And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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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.

Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?

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Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.

If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).

How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?

St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.

The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.

Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?

Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.

Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?

When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.

One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.

With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.

Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.

Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.

Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.

Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame on the precipice of a rare three-year stretch

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Thanks to its win Saturday over Navy, Notre Dame will have two chances to reach double digit victories this season. As Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed out after the 24-17 victory, reaching that mark for the second time in three years is not a common occurrence at Notre Dame. The last time the Irish achieved such success was at the peak of Lou Holtz’s career, never falling below 10 wins from 1988 to 1993.

“There’s a lot to play for, for these guys,” Kelly said. “[The seniors] have done an incredible job of leading us back to where we should be.”

If — and that two-letter word still looms large over this possibility — Notre Dame reaches 10 wins this season, it will actually be only the third time in program history to meet that mark twice in three seasons. Even though the Irish have played at least 11 games every season since 1969, only Holtz’s stretch and the 1973-74 seasons under Ara Parseghian qualify. (One exception: Notre Dame declined a bowl game in 1971 after finishing 8-2.)

While the 4-8 debacle in 2016 mitigates some of the luster of this distinction, realizing how infrequent such consistency is also underscores some of the outlier nature of last season.

Other coaches make inexplicable mistakes, too.

When the Midshipmen needed to gain five yards on their final drive, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo resorted to a halfback pass. To that point, his offense had converted four of five fourth-down attempts, falling barely a yard short on a fourth-and-five try on its first drive, stopped by Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini, naturally.

Since then, three consecutive conversions, including a 21-yard pass from quarterback Zach Abey. Yet, Niumatalolo opted for the trick play. It would have worked, too if Notre Dame senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti had not set the edge, recognized the play and quickly closed on running back Darryl Bonner, forcing the flutter of a pass attempt.

“If we would have gotten the ball off, he was open,” Niumatalolo said. “We didn’t block. We missed the block on the edge. If we get the block on the edge, we had a shot.”

Missed block or not, a triple-option team should not revert to a halfback pass when in a do-or-die situation. Ride with the horse that brought you. Win or lose with your fastball. Insert a third cliché here.

They are clichés for a reason.

Keven Stepherson points to the name on the back of the jersey.

Watching a replay of sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson’s first touchdown Saturday, a 30-yarder to tie the game at 17, one cannot help but notice he exuberantly points to the nameplate above his number.

In this instance, that was not a selfish or self-promotional gesture. The “Rockne Heritage” uniforms all had ROCKNE across the back.

“He’s had many chances to fold under the scrutiny that he’s been under,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “But he’s persevered and Notre Dame’s been great for him.”

Now, about traveling to Stanford …

The last time Notre Dame won at Palo Alto was a full decade ago, prevailing 21-14 in 2007.

With a loss to the Irish but perhaps a bowl win, the Cardinal should finish the season in the top 25. The last time Notre Dame went on the road and beat such a team was five full years ago, topping Oklahoma.

That can be a somewhat misleading fact, though. Those opportunities are not very common, partly because the Irish play only five true road games a season and partly because the opponent needs to be good enough to stay in the rankings despite a loss, an inherently detrimental result when it comes to rankings. Since Norman, Notre Dame has played only seven such games, including this year’s loss at Miami. (That does not include winning at Michigan State this year, as it is no sure thing the Spartans will finish the season ranked, whereas such can be readily presumed with the Hurricanes.)

Whether he returns for his senior season or not, Josh Adams has made his mark on Notre Dame’s record books. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Josh Adams now has more than 3,000 career rushing yards.

The numbers can speak for themselves. With 106 yards on 18 carries this weekend, the junior running back now has 3,105 career yards, good for No. 5 all-time at Notre Dame. Darius Walker (2004-06) sits 144 yards ahead of him.

Adams has 1,337 yards this season, exactly 100 fewer than the all-time Irish mark set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past

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Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.

“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”

Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.

“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.

“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”

To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.

“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”

That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.

“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”

Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.

“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”

On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.

Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame will do what it takes to develop its passing game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame knows it needs a worthwhile passing game. The debacle at Miami made it clear some semblance of an aerial threat must be feared by the opposing defense. Thus, the Irish set to working on that deficiency in a 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday.

At halftime, those efforts struck a pessimist as dismal. A cynic found them necessary, and an optimist might have even considered them as having taken a step in the right direction.

Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards. On one hand, he had completed only 40 percent of his passes. By no metric is that good enough. That was the pessimist’s supporting fact.

