Fresh off the first road win of the Brian Kelly era, the Irish look to even up their record at 3-3 on Saturday as they host the Pittsburgh Panthers in South Bend. The last game of the first half of the season is a critical one for the Irish because a win would present a good opportunity to win 7 straight games prior to their finale against USC in the Memorial Coliseum of Los Angeles. Some may think I’m getting ahead of myself with that prediction, but the fact of the matter is Notre Dame will be favored every week going forward until the USC game. Considering 4 of their next 6 games will be at home, one will be vs Army in Yankee Stadium, and the one true road game is at Navy, a team that has beaten the Irish in 2 of their last 3 meetings. You could argue that Notre Dame will be more determined to beat Navy this year than any other team they face with the exception of USC. Yes, there is the potential of losing to 10th ranked Utah at home, but I have a feeling the Irish will not be losing on Senior Day anytime soon under Coach Kelly. The importance of this weekend’s game should be perfectly clear by now, a win would mean a two game winning streak with a real possibility of a seven game winning streak before heading west to face the Trojans in the season finale over Thanksgiving weekend. A loss would mean a 2-4 overall record and a team that closely resembles the 6-6 teams of recent Irish past. Imagine an 8-3 Irish team on a 7 game winning streak getting ready to face a USC team that has won 8 straight head to head match-ups in the series. An opportunity to beat the Trojans for the first time since 2001, all while securing a 9-3 final record and a top tier bowl invitation. Sound good Irish fans? Well, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at Saturday’s matchup with Pitt, a team that has been decimated by injuries throughout the first part of the season.
Notre Dame is favored by 6 points against a 2-2 Pitt team that has struggled tremendously early on; particularly at the quarterback position. Sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri is averaging just 172 yards passing per game with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. This has severely hampered the production of All American WR Jon Baldwin who only has 15 receptions on the season. The struggles in the passing game have allowed opposing defenses to shift their focus to preseason All American running back Dion Lewis. The negative impact has been so great that Lewis may be bumped to number 2 on the depth chart behind sophomore Ray Graham. Graham has been the lone bright spot this season for the Panthers, rushing for 492 yards in just 3 games. He is averaging a whopping 9.5 yards per carry and 164 yards per game, including 277 yards last week in his first collegiate start. It represented the 2nd highest single game rushing total in Pittsburgh history trailing only Tony Dorsett’s 303 yard effort vs Notre Dame in 1975.
In order for the Panthers to pull the upset, they are going to have to run the ball early and often against an Irish defense that yielded only 5 net rushing yards to Boston College last week. Notre Dame’s defense proved last week against a similar one dimensional opponent that if you are unable to open up the field with the passing game, sophomore linebackers Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese will make you pay dearly. Te’o is second in the nation with 64 tackles on the season, while Calabrese tied Te’o with a team high 10 tackles last week vs BC, including 3.5 tackles for a loss. Perhaps the most impressive statistic for the Irish defense revolves around their newfound ability to limit the big play. The Irish defense has allowed only 2 runs of 10 yards or longer in their last two games after surrendering 21 double digit runs in the first three.
Defensively, Pitt has decided to switch up their defense as a result of their future opponents (ND included) all employing spread offenses. These changes have allowed the Panthers to get more speed and athleticism on the field by moving Senior Dom DeCicco from strong safety (where he had been a three year starter) to a hybrid nickel-back/weak-side linebacker role. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Jason Hendricks has taken over for DeCicco at the safety position. The Irish offense should be able to move the ball against an injury plagued Panther defense that ranks 92nd in the nation in pass defense. Brian Kelly’s up tempo spread offense is at it’s best when Dayne Crist is getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers; Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Theo Riddick. The Irish aerial attack ranks 16th in the country and will look to exploit a vulnerable Pitt secondary.
So what do I think is going to happen this week? Well, last week I predicted a loss and the Irish won; so naturally, I should predict the Irish to lose right? Not so fast my friend…I have an ace up my sleeve this week and it goes by the name of motivation. Pitt star receiver Jon Baldwin presented the Irish with some bulletin board material earlier in the week when discussing the success he had last season against fellow Pittsburgh native Darrin Walls. ”I never even heard of him before we played last year, he didn’t really press me that much so I couldn’t really determine if he was physical and he didn’t tackle me. I’m sure I’ll make some big catches this week against Notre Dame.” Walls responded with the following, “I’ve seen what he said and I don’t really care about it. I know that I’m a different player from last year, and so is he. I don’t really talk much, and we’ll see a lot on Saturday.” Walls has been one of the best cover corners in the nation during his senior season and I anticipate he will have some extra motivation on Saturday to prove this to Baldwin. My prediction, Notre Dame 27 Pitt 24.
About the Author
Written by Tim Lewis