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And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

Oct 6, 2010, 8:30 AM EST

It’s hard to believe that a little over eleven months ago, the No. 8 ranked Pitt Panthers were welcoming in a Charlie Weis-coached Notre Dame squad that had just lost to Navy without ever punting the football. It was the beginning of the end for Weis and the 2009 Fighting Irish, as Golden Tate’s heroics and the trio of Michael Floyd, Jimmy Clausen and Tate’s fourth quarter rally weren’t enough to spring the upset in Heinz Field.

One coaching change, two star players, and a season later, Brian Kelly’s Irish welcome Dave Wannstedt and company to South Bend. The Panthers’ 2010 season has already hit two speed bumps, with an overtime loss to Utah opening the season and a 31-3 pasting at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes giving Pitt two early losses in the first four games of the season. Alex Oltmann, the sports editor for the student run Pitt News, has been there every step of the way covering the Panthers.

He was nice enough to answer some questions for me as the Irish prepare to take on Pitt this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Inside the Irish: Obviously, Pitt fans knew that the opening four games had two tough
opponents: Utah and Miami. The loss to Utah was a heartbreaker, the
Miami loss, disheartening. Where does the psyche of this team and its
fanbase site after a 2-2 start?

Alex Oltmann: After starting 1-2, both the team and the fans were very disappointed.
The team had two primetime Thursday night games with a lot of
anticipation building up for both and they ended up as losses. The team
was embarrassed after its 1-2 start, but the win last Saturday over FIU
gave them and the fanbase some confidence heading into South Bend this
week.  But even with the win, there’s still plenty of pessimistic fans
around the city and on campus.

Most people expected big things from Dion Lewis this year. Yet after
four games its another sophomore, Ray Graham, leading the team in
rushing, while getting less touches than Lewis. Is there a running back
controversy at Pitt? How will Wannstedt distribute carries on Saturday?

There’s no real controversy over who will start at running back, Dion
Lewis ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year, was a front-runner for the
Heisman trophy going into this season and will start when the offense
takes the field against the Irish. But with that being said, Ray Graham
has earned more carries and coach Dave Wannstedt said he will get more
going forward. So look for Lewis to still get more carries than Graham
on Saturday, but still expect to see Graham heavily involved in the
offense.

Notre Dame fans remember the bludgeoning that Jonathan Baldwin gave to
Darrin Walls and the ND secondary last year. Obviously his production
has suffered with Tino Sunseri at the helm of the offense. What is Pitt
getting out of their passing game
this year?

Sunseri has struggled at times this season, but he hasn’t gotten much
help from his offensive line. Without much time to stand in the pocket,
it hasn’t allowed Baldwin’s routes to develop downfield. Fans know what
they’re going to get from the future first round pick Baldwin, but
fellow receiver Mike Shanahan has been a pleasant surprise. Pitt’s No. 2
receiver has stepped up this season with 14 catches for 190 yards after
being a reserve last year. Sunseri has a strong arm and a good grasp of
the offense and with more game experience and added confidence, has all
the tools to be effective with those receivers and the others as well.

Pitt’s defense suffered a big loss with injuries to Greg Romeus and Dan
Mason. Brian Kelly is obviously familiar with Pitt’s defensive scheme
and personnel. How do you stack up the battle between the Irish offense
and the Pitt defense.

Losing Romeus and Mason definitely hurt, but the defense is forced to
move on without them and has. Romeus’ backup, Brandon Lindsey, has
performed well and is very quick off the edge. Dom DeCicco was moved
from starting safety to weakside linebacker to provide more speed there,
but it’s essentially the nickelback position right now. They will need
that speed and athleticism if they’re going to have a linebacker
covering Kyle Rudolph. Pitt’s defensive backs could struggle to cover Michael Floyd much like they struggled in the second half against him
and Golden Tate last season. Both starters, Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary
are capable of having big games, but are first year starters.

Put into words the Dave Wannstedt era so far, from a Pitt fan’s perspective.

The Wannstedt era at Pitt has had mixed reviews with two schools of
thought. The first is that he’s helped to turn the program around,
beating West Virginia in the huge upset in 2007, winning 10 games last
year for the first time since 1981 and serving as a great recruiter
especially in Western Pennsylvania. But the other side of the argument
would say that he hasn’t won enough big games like the ones against
Cincinnati the last two seasons and against West Virginia last year, and
that he’s mismanaged some games with questionable play calling like in
their 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl in 2008. There’s always
going to be pessimists, so I would say that the majority of fans are
pro-Wannstedt.

What’s your gut feeling about Saturday. What does Pitt have to do to win the football game?

My gut feeling says the game will be close on Sunday. In order to win
Pitt has to get pressure on Dayne Crist which will fall primarily on
the defensive line since defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is not a big
proponent of blitzing. Secondly, Pitt has to establish the running game
with Lewis and Graham early. This will take some pressure off Sunseri
and set up the play-action pass.

Check out Alex’s coverage of Pitt football at the Pitt News as the game approaches this weekend.

  1. Danno27 - Oct 6, 2010 at 8:52 AM

    Malcolm Floyd is my favorite Notre Dame receiver. Huh?
    Seriously, though, I read at UND.com that Pitt’s average height of receivers/tight ends is 6’5″. That’s quite a height advantage over our average 6’0″ d-backs. Mix that with their tandem of solid running backs, and I think we’ll need to mix run blitzes in early, do a lot of stunting on the D-line in order to bring pressure to Sunseri, and definitely mix it up in the coverage as BK said to confuse their young quarterback. Otherwise he’s going to be running play-action and tossing the ball over our corners’ heads to Baldwin and co. all day.

