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Opponent preview: Pittsburgh

Aug 27, 2011, 11:15 AM EDT


This is the fourth of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. you can also read previews of South Florida, Michigan, and Michigan State.

The Overview:

It was an offseason to forget for Pitt fans. After six seasons coaching at his alma mater, Dave Wannstedt was dismissed before the Panthers’ bowl game by athletic director Steve Pederson, even though Wannstedt just completed one of the  program’s most successful three-year stretches in school history. (Pederson also dismissed Frank Solich at Nebraska after a nine-win season.) Pederson tapped Miami (Ohio) head coach Mike Haywood as Wannstedt’s replacement in a controversial hire. Just two short weeks later, Haywood was arrested on domestic charges, an incident that cost him his new job. Given a second shot to make the same hire, Pederson looked to Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, who will bring a completely new style to the Steel City.

With fourteen starters returning, Graham will have more talent at his disposal than he had when he shocked the Irish last October. But without standouts Jaball Sheard and Greg Romeus on defense and Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis on offense, the Panthers success will be determined by how quickly they adapt to a very new way of doing things, with Graham completely changing the culture of a program in need of putting 2010 in the rear-view mirror.

Last time against the Irish:

The Irish jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead against Wannstedt’s Panthers, but needed kicker David Ruffer and a stingy defense to hold on to win 23-17 against a Pitt squad that shot itself in the foot with special teams blunders.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

With Kyle Rudolph trying to battle through a nagging hamstring injury and Taylor Dever out at right tackle, the Irish used an up-tempo offense in the first half to limit Pitt’s pass rush, one of the biggest concerns going into the afternoon. Dayne Crist threw for 242 yards (and had almost 100 more taken off the board by penalties) and Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd each had seven catches.

The win took the Irish to 3-3 on the season, leaving people to believe Notre Dame was ready to make a run as they reached the “easy” stretch of their schedule with Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a bye week.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Pittsburgh as the fifth toughest opponent on the schedule.

7. South Florida
5. Pittsburgh
4. Michigan State
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

It will be a brave new world for Pitt on offense, needing to replace their best player, Jonathan Baldwin, after he left early and went in the first round of the NFL Draft. Tino Sunseri returns at quarterback, and he’ll be tasked with turning the three-yards and a cloud of dust offense Wannstedt employed into the hyper-speed spread attack that Graham is bringing with him. While that’ll surely mean better numbers for the passing game, Graham’s Tulsa squads were also some of the best in the country at running the football, which means good things for Ray Graham, who averaged a gawdy 6.2 yards per carry last season in a supporting role to Dion Lewis. Pitt also brings in Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown to the backfield.

The Panthers have experience on the offensive line, but they’ll need to replace Jason Pinkston. At receiver, there’s Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Cameron Saddler — three guys who might have their production buoyed immediately if Sunseri is a quick study.

Graham’s defense will shift to a three-man front, a move better timed than most with Sheard and Romeus gone. Pitt has depth up front with guys like Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein, with Alecxih getting 7.5 sacks last season. The rotation can actually go six deep. But the biggest beneficiary to the change will likely be Brandon Lindsey, one of the best defensive players in the country. Lindsey had 10 sacks and 17.5 tackles-for-loss last season, and will play a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker role, giving him more opportunities to wreak havoc on offenses.

The secondary needs to replace two starters, but returns a deep roster at cornerback and All-Big East safety Jarred Holley. Sophomore Jason Hendricks will get the first shot at the bandit position, a hybrid safety spot that’ll have Hendricks all over the field. K’Waun Williams is a talented cornerback, and the sophomore could be ready to make a big leap this season.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish won ugly last year, committing six penalties and getting outgained by the Panthers, but dominating on special teams and playing good red zone defense. How many times did the Irish win under Charlie Weis when they were outgained by more than 50 yards? Only three times, and twice, the opposition imploded with turnovers.

With a noon kickoff at Heinz Field, Pitt fans will lack the venom of a prime-time start. While the battle at the line of scrimmage should be hotly contested, the Irish have the edge on both sides of the ball, and Notre Dame can take advantage of Pitt’s lack of depth for the systems they’ve installed.

With the Irish upping the tempo on offense and understanding both the personnel at Pitt and the scheme Graham runs, the Irish shouldn’t have much of a problem winning during a transitional year at Pitt.

How the Irish will lose:

Graham has already shown Irish fans that he knows how to pull a rabbit out his hat, and with his offense installed, the Panthers could have the best rushing offense the Irish face all season, the perfect recipe for keeping Notre Dame’s offense off the field and the tempo dictated.

With Brandon Lindsey and an assortment of Panthers coming off the line of scrimmage, the Panthers will force a few early turnovers, taking advantage of a stellar defensive front and a great centerfield safety in Jarred Holley. A Pitt victory would put Graham’s squad on the national map early, and make ESPN analyst Mark May very happy.

Gut Feeling:

While he wasn’t the Pitt administration’s first choice, Graham looks like the right man for the job. He’s shaken up a program that seemed to plateau under Wannstedt, and infused excitement in a fan base that was getting disinterested. In a Big East that’s a bit wayward, Graham is a good reason for Pitt fans to be excited about the future. Unfortunately, I think the learning curve is too steep this season, and the Irish sprint by the Panthers, a team that’s a work in progress.

