defense held a Sooners offense averaging close to 200 rushing yards per game to 15.   

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco stuck to a bend-but-don’t-break gameplan against the Sooners, and his defense executed it to near-perfection on the biggest stage Saturday night.

Redshirt senior kicker Kevin Harper made two field goals last week against Temple and has made six of his last seven attempts. Redshirt freshman Lafayette Pitts leads the Big East with 27.76 yards per return.

Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson came into his own in leading Notre Dame to a 30-13 over Oklahoma. Golson managed the Irish offense with 177 passing yards on 13-for-25 passing and 64 rushing yards while not turning the ball over once. Tied at 13, Golson hit freshman receiver Chris Brown for a 50-yard reception to set the Irish up for a lead they wouldn’t give up. Golson was only sacked once and came up with several big throws down the stretch while showing off his athleticism outside of the pocket. Golson has thrown for 1,145 yards and four touchdowns on the season. Junior quarterback Tommy Rees also saw some action while Golson sat out a play due to injury. Rees’ only play was a completed 11-yard pass to senior tight end Tyler Eifert for a key first down.

Junior receiver T.J. Jones led Irish receivers with 55 yards and five receptions against the Sooners. Jones has totaled 330 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season. Eifert leads the team in receiving with 341 receiving yards and three touchdowns this season, while averaging 15.5 yards per catch. Eifert added three receptions for 22 yards Saturday.

Pittsburgh comes into Saturday’s matchup with an underrated passing defense ranked 41st in the nation in pass efficiency defense and 29th in passing defense, giving up 198.9 yards per game. The Panthers defense has recorded 16 sacks this season, led by junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s 3.5. In a 35-14 upset win over No. 13 Virginia Tech on Sept. 15, the defense picked off Hokies junior quarterback Logan Thomas three times, with junior safety Jason Hendricks recording two of the three. Hendricks leads the Panthers with four interceptions

The Irish gained 215 rushing yards against an Oklahoma defense that limited opposing teams to 138.2 rushing yards per game. Notre Dame is averaging 196.5 rushing yards per game, good enough for 33rd in the nation.

Senior running back Theo Riddick led the Irish against Oklahoma with 74 rushing yards on 19 carries, highlighted by a 15-yard touchdown run with 1:36 in the game to seal the victory for the Irish. Senior running back Cierre Wood put the Irish on the board  with a 7-3 lead in the first quarter with a 62-yard touchdown run at the 6:24 mark. Wood finished the night wiith 74 rushing yards.

The Panthers defense gives up 141 rushing yards per game, but has made serious strides since opening the season with two consecutive losses. In the last six games, Pittsburgh has only given up 312.3 yards per game compared to the 422.5 yards per game in its first two games.

Irish coach Brian Kelly made the right calls at the right time against Oklahoma and managed Golson well going down the stretch.

Senior punter Ben Turk averaged a solid 40.8 yards per punt, including a 51-yarder against Oklahoma.

Sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza missed his second of four attempts Saturday, but hit a clutch 46-yarder to put the Irish up 10 with 3:22 left to go in the game. However, the Irish are 113th in the country in yards per punt return with 2.83 from freshman  Davonte’ Neal.