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Opponent preview: Pitt Panthers

Aug 25, 2010, 1:31 PM EDT

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.

  1. Ted Kazmar - Aug 25, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    Big East officials saw that the Big 10 officials make a obvious bad call at the Michigan/ND game to help their team win with no consequences and no bad press so the Big East officials weren’t going to let their team get beat by ND either. Until the ND family starts doing something about the biased officiating it will continue. I guess the up side of this is that if ND won the Mich and Pitt games last year we would still have Charlie!

  2. irishfanintexas - Aug 25, 2010 at 11:27 PM

    It is time for the Irish to beat the panthers. Even if that happens and Pitt does take a step backward we will still have to listen to Mark May. He will always find something to rip the Irish for. Have to admit, I was hoping the Irish would keep Charlie but now I am kind of excited to see what Kelly can do. Just hope the players can adapt well to the new schemes and philosophies. Would love to see Kelly get the team player attitude and Irish pride back that I think the team has been lacking since Lou left.

  3. pittsburgh_irish - Aug 26, 2010 at 10:43 AM

    I have to admit that I grew up a fan of both teams. I still am, though instead of rooting for whichever team has the most to win from the game I now cheer for the Panthers over ND. My three favorite teams in college football will always be Pitt, ND, and whoever plays Penn State. I graduated from Pitt and while I still love the Irish, I am doomed to forever wish the Irish an 11-1 or 12-1 season until the two teams stop meeting (though I still have a sincere disdain for Mark May’s opinions concerning Irish football).
    I have some issues with this preview, not simply because I am a Pitt grad and fan, but because it discounts some aspects of the Pitt program. While Coach Kelly certainly has had the clear upper hand as far as game day coaching, Coach Wannstedt has built up some significant depth in the program, specifically along the lines and running back. The interior offensive line is a major concern for the Panthers, but not the Defensive line. Despite those concerns, what has the interior of the ND defensive line done since the loss of Landry and Laws. Those two were beasts, and there is a ton of potential on the ND d-line, but there has been zero production. Opponents have run at will on that defense, and I think I broke at least three household items watching each of the last three ND games in 2009. The combination of the new 3-4 scheme, the training table, the sheer talent along the Irish line, and the improvement in the conditioning program (really, could it possibly gotten any worse than it was under Weis?) might produce a defense that is feared. Might. I sure hope so. I miss the days when I was actually more excited to see the Irish defense on the field as opposed to the Irish offense. Until I see it, the Irish defense will remain a defense that relies on timely turnovers and an offense that will bail them out in order to hide the fact that they are physically dominated in the trenches, especially in the second half against physical teams.
    Pitt is a very physical team. No matter who fills in along the lines, the question will concern experience and not that player’s healthy desire and ability to bring a heavy dose of hate, anger, and discontent to the man lined up against him. I look forward to a time when I can say that once again about the Irish, and from what I read so far about Coach Kelly’s efforts it may be as soon as this year. If so, then we can look forward to a real close and hard fought game on the 9th. I’ll be there. I may be in a Pitt jersey and pulling for my Panthers, but I will still light a candle at the grotto and pray that the Irish team puts it all out there on the field for Our Lady.

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