  1. gtizzo - Aug 27, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    Nice Keith,

    I think you nailed. I will always give Brain Kelly an edge over the big east. Somehow I don’t think a spread works at Pitt. They tend to have solid talent at tail back and wide out. I think the Irish win because the conditioning so much better and they won’t be out of gas in a drive goes over 3 plays.

  2. jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 27, 2011 at 2:44 PM

    I hope the Irish can get a couple of scores early to take the crowd out of this one. If we get ourselves in a hole playing at Heinz Field, it may be hard to ketchup.

    • seeeye - Aug 27, 2011 at 5:47 PM

      Boo this man.

      Good material, I agree on the substance…horrible pun.

    • papadec - Aug 27, 2011 at 8:38 PM

      Nice to see you still have a sense of humor, and power, with Irene breathing down your neck.

  3. scardino - Aug 27, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    Todd Graham was an excellent choice for Pitt that more than makes up for the mind-boggling initial Haywood hire. Graham should give us something to watch in the Big East next year after he spends this year letting the cement dry on a new foundation.
    That’s what I expect this season to be for Graham, though. A .500 season should not be a disappointment as Graham is busy installing a new modus operandi into the team that will take them to great success in following seasons.
    This season, though, will be about learning. I would have placed them behind USF in level of difficulty.

  4. trbowman - Aug 27, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    Gotta contain Ray Graham.

    Sunseri doesn’t really scare me.

  5. kappy32 - Aug 28, 2011 at 6:55 AM

    I don’t like this game one bit. Pitt is always a tough opponent for the Irish & I think this game could be one of those clichéd “trap” games for Kelly & Co. The Irish will be coming into this game fresh off the Michigan State game; a huge game for the Irish & their BCS hopes this season. The Irish are & have been notorious for coming out flat in games following key matchups. Also, Pitt will have 3 games under their belt by the time they host ND, including a game against Iowa the week before. A win against Iowa & their stingy defense could catapult Pitt & gives them a lot of confidence going forward. I don’t like where this game falls on the schedule one bit; sandwiched between two big rivalry game @ Michigan State on 9/17 & v. Purdue on 10/1. Furthermore, Pitt will have a pretty firm grasp on Graham’s offense by week 4 (the same offense that gave ND & Bobby D fits last season).

    Contrary to what you stated, Keith, I do not believe this is a transitional year for Pitt. While learning a new system is never easy, the spread offense is one of the easier systems to learn. I doubt every play in the playbook will be mastered by the ND game, however even a spread offense with a limited playbook is very effective against a slower defense, which ND has for the most part. The Irish’s defense is better suited to go up against a pro-style offense than they are a spread or pistol offense. Although I believe they will be vastly improved, you have to admit they are relatively slow & they will struggle getting a pass rush (which is a necessity in combatting a spread offense). As a matter of fact, all 3-4 base defenses tend to struggle against spread offenses because, for the most part, 3-4 defenses tend to be slow amongst the front 7. In addition to the matchup problems, Tino Sunseri is primed for a breakout year. He was thrust into the fire last season, their real transitional season, and handled himself very well. He showed some glimpses of stardom, but struggled with his consistency. A QB at any level improves his consistency during his 2nd season & I think Sunseri will be no different. Finally, Pitt is known to produce top-flight RBs, year in, year out. Ray Graham is another guy who is primed for a big year. His 6.7 YPC was no fluke & he will get plenty of touches in the new system. He’s also an above-average receiver coming out of the backfield, something the Irish struggled mightily with last season. Dion Lewis was a star RB for Pitt & part of the reason why he left was because he knew he was going to see diminished playing time because Graham needs to get on the field more & touch the ball more often. Ray Graham is the real deal & he is set for a big season.

    Ultimately, I don’t like this game one ioata. It falls in a bad spot on the schedule & even though there’s a new coach, Pitt is going to have a good season because the players at their 2 most important positions, Sunseri & Graham, are primed for big years. Kelly & Co. CANNOT overlook Pitt & underestimate them this season. If the Irish go into the game with the mindset similar to the comment by Scardino, they will lose. However, I see ND pulling this game out, but it’ll be close. Kelly will have them ready to play, knowing that if they are forced to go into the USC & Stanford games needing to win both just to get to a BCS Bowl, they could be in trouble. While I see ND winning, I believe it’ll be high-scoring & close (i.e., 35-31; 45-38). This game should be ranked higher in difficulty, Keith. Michigan State should be 3 (possibly even 2 because they are better than USC & the game is on the road in East Lansing), Michigan should be 5 (losing Daryl Stonum to a disciplinary redshirt was HUGE & makes them one-dimensional whereas USC is coming to South Bend & is not the same Pete Carroll-type Trojans we have come accustomed to seeing), and Pitt should be 4. This game will not be easy & I wouldn’t be surprised if this one gets away from them. Nevertheless, I expect ND to win 13 games this season & bring home that football-shaped, crystal trophy in January.

    • papadec - Aug 28, 2011 at 9:08 AM

      I agree with most of what you say. I think you mentioned one important item – but, blew past it. PITT plays IOWA the week before ND. I think IOWA will put a major hurt on PITT. I’m also concerned about what the ND injuries will be after UM & MSU.

    • oldestguard - Aug 28, 2011 at 3:07 PM

      MIch St game is at ND.

      I think part of Kelly’s success is his ability to get his teams properly focused and motivated from week to week

      He will be tested on that right out of the gate this year – but I think he will succeed in that dept and I really think our team will get better and better as the year moves along.

      By week 4, Pitt will be pretty worried about us !

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