Head-to-Head: Pittsburgh Panthers
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, October 23, 2020
Notre Dame Passing
It’s fair to say Saturday’s passing effort against Louisville left a lot to be desired for Notre Dame. Graduate student Javon McKinley, who seemed to be making the “senior” leap the Irish have become accustomed to with receivers such as Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool, came back down to the earth. Graduate student Ian Book completed just 11 of 19 passes for 106 yards, missed open receivers and failed to connect with freshman tight end Michael Mayer on two touchdown opportunities. That does not bode well going into a matchup with a physical, well-coached Pittsburgh secondary. While the Panthers have been susceptible to big plays through the air, the Irish have shown no signs of posing a threat with the deep ball. That makes for a bad matchup with a Pitt team looking to snap a three-game losing streak.
Notre Dame Rushing
It’s strength against strength in this position battle. Say what you want about Tommy Rees’ vanilla offensive style, but he’s established the run in a big way this season. That will be tested against a stout Pittsburgh defensive front that ranks No. 1 in the country in run defense, allowing under two yards per rush. You could lean Notre Dame due to the fact that their counter plays, involving pulling junior tight end Tommy Tremble across as a blocker, will do much to cancel out the effect of Pitt’s dynamic edge rushers. However, Pitt’s biggest weakness lies between the tackles, which tends to be where Notre Dame has struggled to open up rushing lanes, so this matchup is quite honestly a toss-up.
Notre Dame Offensive Coaching
Coming into the season, it would have been easy to chalk this up as a win for Pitt. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates is in his third season with the Panthers and will be taking on a 27-year-old first-year offensive coordinator in Tommy Rees. However, Rees has for the most part been a revelation. Last week’s 12-point effort was more a product of personnel failure (overthrows, dropped passes) and uncontrollable factors (the wind) than it was scheme issues. That said, Rees has had the benefit of playing some less-than-stellar defenses outside of the season opener, with Pitt quite easily standing above the rest of Notre Dame’s non-Clemson opponents. Given Rees’ inexperience against this type of competition, as well as Pitt’s vulnerabilities so far this season, call this a draw.
Notre Dame Offensive Special Teams
Senior kicker Jonathan Doerer quelled some of the doubts last weekend by knocking in two field goals through some major wind, improving to 5-7 on the year. He also remains perfect on extra points since taking over the kicking duties last season. The punt return game looked better after some sloppiness against Florida State, and their kick return remains dynamic with true freshman Chris Tyree waiting deep. Pitt has been victimized by poor field position when covering punts, as three of the four touchdowns they surrendered last weekend came on drives that started on their half of the field. Give the edge to the Irish here.
EDGE: Notre Dame
There’s no deception on the part of the Panthers — they will throw the ball a lot. Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has posted over 200 passing yards every game this season, highlighted by 411 yards in a one-point loss to NC State, and backup Joey Yellen threw for 277 in a loss to No. 11 Miami last week. As the young Irish offense is learning the hard way, to make prolific passing plays requires big targets and Pitt has that. True freshman wide receiver Jordan Addison has already registered three touchdowns and is averaging almost 75 yards per game. Even if the Irish manage to mark Jordan, they’ll have to keep an eye on the depth of this receiving corps, with four other receivers averaging 30-plus yards per game. While they’ve certainly got their job cut out for them, this Irish secondary is one of their strongest positions and should be on high alert after getting burned on a few deep plays in the third quarter of last week’s matchup against Louisville.
While Pitt has by no means been known for having an explosive offense, the 2020 version of the Panthers run game is subpar even by their standards. Their leading rusher, sophomore running back Vincent Davis, is averaging only 2.8 yards per carry. Their second leading rusher is senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who is frequently forced to flee the pocket and scramble for yards. The offensive line fails to provide a good push for ball carriers out of the backfield. They will be up against a Notre Dame front that, while failing to get to the quarterback consistently, has been stout against the run (see 35 tackles for loss already), so the Panthers are unlikely to find much success on the ground.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Pittsburgh Offensive Coaching
Is this even a close contest? Pitt isn’t known for their offense, and even with a high-volume talent like Kenny Pickett under center, the Panthers have failed to be an extremely explosive offense. Meanwhile, Notre Dame, led by defensive guru Clark Lea, have proved to be a hard-hitting and resilient defense, surrendering just five touchdowns in four games (three coming after their COVID-induced layoff against Florida State). It’s hard to imagine Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple creating a game plan that stumps Lea for too long, particularly with an injured Kenny Pickett or backup Joey Yellen in the game at quarterback. EDGE: Notre Dame
Pittsburgh Offensive Special Teams
Pittsburgh has decent return men in the punt game, but no one so explosive that Notre Dame’s coverage unit need be concerned (their one punt return touchdown came against Austin Peay). Their kicker has been up and down this season, with the up and the down coming last week against Boston College. Redshirt senior Alex Kessman nailed a 58-yarder to force overtime then missed a tying extra point to lose the game in overtime. He’s 11-16 on the season, going just 4-7 in the range of 40-49 yards. It will be interesting to see how he responds after what happened against BC, but for now we’ll call this an even matchup.