For the first time in more than half a decade, the Irish will prepare to take on a Pittsburgh team that doesn’t feature Dave Wannstedt on the sidelines. Kicked to the curb after winning 27 games over the last three seasons, the Pitt brass finally tired of the Wannstedt era, known for it’s inability to get over the hump, even while the results were mostly pretty good.
After an offseason most Pitt fans would like to forget (not to mention Mike Haywood, who filed suit against the university this week over his firing), the university named Tulsa coach Todd Graham its new head coach. Graham has brought in a philosophy and style polar opposite of Wannstedt’s, but the stated mission is clear: Take the team past its current plateau.
With Pitt and Syracuse announcing their walking away from the Big East to join the ACC, the traditional rivalry between the Irish and the Panthers might soon be coming to an end. But until then, Graham has shown he understands the importance of Saturday’s game.
“I think there’s Penn State, West Virginia and Notre Dame, when you think of the three games that mean the most to our players and our programs,” Graham said. “It’s a big deal. We’ve got a great tradition around this game.”
With all the news that’s swirling around the Pitt program, we thought we’d go inside the school’s walls to get our update on the Irish’s weekend opponent. Here to answer our questions is Lauren Kirschman, sports editor of The Pitt News, the university paper.
Inside the Irish: Obviously, Notre Dame had their own fourth quarter implosion, but how disheartening was Pitt’s collapse against Iowa? Win and the Todd Graham era starts off at 3-0 with a huge victory against a Big Ten power in their house. Lose, and it makes you think about the uneven performances against Buffalo and Maine. Do we know who this team is yet?
Lauren Kirschman: The Panthers are exactly what they looks like: a team going through a complete and total transition in philosophy and style. Anyone who watched Dave Wannstedt’s Pitt teams and have seen Todd Graham’s squad this year should be able to tell that. Although the loss to Iowa was extremely disappointing, for the first three quarters of that game Pitt finally looked like it was executing Graham’s system as it should be executed. It seems that Pitt’s major problem right now is putting together a complete game. Still, it’s apparent that the players haven’t completely made an adjustment from Wannstedt’s methodical, pro-style system to Graham’s no-huddle, self-described “high-octane” style of play. Once that starts to click, I think we’ll really get an idea of the identity of this team.
ITI: Pitt has looked good running the ball with Ray Graham. But the offensive line has really struggled to hold up against a pass rush. The Irish front seven had its best game of the year against Michigan State, constantly knocking around Kirk Cousins. Can the Panthers offensive line hold up on Saturday?
LK: In the Iowa game, Tino Sunseri wasn’t hit all that much, at least not compared to the rest of the season. Iowa sacked Sunseri three times, while Maine sacked him seven times. Pitt had real problems picking up blitzes in the Maine game but against Iowa the protection was decent. The real problem against Iowa seemed to be that Sunseri needs to get rid of the ball faster. I think the offensive line will hold it’s own on Saturday, but you might see some more roll outs and Sunseri out of the pocket more. But if Sunseri doesn’t make quicker decisions and get rid of the ball against Notre Dame, I think it’s going to be a long day for Pitt.
ITI: How has the defensive transition gone with Keith Patterson and Tony Gibson. Statistically speaking, Pitt has been solid against the run but has put up some really ugly numbers in the passing game. What’s been the problem? It is talent or is the scheme been tough to pick up?
LK: It’s a little bit of both, but the best players that Pitt has seem to be on the field right now. The primary problem seems to be the linebackers, who, as you mentioned, are solid against the run but continue to struggle defending the passing game. Pitt gave up 399 passing yards against Iowa. Graham said there were 12 errors by the pass defense in the third quarter against the Hawkeyes and a lot of the errors seem to be mental mistakes. Graham cited communication problems, saying that there were a few times when the players had the wrong call. He also said that he might have overestimated how much the defense can handle and he might have to be more patient in teaching the new system. What that says to me is that the scheme is difficult to pick up and many of the blown coverages come from the players not understanding where they are supposed to be. There have been a few plays this season where two players have gotten mixed up on coverages, leading to a big play for the opponent. Unfortunately for Pitt, Notre Dame has the best passing offense that it has seen this season and maybe the best the Panthers will see all year.
ITI: What have the early returns looked like on Todd Graham and his coaching staff? Anything that’s surprised you?
LK: I don’t think anything has really surprised me. A lot of Pitt fans expected Graham and his staff to come in, install this new system and then instantly start scoring 50 points a game. But that’s just not how it works. Installing a new system, especially one that is so different than the one that came before it, takes time. Even though Pitt lost against Iowa, for at least three quarters you could see definite improvement from the Panthers both offensively and defensively from that first game against Buffalo. What I like the most about Graham is his honestly–he knows there are problems with the team and he willingly admits that–and his determination to stick with his system. He admitted after the Maine game that if he would’ve run the ball the entire game, the margin of victory would have been greater, but he wants to install a well-rounded offensive system and that includes the passing attack. There will be positive pay off for that later. When the Panthers are playing well, you can see how Graham’s system is supposed to look. For periods of time against Iowa, the offense attacked and looked smooth and capable of scoring those 50 points a game.
ITI: As both a student and as someone that follows Pitt sports pretty closely, what are your feelings on the announced move to the ACC?
LK: I like the move. I think with the conference climate like it is now, it was important for Pitt to make a move and find a stable conference. If Pitt didn’t, another team would have, and Pitt would’ve been left behind. It is so difficult to strengthen a conference like the Big East because of the combination of football and non-football schools. The move to the ACC improves the football schedule and gives Pitt the chance to compete in a larger conference with a championship game. While I don’t like to see the dismantling of the Big East basketball conference, which I believe is the best conference in the country, I think it was going to end whether Pitt left or not. So overall, this was the best move for Pitt to make in order to ensure that it is in a good position when the conference realignment ends.
ITI: We know about Ray Graham and Brandon Lindsey. Name one player on both sides of the ball that’ll be a key to Pitt winning?
LK: Quarterback Tino Sunseri and outside linebacker EJuan Price.
When Sunseri is playing well, the offense looks like it’s supposed to look. For awhile against Iowa, Sunseri put on a solid performance, making several nice runs and getting rid of the ball quickly. But then, he also made some critical errors in a dropped snap and an interception after Iowa took the lead at the end of the fourth quarter. Pitt needs Sunseri to play well on Saturday and move the Panthers down the field without the turnovers. Sunseri also tends to hold the ball too long, which makes the offensive line’s job more difficult. As a quarterback adjusting to Graham’s system, Sunseri has the most difficult and important job in the offense. If he can improve this week, the offense as a whole will improve as well.
Price, a true freshman, is already a talented pass rusher. He is a player that could really cause Notre Dame problems if he plays well. He had two sacks against Iowa. But Price, like other members of the defense, is struggling a bit with coverages as well. A huge key to Pitt winning is Price, and the rest of the Pitt defense, eliminating errors that could open up big play opportunities for Notre Dame’s offense.
ITI: How do you see Saturday (early) afternoon playing out?
LK: As I mentioned before, Notre Dame is the most talented passing team the Panthers have faced so far. Unfortunately for Pitt, that spells trouble. I don’t see Pitt’s defense improving enough this week to shut down Notre Dame’s offensive attack enough to pull out the victory. On the positive side for Pitt, I see the Panthers improving this week and putting together a more complete game than they did against Iowa. One of the keys to Pitt potentially pulling out a victory is forcing turnovers as that seems to be one of Notre Dame’s weak spots this season. But the Panthers haven’t excelled in that department so far this year.
As we lead up to this Saturday’s game, check out more of Laura’s work at the Pitt News here.