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Talented Pitt squad fired up to face Irish

| Friday, October 23, 2020

The narrative surrounding Pitt football entering this weekend’s clash with Notre Dame is a familiar one for Irish fans to hear about their upcoming opponent. A talented team, with frustrating losses, looking to turn it around. For the third consecutive week, Notre Dame takes on a team with about as much talent as any team not named Clemson in the ACC, and yet again, their opponent has struggled to produce results. For Pitt, this has been to the tune of three straight losses after a hot 3-0 start that placed them in the top-25. 

“[It was] obviously another tough weekend. We didn’t play as well as we would have liked to play against a really good Miami team,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said, referring to last weekend’s 31-19 defeat at the hands of No. 11 Miami.

This matchup, yet again, presents a no-win situation for Notre Dame, as a win will be seen as expected, while a close win or even a loss will be seen as a horrific result against a .500 football team. In reality, this Pitt squad could — and maybe even should — be 5-1 with one tough road loss to a borderline top-10 team. They have the No. 1 rushing defense in the country, but the secondary has struggled a little bit in their recent skid, a flaw that may not be exposed against Notre Dame’s run-heavy offense. 

That Notre Dame rushing attack has been fueled by not only their running backs — headlined by sophomore Kyren Williams and freshman Chris Tyree — but also an experienced offensive line that has opened up gaping holes for ball carriers. Senior Robert Hainsey is one of the anchors of the offensive line and returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh for this contest.

“[Hainsey] is really good. He’s really physical playing the right tackle spot,” Narduzzi said of facing the Pittsburgh product on Saturday. “Their O-Line is about as good of an O-line as you’re going to face. [With] 129 career starts … I don’t know if I’ve ever seen 129 career starts.”

The experience will be something Pitt will have to counter with their stellar rushing defense. Redshirt senior defensive end Patrick Jones (seven sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss) leads the way in stuffing opposing players in the backfield. Although it’s been stout so far, none of their opponents have presented the lethal two-pronged attack that the Irish will offer in Williams and Tyree, while complementing the ground game with the legs of dual-threat 5th-year quarterback Ian Book. 

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book runs with the ball during Notre Dame’s 12-7 win over Louisville on Saturday. Book recorded 47 yards, the second most for the Irish in the contest, as well as the team’s lone touchdown on a 13-yard scramble.

The passing defense has been weaker for Pitt, but even in giving up 31 points against Miami, Narduzzi took away a lot of positives, in particular noting that there were specific problems that could be addressed in practice.

“Three of [Miami’s] four touchdown drives were 45 yards or shorter,” he said. “We gave up a few of those pop passes to their tight ends up the middle.”

Tight ends were definitely a problem for Pitt’s defense, and it’s one that could become an issue again with junior Tommy Tremble and freshman Michael Mayer playing pivotal roles in the Irish offense at the position. While Notre Dame hasn’t had much success firing the ball deep, their tight ends have been great playmakers for them early in the season. 

Offensively, Pitt has not been a particularly explosive unit, and that has become more amplified with the loss of quarterback Kenny Pickett under center. Redshirt freshman Joey Yellen has taken over, but his inexperience, combined with a very one-dimensional skillset for this offense as a whole, has made things tough on the Panthers. They especially struggled to do much against Miami with Yellen filling the shoes of Pickett.

“Offensively, we’ve got to run the football,” Narduzzi said. “There’s some details we haven’t cleaned up yet. I don’t think our O-line did a great job of blocking.”

Sophomore Vincent Davis leads the Pitt rushing attack, which Narduzzi described as a “by committee” type of approach. Davis leads the backfield with 83 carries and three touchdowns, but he’s averaging just 2.8 yards per rush. The passing game, albeit largely under Pickett, is where the Panthers have found success offensively. Redshirt senior D.J. Turner (19 catches, 332 yards) is proving himself to be Pitt’s most explosive option downfield, while former Notre Dame recruit and current freshman Jordan Addison has become one of their go-to guys, notching 38 catches for 444 yards.

“We’ll continue to get him the ball without wearing him out” Narduzzi said of Addison. “We have to spread the ball out, though. If you’ve got one guy you’re throwing it to all day, you’ve got problems.” 

While there have certainly  been flaws within this Pitt roster, Notre Dame has plenty of reason to be concerned. As previously mentioned, had two one-point losses swung in Pitt’s favor, this would be a top-20 matchup right now, and Narduzzi is confident that his team has the strong mentality needed to rebound from the recent struggles.

Pitt will also be allowing fans to attend home games for the first time all season Saturday.

“You’ve got the No. 3 team in the country coming into your house,” Narduzzi said. “You’ve got some parents that will get to see you at Heinz Field. That will be motivation for our kids … You always want to put on a show when that happens.”

Pitt has proven to be a tough place for Notre Dame to play, as the Irish are 2-2 in their last four on the road against the Panthers. They’ve won five of the past six overall against Pitt, but only one win came by more than one score.

Combining Pitt’s tendencies to play up to their competition with the energy boost they’ll likely receive from playing in front of a home crowd, this is a dangerous first road trip for the Irish.

“It’s getting your guys prepared mentally and physically every week,” Narduzzi said. “We know [playing Notre Dame] has always been a good game, one our kids look forward to. We’ll have to play our best to get a W.”

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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