  2. steve - Oct 6, 2010 at 10:52 AM

    Malcolm Floyd has a nice ring to it.

  3. ryan - Oct 6, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    According to this guy, jesus will be throwing to a San Diego Chargers receiver Saturday. That’s funny, especially coming from someone who’s supposed to be doing their homework on these things..

  4. BrianM - Oct 6, 2010 at 12:29 PM

    I know the temptations to put that “h” in there are strong, but it should be “Dayne Crist” in the last paragraph there.

  5. anon - Oct 6, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    Read again…Jesus will be playing on Sunday.

  6. #1 IRISHFAN - Oct 6, 2010 at 3:36 PM

    I have always been bewildered by the posts of grammatical errors!! REALLY is that all to say after Keith obviously put time and effort into this with really no acknowledgment other than tickey tack spelling corrections?
    Thanks Keith real informative stuff as always!! GO IRISH!!!

  7. Keith Arnold - Oct 6, 2010 at 3:47 PM

    Dudes – Give Alex a break. It’s my fault I didn’t go back through a edit the copy, and he was doing me a favor between classes. I’ll clean it up, but don’t let the karma come down on the Irish because of spell check.

  8. dirish09 - Oct 6, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    Keith, I totally support your backing of Kelly right now during this time of average football. I’d like to give everyone an example of how happy we should be that we have and AD and HC like Jack and Brian……Every couple weeks blueandgold.com updates how former Irish players, that are currently active in the NFL, are doing. You would be suprised how many Irish players are having solid seasons and careers(particularly on defense). As I read through I noticed that many of these guys played on the same teams. I was even more suprised to see a total of 16 of them suited up during the 2004 Irish football season! We were 6-7 in 2004. 16 active NFL football players on one college roster! Now if that doesn’t give you an Idea/example of how bad Notre Dame’s last 3 coaches were I don’t know what does! And thank Kevin White for that! Yes, some of these guys (JJ Jansen, Corey Mayes, Maurice Stovall) aren’t exactly burning up the NFL stat sheets. But others (Victor Abiamiri, Justin Tuck, Ryan Harris, John Sullivan, Ryan Grant, Derick Landri) are! All of the latter players are starters in the NFL! By the way, can you believe during a 6-7, pitiful 2004 campain we had Tuck and Abiamiri on the same DL! Wow! Anyway, like I said, some of these guys really arn’t doing anything, BUT…If you’re on an NFL roster, there’s a really good chance you were AT LEAST a solid starter in college. My point, how bad of a coach are you (TY Willingham) if you can’t win with 16 future NFL football players on the same freakin team!….If you told BK that, on this team, there was going to be 16 future NFL football players (8 on Defense, 7 on Offense, 1 ST) what do you think he’d say? Something like, “Just hand us the Crystal football now and save everyone some time!! Go Irish!

  9. #1 IRISHFAN - Oct 6, 2010 at 6:16 PM

    “The Pitt football team will enter the spotlight once again this weekend with a chance to prove itself on the national stage.” from the PITT website!
    Once again we are the oppositions super bowl……or should I say would we want it any other way!!

  10. m - Oct 6, 2010 at 6:20 PM

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/specials/just-askin/brian-kelly/#
    Nice little bit here!

  11. Danno27 - Oct 6, 2010 at 9:01 PM

    Easy, geez, I just thought it was funny. I figured it was the Pitt kid who thought Floyd’s given name was Malcolm, obvi not Keith. Anyway, the larger issue is how we’re going to mess up their offense (which doesn’t seem all that difficult, except for the running back). Any thoughts?

  12. duh-hoy - Oct 6, 2010 at 9:57 PM

    The Wannstache “has a great recruiter especially in Western Pennsylvania” and…so what? Pitt’s in W. PA, why wouldn’t they be able to recruit there? If you’re going to talk about what a great recruiter he’s been, why not talk about areas outside of your home turf where you’ve plucked talent? Weird statement.

  13. #1 IRISHFAN - Oct 7, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    “If Sunseri can connect with Jon Baldwin and Mike Shanahan, the Panthers will outscore the Irish. Despite ragged performances so far this season, Baldwin is still Pitt’s top receiver, just edging Shanahan.”
    By
    Dave DeBlasio Pitt writer
    Slowing the receivers down and getting to Tino is a must, but obviously that has a lot to do with us in the trenches!!! Another performance similar to last week and we roll!!

  14. Danno27 - Oct 7, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    Agreed. If our front three can soak up the O-line and open up the blitzing lanes, and mess things up, Sunseri will have a rough day. Let’s go Ian!!!!

  15. Irish Fan - Oct 7, 2010 at 5:11 PM

    I think that the Irish will lose to Pittsburgh.
    God is still made about the priests molesting all those kids and the Church coverup afterwards.
    That’s why we are losing so many games this year.
    Go Irish!

  16. spankmonkey - Oct 8, 2010 at 9:04 AM

    I think Pitt is tough
    Really tough
    It could be a tough game
    Should beat them though
    Huge game for ND
    Sure hope they win
    Unless they don’t show up
    Can’t wait!
    Keep up the good work

  17. mrrandolph - Oct 8, 2010 at 10:28 PM

    dirish09-I found an article last week by Mel Kiper titled
    “Recruiting, draft key to Irish Fortunes” that is a must read.
    It said that of the 22 starters on the ’88 Nat’l title team the only starter not drafted was Tony Rice.

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