Opponent preview: Pitt Panthers


We continue on profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. If you have a spare hour or two, check out Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Boston College.

The Overview:

After three mediocre seasons, Dave Wannstedt has led Pittsburgh back to respectability, winning nine and ten games in back-to-back seasons, turning around a football program that was seemingly stuck in neutral. Both those seasons had critical victories against Notre Dame: The 2008 contest a four-overtime epic that ended with Pitt winning 36-33 and the 2009 victory an equally memorable 27-22 win, where Wannstedt’s Panthers held on as Notre dame mounted a furious comeback. While Wannstedt may have had the better of then coach Charlie Weis, new coach Brian Kelly has beaten Pitt two years in a row, a 28-21 victory in 2008 over the 20th ranked Panthers, and a remarkable 21 point comeback victory, a 45-44 triumph for Cincinnati capped by a last second touchdown pass that ended the Pitt regular season with two losses after climbing to a top-ten ranking and a 9-1 record.

Last time against the Irish:

It looked as if Notre Dame’s freefall was peaking at halftime, with the Irish offense shutdown, failing to get into the red zone as they went to the locker room down 10-3. Things were even more dire after the Pitt offense found its stride, and the Panthers had a 18-point lead before the Irish came to life. Only then did Charlie Weis’ intentionally conservative game plan go out the window and the Irish offense opened things up, once again hopping on the back of receiver Golden Tate who scored two touchdowns in a matter of minutes to get Notre Dame back within five points deep in the fourth quarter. Mike Ragone dropped a shovel pass to get the game within a field goal, but that was as close as the Irish would come, though controversy couldn’t stay far from an Irish team that desperately needed to get back on the right side of close finishes (and referee calls).  With one final chance to drive the team down the field, Clausen had 3:39 to march the Irish down the field for a touchdown, but that effort was largely sunk after a chop-block call on Dan Wenger flipped a 2nd and 1 from the 42-yard line into a 2nd and 16 from the ND 27. After throwing the ball away, the Irish were faced with a 3rd and 16 that Clausen got out of his hands just before getting hit. Faced with a 4th and Career call, Weis called timeout. That timeout gave the Big East replay crew a chance to look at the “incompletion,” which they turned into an Irish fumble, anticlimactically giving the ball back to Pitt and effectively ending the game.

Charlie Weis had this to say about the controversial replay overturn a few days later:

“I watched it a whole bunch of times and I really think that if they
would have called from watching the play a bunch of times, if they would
have called the play a fumble on the field, I could see them not having
enough information to overrule it. But the fact that they called the
play incomplete on, an incomplete pass on the field, I believe the same
thing. I believe that there was no evidence to change the call that’s on
the field.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Ranking the 12 opponents of the Irish, I slot Pitt in as the sixth-most difficult* game on the schedule.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers

*In retrospect, I definitely screwed up putting Purdue ahead of Pitt in these rankings, and I’m correcting it here. While Purdue poses a unique set of threats to the Irish with the unknown commodity of Robert Marve and the added hype of the opener, Pitt is a better football team.

Pitt has had the Irish’s number the past few years, but Brian Kelly has had Dave Wannstedt’s number, so consider it a wash. Even more boldly, I’ve never been impressed by Wannstedt’s coaching acumen, and really feel like the scale tips heavily in the Irish’s favor in that category.

The Match-up:

Last season, the Irish intentionally handcuffed their own offense to keep Pitt’s offense off the field, worried about getting in a shootout with the dynamic Panthers. If Cincinnati’s 45-44 victory was any indication, Brian Kelly doesn’t worry about shootouts, so expect the Irish offense to be going full-bore from the outset. The three players that hurt the Irish the most last season all return, in wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin and running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. That said, the offense lacks the distributor that got them the ball, the underrated Bill Stull. Also gone are tight end Dorrin Dickerson and all three interior offensive linemen, forcing the Panther offense to retool their attack, likely anchored by sophomore Tino Sunseri.

On defense, the Panthers will also need to reload. While both standout defensive ends, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard, return, gone are tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, integral cogs to the defensive machine. Romeus and Sheard dominated Paul Duncan and Sam Young, constantly harassing Clausen and disrupting the Irish offense, but likely will miss a step without a robust interior. Also gone is linebacker Adam Gunn, the most prolific tackler on the squad. In the secondary, Pitt will need to find new cornerbacks to cover Irish wideouts, as both Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel are gone. The secondary brings back Dom DeCicco, a jumbo sized safety that finished second on the squad in tackles and also had three interceptions.

How the Irish will win:

Unafraid to play a high-tempo game, Notre Dame comes out throwing, spreading a thin secondary out wide and forcing the Panthers to cover skill on skill. While Romeus and Sheard had their way with the Irish offensive line last season, they won’t have time to get vertical, with Dayne Crist throwing quickly from the shotgun before the Pitt pressure can disrupt the offense. More importantly, a hostile crowd and an improved defense will make things miserable for Sunseri, whose growing pains force an already predictable offense into being even more nondescript. While Lewis and Graham get the carries, a second-half scoreboard puts the Panthers offense into a position where they need to throw, and even though Baldwin put together a highlight film last season against the Irish secondary, expect the secondary to make a few interceptions in a fairly easy Irish victory.

How the Irish will lose:

Driving a car with an engine powered by horses like Lewis, Graham, and Baldwin won’t be too hard for Sunseri, who beats the Irish secondary for a few big plays on play-action when the safeties bite hard on play-fakes. Acting as a true game manager, Sunseri continues to hand the ball off, asking Notre Dame to stop their physical rushing attack, and the Irish can’t answer the bell. On defense, Pitt’s defensive ends make easy work of the ultra-green offensive tackles, disrupting the timing of an offense predicated on clock-work precision.

Gut Feeling:

Maybe it’s bias (or having watched Mark May for too long), but I expect Pitt to take a fairly substantial step backward this season. Between a schedule that starts off markedly harder with Utah and Miami sandwiched between cupcake New Hampshire, and replacement parts giving neither the offense or defense much margin for error, I expect a coming out party for the Irish similar to the one CW and the boys had in 2005.

How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.