Pitt Awaits Fuming Irishposted by John Vannie
The Irish players have attempted to show solidarity this week in the aftermath of public player criticism of the defensive schemes run against the Midshipmen. As a consequence, starting nose tackle Ian Williams will not start at Pittsburgh and it is unclear whether he will play in the game.
Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Kyle McCarthy ultimately accepted responsibility for the loss on behalf of the players, but the smoldering remnants of internal strife remain palpable on campus. Irish assistant head coach Corwin Brown fanned the flames by calling out Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo for encouraging illegal blocking methods against his defense, and he went on to defend his team’s game plan. This circling of the wagons is usually a bad sign that significant cracks are forming in a program’s foundation.
Meanwhile, Coach Charlie Weis hopes to have tailback Armando Allen and guard Trevor Robinson back for this game, but tight end Kyle Rudolph injured his shoulder last week and will not be available on Saturday. The defensive line will be thin without Williams in the middle, which may enable Pitt’s running game to wear down Notre Dame’s front as it did in last season’s quadruple overtime victory.
Despite the furor surrounding Weis and the team this week, the Panthers represent the perfect opportunity for the embattled coach to quiet his critics with a rare win over a ranked team. Weis and Wannstedt began their respective college coaching careers five years ago with an Irish victory in the same venue, and observers will compare the trajectory of the two programs after this one is in the books.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. PITTSBURGH’S DEFENSE
Once again, the Irish must run the ball well to win. Navy proved that the passing game alone, no matter how prolific, cannot guarantee a win. There are simply too many opportunities for error for a heavy aerial assault as opposed to running the ball downhill against an opponent. Failure to sustain the ground game caused Notre Dame to surrender a 14 point lead at home last year to Pitt, and this facet of the game is even more critical on the road. With Allen back and both Robert Hughes and Theo Riddick in the wings, the Irish need to feed them the ball numerous times throughout the evening.
Robinson’s return will help solidify the line if he is ready to return after an ankle sprain. The biggest concern remains at tackle, where Paul Duncan and Sam Young must win their matchups against Pitt’s stalwart ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard. To make matters worse, Mick Williams has 13 tackles for loss this season from the defensive tackle position, and the team has combined for an impressive 38 sacks. Notre Dame has recorded only 18 to date.
Clausen will continue to have Tate and Michael Floyd at his disposal, but Mike Ragone will fill in for Rudolph at the tight end position that is suddenly very thin. The Panther secondary is led by veteran safety Dom DeCicco, who leads the team in tackles. The overall unit has played well in spots, but they have also been burned on a fair number of occasions. Expect Wannstedt to employ the soft zone employed by previous Irish opponents to take away the long scoring pass and dare Weis to run.
Clausen and his receivers are good enough to prevail, but the game will probably come down to how much pressure the Panthers are able to apply to Clausen in the pocket. The front four has been able to get the job done all season, but there are other quality players on this defense. Linebacker Greg Williams is a talented sophomore who can blitz as well as drop into coverage. His 51-yard interception return for a touchdown last week broke open the game against Syracuse. Williams is flanked by Adam Gunn, a senior who production is well above average.
PITTSBURGH’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Panthers have achieved balance between the run and the pass behind a solid offensive line and senior quarterback Bill Stull. While Irish nemesis LeSean McCoy now works for the Philadelphia Eagles, freshman Dion Lewis has stepped in to the lineup and run for 1,139 yards. The team averages 187 rushing yards per game, or 50 more than Notre Dame. Pitt also averages 5.1 yards per carry, which meets the standard of excellence in any league.
Stull does not throw as frequently as Clausen, but his 68% completion rate and only four interceptions against 17 touchdowns speak volumes about the effectiveness of this offense. Jonathan Baldwin is the home run threat in the passing game, while tight end Dorin Dickerson is an extraordinary possession and red zone receiver. Dickerson set a Pitt tight end record for touchdown receptions in a season last week by recording his tenth. The other wideout is Oderick Turner, who is talented but not as consistent as the others.
Wannstedt will run the ball against Notre Dame’s front, particularly if Williams is not utilized. Even if it is not successful early, history suggests he will stick with the ground game in anticipation of reaping fourth quarter dividends when he is trying to keep the ball out of Clausen’s hands. Stull will look for Dickerson on third down and will try to hit Baldwin deep when the Irish are concentrating on stopping Lewis.
Pitt starts three seniors on the interior of its offensive line, and left tackle Jason Pinkston is very highly regarded. This group has allowed only nine sacks all season, so Notre Dame’s undersized rushers will have a difficult time applying pressure even in obvious passing situations. The Panthers will move the ball in this game, but the Irish defense must find a way to keep them out of the end zone. The linebackers need to do a better job of fighting off blocks, but they will need an inspired effort by the linemen in front of them.
Once again, Notre Dame can help itself by winning the field position battle. Pittsburgh is barely average in punting efficiency and in the return game, and the Irish need to focus on this area to tilt the odds in their favor. The Panthers have also experienced a spate of fumbling problems on their recent punt returns, so additional effort to apply pressure downfield is recommended. Cameron Saddler is the main return man, and is joined by Aaron Smith and Ray Graham.
Dan Hutchins performs the punting and place kicking duties for Pitt, with generally good results. His numbers are solid in the field goal department, but his distance is just average. Notre Dame’s Nick Tausch hopes to get back on track after missing two makeable field goal attempts last week, and Irish fans are still hoping for a breakthrough in a kickoff or punt return with Riddick and Tate. Eric Maust and Ben Turk continue to battle for the punting job each day in practice, but neither has been consistent enough to seize the job on a permanent basis.
Notre Dame’s offensive linemen were more highly recruited than their Pittsburgh defensive counterparts, but they must play up to their potential to win the battle on the line of scrimmage. On the other side of the coin, the Panther offensive front appears to be more than a match for the depleted Irish, who will need more than a better scheme after giving up 348 rushing yards to Navy.
While Clausen has been patient by throwing mostly short passes against defenses designed to limit his range, Weis has not showed the requisite confidence in his ground attack to see it through. Instead, he prefers to live and die with his quarterback. Protection and field position will be critical to Notre Dame’s chances, but Notre Dame will not win if it is outgained on the ground by a wide margin.
Let’s look at a few questions that will help determine the outcome:
Will Notre Dame’s run/pass mix indicate a greater degree of balance and success in the ground game?
Can the Irish protect Clausen?
Can the Notre Dame defense hold Pitt to less than four yards per rush?
Which team will gain an advantage from special teams?
Can Notre Dame stop the Panthers in the red zone?
Will Stull be able to maintain a high passing efficiency?
After a tumultuous week, will the Irish be emotionally high or flat for this game?
Which team will be most successful in the fourth quarter?
Does Pitt deserve a top ten ranking?
The Panthers will be emotionally charged and already appear to have a physical advantage at the line of scrimmage. This combination does not bode well for the Irish, whose skill position talent may not be enough to keep pace unless the ball bounces their way or Pittsburgh makes uncharacteristic errors. Clausen will carry his team a long way on his back, but the ground game or a special teams surprise will have to surface for Notre Dame to pull out a win.
Stull is not as accomplished as Clausen, but he doesn’t have to win the game through the air. In the end, the team that runs the ball best will win, and that needle points to Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH 34 NOTRE DAME 24