Head to head: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, November 6, 2015
Junior receiver Tyler Boyd is the favorite target through the air for redshirt junior quarterback Nate Peterman. Boyd set the career mark for receptions by a Pitt receiver earlier this season and leads the team this campaign with 63 receptions, as many as the next seven Panther receivers combined. Notre Dame has already faced a team that featured one standout receiver — UMass’ Tajae Sharpe — and largely held him in check, surrendering eight receptions for 83 yards and no touchdowns in the Irish win.
Pitt, however, also fields a deep threat in redshirt junior receiver Dontez Ford and a pair of veteran tight ends in senior J.P. Holtz and junior Scott Orndorff, who have a combined for 40 catches, 757 yards and seven touchdowns.
The experienced Panthers should be able to find open space in what has been at times this season an inconsistent Irish secondary, especially with Irish senior safety Elijah Shumate suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game.
Entering the season, Pitt boasted the returing ACC Player of the Year in sophomore James Connor, who torched defenses last season to the tune of 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Connor torn his MCL in the Panthers’ season-opening win over Youngstown State, however, and won’t play again this season.
In his stead, Pitt has turned to a backfield-by-committee approach led by redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison and featuring sophomore Chris James, freshman Darrin Hall and Peterman as well. Together the Panther rushing attack has averaged a respectable 164.9 yards per game.
The Irish defense awaiting them on Saturday has given up 171.2 yards per game thus far, although it looked strong last weekend in limiting Temple’s Jahad Thomas to 82 yards on 21 carries and 107 yards on the ground as a team. If the Irish defensive line again dominates the trenches, it could be a long day for Pitt on the ground.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COACHING
While the Panthers’ offensive numbers don’t exactly jump off the page — and they have been without Connor all season — head coach Pat Narduzzi and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jim Cheney have managed to guide the Pitt offense to a respectable 26.1 points per game.
Defensively, Notre Dame still hasn’t put together a 60-minute effort since its season opener, and Narduzzi and Cheney will look to attack an Irish secondary thinned by Shumate’s suspension for the targeting call in the fourth quarter last week against Temple. Notre Dame’s safeties can bet on seeing a heavy dose of tight ends from the Pitt play-calling, so it will be interesting to see how Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder counters that particular matchup.
PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS
Junior kicker Chris Blewitt has proven himself a reliable option for Narduzzi inside of 50 yards, going 10-of-13 from inside that distance. He is only 1-for-3 from beyond 50 yards, but his lone make was a game-winning, 56-yard field goal against Georgia Tech. Blewitt also hit a 25-yarder as time expired to beat Syracuse two weeks ago, so he has shown he has strength in his leg and head.
Two of Blewitt’s attempts this season have been blocked, however.
Tyler Boyd will also be back receiving kickoffs Saturday, and his return partner, sophomore defensive back Avonte Maddox, has returned one kick for a touchdown this season if the Irish kick it short to avoid Boyd.
DeShone Kizer has proven he belongs as a starting quarterback and shouldn’t be thought of as a “replacement,” as he described himself last week. Despite having no help from the run game outside of himself last week, Kizer threw for 299 yards and the game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller late in the fourth quarter. His two interceptions came on balls that he was the first to admit should never have been thrown, yet in a very similar feeling game to Clemson, it was Kizer who kept his composure and willed the offense down the field at times.
Pittsburgh has held opponents to just 186.5 yards passing per game, but it hasn’t faced an offense that can throw the ball like the Irish. The highest-ranked aerial attack the Panthers faced they lost to: North Carolina last week, at 39th in the country. Combined, the teams Pitt has played so far combined average out to rank 87th in passing yards per game.
Notre Dame ranks a modest 30th.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
After the first couple weeks of the season, the Irish rushing attack, led by C.J. Prosise, looked like an unquestionable edge for this team against nearly
It’s anything but now.
Prosise was held to just 40 yards on 14 carries (1.8 yards per carry) against Temple, which boasted one of the top defenses in the country. There is the start of a disturbing trend for Irish fans: In Notre Dame’s loss to Clemson on Oct. 3, Prosise was held to 50 yards on 15 carries (3.3 yards per carry).
Only Kizer’s ability to make up for any struggles Prosise and the offensive line may have against a solid Pittsburgh rush defense (138 yards per game) keeps this a toss up.
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Notre Dame managed to get off to a hot start last week against Temple, taking the ball after winning the coin toss and driving right down the field, putting six points on the board at a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field. It will need a similar start Saturday at Heinz Field.
Kelly has said he wants to take some of the load off Kizer offensively, and the easiest way for Notre Dame to do that is get Prosise going Kizer showed everyone his ability to run last week, so Kelly and his offensive staff would be wise to give the Panther defense looks where it has to account for Kizer — meaning a defender or two less focused on Prosise.
Until Kelly figures out how to get his offense moving on the ground away from Notre Dame Stadium, though, it’s hard to give the Irish any sort of advantage.
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
Tyler Newsome was unimpressive for the second time in a big game last week for Notre Dame. Newsome’s four punts averaged just 33.8 yards with a long of 41 yards, and only one was downed inside the Temple 20-yard line.
That’s about the only part of Notre Dame’s special teams unit that isn’t clicking along.
Although C.J. Sanders and his blockers were just average against the Owls, the punt team blocked an attempt two weeks ago against USC that went for a touchdown. Sanders averaged just over 21 yards on kickoff returns against the Owls, slightly below his 23.6-yard season average.
Justin Yoon continues a solid start to his Notre Dame career as well, as he’s connected on his last seven field goals and is 10-for-12 on the year, including a long of 52 just before halftime against Navy.
If Newsome develops a little more consistency, especially in the big games, special teams will continue to develop in a strength for the Irish.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME