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Keys to victory: Pitt

| Friday, October 27, 2023

Sofia CrimiVaroli | The Observer
Xavier Watts celebrates during Notre Dame’s 48-20 victory over No. 10 USC. Senior safety Watts recovered a fumble for a touchdown, intercepted two USC passes and forced another fumble.

Notre Dame’s season has reached an inflection point. The team has emerged from a brutal stretch that included eight games over the first eight weeks, and four consecutive primetime showdowns against ranked opponents, with a 6-2 record. 

The next four games, matchups the Irish should be favored in, will likely determine the end of the season. A 10-2 finish puts Notre Dame in position to compete for a New Year’s Six bowl slot. A loss in any of those final contests, and a 9-3 final record, would likely doom the season to be considered one of many missed chances.

The Irish have a largely favorable run to end the year. But they’ll need to win one week at a time to make the most of it. Here are the three keys Notre Dame needs to capitalize on to take down Pitt.

Take what Pitt gives

Pitt ranks 121st nationally in penalty yards conceded per game. That’s a feature, not a bug, of head coach Pat Narduzzi’s system. The last season the Panthers finished inside the top 100 in penalty yards allowed per game? 2017. Narduzzi wants his teams to be physical and tough in every phase of the game, and that means they’re inevitably going to draw flags.

Some of these flags will almost certainly come at times that will give Notre Dame valuable opportunity — be it a third-down pass interference that extends a stalled drive, or a late hit that takes the Irish from field goal range to the red zone. If Notre Dame can make the most of these chances, it will be a great spark for an offense that has struggled to find its form in recent weeks. If they fail to capitalize, they’ll allow more of a chance for an always-scrappy Pitt team to fight their way into the game.

Pressure Christian Veilleux

The Panthers turned to Veilleux mid-season to replace a struggling Phil Jurkovec at quarterback, and for the most part, the returns have been positive. The sophomore has only completed 56% of his passes in two games as Pitt’s full-time starter, but he’s thrown four touchdowns against no interceptions in that span. One of Veilleux’s best attributes is the speed with which he gets the ball out to his receivers. he’s only taken a single sack in his time as starter, and he has one of the lowest average time-to-throw rates in the country.

Veilleux has avoided being uncomfortable in the pocket over the last two weeks, but Notre Dame’s defense has the tools to force him into such situations. One of the key causes of Caleb William’s career-worst performance two weeks ago was the Irish’s ability to make him try to throw under duress. All three of Williams’ interceptions came with a Notre Dame defender closing in for a sack. If a consistent defensive presence in the backfield helped rattle the reigning Heisman winner, it stands to reason that Veilleux’s effectiveness will also decrease when faced with serious pressure for the first time in his young career.

Stay focused and make the most of the bye week

I don’t think it can be disputed that Notre Dame has shown an ability to respond to adversity. After a crushing loss against Ohio State, the Irish pulled out what was likely the grittiest win of the young Freeman era to beat Duke. A lifeless disaster against Louisville came before an iconic statement victory against USC. Freeman clearly can marshal his team well in the face of adversity — but how will the Irish handle success?

Last year’s huge win against Clemson preceded a sloppy victory against Navy, where Notre Dame sleepwalked through the second half. This season, the Irish enjoyed a precious bye week to rest up and prepare for the back half of the schedule — and their performance should reflect that. A healthier wide receiver room will need to be more productive than it’s been in prior weeks. An extra week to create and install a game plan should help minimize any execution issues. But more important than any play call or snap count will perhaps be the team’s focus. The last time Narduzzi led Pitt into South Bend in 2018, the Panthers were more than ready for a fight against a stronger Irish team. Notre Dame should expect the same this week, and expect to have to keep pushing if Pitt doesn’t back down easily.

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About J.J. Post

J.J. Post is a senior in Fisher Hall. Hailing from Mountainside, New Jersey, he's currently working his way towards being the nation's foremost expert on college soccer. Whether via the button below or his overly active Twitter (@JayJayPost), feel free to reach out and talk about Notre Dame soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, baseball or softball. Or any other Notre Dame sport you can think of. Odds are he watches it as well.

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