And in that corner… the Pitt Panthers

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This weekend’s matchup with No. 8 Pittsburgh certainly got more interesting with Notre Dame’s shocking loss to Navy. What looked like a battle for a BCS bid now looks like a battle for Charlie Weis’ survival.

Pitt has slowly worked its way up the rankings, and has ascended into the top ten for the first time this season, quite a surprise for a team that lost its most explosive weapon when LeSean McCoy left early for the NFL.

Nobody follows the team closer than John Grupp of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. John was kind enough to answer a few questions to give us a little bit more in-depth look at the team that could very well decide the fate of this year’s Notre Dame squad.

Inside the Irish: Obviously this game lost some prestige when Notre Dame lost to Navy,
but now it’s got a whole other level of intrigue. Do you think Pitt
smells blood in the water? Do they think ND will be primed for a rally? How is Notre Dame perceived this week, as opposed to pre-Navy?

John Grupp: Honestly, I really don’t think a lot of the luster of the game wore off
because of the Irish’s loss to Navy. It’s already a sell out and will
likely be the biggest crowd to ever witness a sporting event in
Pittsburgh history — pro or college. Certainly, the game doesn’t look
as difficult as it did a couple of weeks ago, but the players and
coaches aren’t taking Notre Dame lightly in any way. If anything, the
Panthers expect an angry, hungry Irish team.

ITI: Where does the Pitt-ND rivalry stand for the football team and fans of Pittsburgh?

JG: It’s not nearly as important as some of the Big East rivalries,
especially West Virginia. Really, I wouldn’t call it a big rivalry as
much as just a big game. There’s not a palpable dislike of Notre Dame
by Pitt fans that you typically see in most bitter rivalries. But they
have such a long history of big games, dating from Tony Dorsett to Tyler Palko, and Notre Dame will always be a big game.

ITI: Dion Lewis has been a force. Do you expect the the offensive formula to
be a steady diet of Lewis with some play-action passing against a
suspect ND secondary?

JG: Pitt will follow the same recipe for success — let the defense decide
what it does. The Panthers will certainly get Dion Lewis involved — he
has fared very well against top rush defenses this year — but if Notre
Dame sells out to stop the run, they will let Bill Stull throw to their
wide array of receivers, such as WR Jonathan Baldwin and TE Dorin Dickerson, two of the best at their respective positions in the Big East, if not the nation.

ITI: The lightbulb has gone on for Bill Stull. What’s changed this season and contributed to the gaudy numbers?

JG: Stull was awful late last season after suffering a concussion. He’s healthy now, but the biggest change is offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr.,
and a system that gives Stull a good chance to succeed. He has a ton of
weapons, a good offensive line and the play-calling has a set, defined
progression of reads. Stull is confident right now and he gained the
respect of a lot of people with the way he handled the booing and
backlash earlier this season.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Pitt win?

JG: Basically, the same for every game. Avoid turnovers and don’t let Jimmy Clausen
beat them. The Panthers allowed 400 passing yards to Buffalo and their
lone loss to N.C. State. Their secondary looked vulnerable early in the
year, but some personnel changes seem to have helped.

ITI: If you had to predict what was going to happen this weekend, what’s your gut telling you?

JG: Biggest crowd in Heinz Field history, excellent game by Clausen, big game for Dion Lewis, three-point final (not ready to commit to winner).

Special thanks to John for the help this week and be sure to check out the excellent coverage from the Tribune-Review.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”