Head-to-Head: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh
| Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Senior quarterback Tommy Rees has effectively bounced back from injury, completing over 65 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns in his last two games. Senior wide receiver TJ Jones has been exceptional as Rees’ primary target, and
junior Troy Niklas and junior DaVaris Daniels have been solid from week-to-week behind him.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has gotten banged up over the last few weeks, but has allowed just one sack in its last two times out. That depth could be tested further if graduate student Chris Watt can’t go Saturday at guard, forcing yet another inexperienced backup into the spotlight.
Pittsburgh is coming off back-to-back losses to triple option teams, and will be more than happy to square off with the Irish passing attack on Saturday. The Panthers secondary has plenty of experience but not much height, as all four starters measure six feet or less. That could spell a big day for lanky freshman Corey Robinson and Niklas, who is an instant matchup problem at 6-foot-6.
Pittsburgh will attempt to shut down the passing game up front as well, and will be led in that regard by senior Aaron Donald. Donald leads the country in tackles for loss – and quite possibly in inducing nightmares in opposing quarterbacks. Donald has nine sacks and eight hurries so far this season, and will be looking to take advantage of Notre Dame’s cobblestone line and torment Rees all night long.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
It’s been said that a team with two quarterbacks has no quarterback at all, but adages about four starting running backs are harder to come by. Irish coach Brian Kelly has not hesitated to play the hot hand all year, and last week that was certainly freshman Tarean Folston, who rushed 18 times for 140 yards to make a name for himself in the Irish backfield. That performance came behind a depleted line, which has done a fine job in clearing holes as well.
Donald is Pittsburgh’s first line of defense in the run game, and he exploded for six TFLs against run-heavy Georgia Tech last week, the most by any FBS player in a game this season. As a team, the Panthers are allowing 4.2 yards per carry and 164 yards rushing per game. The Panthers are led in the second level by redshirt junior linebackers Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez, who lead the team in tackles.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Notre Dame has dialed in its offense with 83 points in the last two weeks, and Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin have suceeded in quickly integrating new linemen into the rotation.
Since a bizarre 58-55 shootout against Duke, the Panthers defense has given up just 22 points per game. The starting unit is also one of the most experienced in college football, as 10 of 11 starters have been with the program for four years or more (the other, cornerback Lafayette Pitts, is a redshirt sophomore).
Notre Dame seems to have everything firing on offense, but Pitt has found a way to keep the Irish within reach every year.
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
Junior Kyle Brindza takes every kick for Notre Dame, and has been steady throughout the season. Brindza is 10-for-14 on field goals, and has showed off his range by making both his attempts from over 50 yards this season. Brindza has excelled on kickoffs, and 30 of his 52 kicks from the tee have resulted in touchbacks. On the rare occasion that his kicks have been returned though, coverage has been extremely spotty at times, and the Irish are susceptible to a big return at any time.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SCHEDULE (7-2)
Aug. 31 Temple W 28-6
Sept. 7 @ Michigan L 41-30
Sept. 14 @ Purdue W 31-24
Sept. 21 Michigan State W 17-13
Sept. 26 Oklahoma L 35-21
Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State W 37-34
Oct. 19 USC W 14-10
Oct. 26 @ Air Force W 45-10
Nov. 2 Navy W 38-34
Nov. 9 @ Pittsburgh
Nov. 23 BYU
Nov. 30 @ Stanford
Panthers redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage was a high school All-American, then a Freshman All-American at Rutgers. He then disappeared for two years. Savage transferred from Rutgers to Arizona after his freshman campaign, giving up his sophomore year in the process, only to transfer again to Pittsburgh and burn his junior year as well.
Savage has reestablished himself in his new home this year, tossing 14 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while completing 60 percent of his passes.
Redshirt senior Devin Street and freshman Tyler Boyd have separated themselves as favorite targets for Savage, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the team’s yards through the air.
That will pose a challenge for senior Bennett Jackson and sophomore KeiVarae Russell. The Irish corners were huge in defending the run against the option attacks of the service academies, but will have to get back into the swing of playing against a pro-style attack.
Junior Isaac Bennett is the starter out of the Panthers backfield, but freshman James Connor has gotten near an even split of the carries so far. Ray Graham torched the Irish for 172 yards rushing last year in South Bend, but Graham is gone and Pittsburgh has averaged a more modest 122 yards rushing per game this season.
Notre Dame’s defense has been stretched about as thin as it can go by injuries, eliminating the depth that was once a huge strength. Most of the biggest pieces have remained though, and while battered and bruised the Irish are still armed with elite pieces to stop the ball.
Contributions from defensive linemen Louis Nix and Sheldon Day are still questionable due to injury, and if they’re less than 100 percent come Saturday night the Irish could be in trouble up front. Still, the Irish linebacking core has flown around to chase ballcarriers all year, and will try to keep Bennett and Connor in front of them all night.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COACHING
Panthers head coach Paul Chryst established one of the nation’s most dominating offenses during his eight years at Wisconsin, but has not found the same success in the Keystone State thus far. The Panthers have employed a balanced attack this year but have struggled to put up points, especially in their last four games.
Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco no longer has to worry about gameplanning for that pesky option, allowing the Irish to settle back into their base systems and checks defensively. Notre Dame hopes that will bring back the defense that held USC to 10 points, and not the one that allowed 35 points to Oklahoma and 34 to Arizona State in consecutive weeks. And with the injuries piling up on the Irish defense, will Diaco be as aggressive?
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS
Special teams were the Panthers’ undoing last year, as a potential game-winning 33-yard field goal sailed wide right in double overtime to give Notre Dame another chance.
This year, the kicking duties have been taken over by freshman Chris Blewitt, who has yet to really blow it this year. The freshman is 7-for-9 on field goals, and is 3-for-3 from beyond 40 yards. Blewitt also handles kickoff duties, and has just nine touchbacks on 40 kicks. That should give plenty of opportunities to Irish junior George Atkinson, who is capable of breaking a game open with every kick.
PANTHERS SCHEDULE (4-4)
Sept. 2 Florida State L 41-13
Sept. 14 New Mexico W 49-27
Sept. 21 @ Duke W 58-55
Sept. 28 Virginia W 14-3
Oct. 12 @ Virginia Tech L 19-9
Oct. 19 Old Dominion W 35-24
Oct. 26 @ Navy L 24-21
Nov. 2 @ Georgia Tech L 21-10
Nov. 9 Notre Dame
Nov. 16 North Carolina
Nov. 23 @ Syracuse
Nov. 29 Miami