The cynic looked back a week, remembering when the Hurricanes focused entirely on the Irish rushing game and Wimbush still completed only 10 of 21 passes. The cynic then reaches for a thesaurus and finds synonyms for necessary. Required. Imperative. Vital.

The optimist realized 10 pass attempts gaining 72 yards is an average of 7.2 yards per attempt. That would outdo all but two of Wimbush’s games this season, his 8.65 yards per attempt at Michigan State and his 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest just two weeks ago. Settling anywhere north of seven would be a great step forward for this passing attack.

By the end of the game, the pessimist, cynic and optimist all had to see the same thing: When effective, Wimbush is a bona fide quarterback. Yes, at some point in the future, that initial distinction needs to no longer be part of the equation, but this still qualifies as progress. Yes, that initial distinction is a heftily-meaningful alteration to any phrase, but this establishing itself as fact still marks progress. Wimbush started poorly, but he kept his concentration and finished impressively.

“I thought he settled down into the game,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “What we’re looking for is a guy that will take what’s happened early and kind of reset a little bit, which he did, and refocus. He came back and made some really big plays for us.”

Wimbush completed five of eight second-half passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns, leaning heavily on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.

“I think I just started seeing things a little bit more clearly and adjusted to the tempo that Navy was playing at and went from there,” Wimbush said.

Notre Dame relies on its rushing game. There is no doubt the ground attack is the stirrer in this Irish coffee. (Consider that a wit’s attempt at saying, the straw that stirs the drink.) Wimbush throwing 18 times against Navy — not to count the couple other times he dropped back with intentions to pass but pulled the ball down — is not Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long reverting to Kelly’s form of the past, the form of the pass.

Instead, it is the Irish desperately trying to find Wimbush rhythm, if not confidence, in the passing game. As competitive as Navy kept Saturday, this was a week the inefficiency of the educational effort could be afforded.

Notre Dame can, in fact, win a one-possession game.

The last time the Irish did so was against Miami, Oct. 29, 2016. Prior to that, the most-recent close Notre Dame victory came at Boston College, Nov. 21, 2015. Including the victory over the Hurricanes, the Irish had gone 1-9 in the interim.

“For us, it was just a gritty victory,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “… I think that’s the next stepping stone for us on to Stanford.”

The nature of Navy’s game plan keeps games close no matter a talent disparity. Finding its way to a tight victory bodes well for Notre Dame, no matter the opponent. In many respects, this remained a mental hurdle needing clearing.

Greer Martini will (not) miss playing against the option.

And he might be the only Irish defender in history to feel that way. In 48 career games to date, the senior captain and linebacker has made 184 tackles, including 15 on Saturday. In six career games against option-specific options, Martini has made 61 tackles. In some respects, Martini made his career excelling against the triple-option, an approach most defenders avoid like a plague.

“It’s just the idea that it’s a lot of run, run downhill, run around,” Martini said. “Just play with a lot of enthusiasm, run sideline-to-sideline.”

Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has gotten fed up with Martini, apparently confirming with both Kelly and Martini that he had seen his last of the linebacker. Both assured him he had.

“[Niumatalolo has] tried to block him, he can’t block him,” Kelly said. “… [Martini] just has a really good nose for the football, good sense. What you saw today was the physicality and bending back on the fullback. He was physical, played with the top of his pads.

“It was a clinic in terms of the way he played the linebacker position today.”

Martini insists he will not miss seeing the option, but it cannot be denied the effect the opposing attack had on Martini’s career. As a freshman, he made 26 total tackles. Nine came against Navy.

Notre Dame will host the NHL Winter Classic in 2019.

Yet, the Irish will hope to not be in attendance.

NBC and the NHL announced during the game the 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1, 2019, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Burins.

“We are very excited to welcome the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and NHL to Notre Dame Stadium for the 2019 Winter Classic,” Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said. “I believe it’s only fitting that two of the NHL’s legendary Original Six teams will take the ice for the first hockey game in one of America’s most iconic athletic facilities. Hosting two franchises with so many connections to Notre Dame also provides a unique opportunity to celebrate our hockey legacy.”

On New Year’s Day, a Tuesday next year, the Notre Dame football team will hope to be involved in a major bowl game. Given recent history, it will prefer the Cotton Bowl in Dallas rather than the Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Mike McGlinchey may be a behemoth of a man with shocking agility for his size, but in at least one respect, he is just like the rest of us.

Wouldn’t you struggle to keep your emotions in check taking the field to the “Rudy” soundtrack in your last home game after a five-year career at Notre Dame? Okay, insist you wouldn’t. What if your mom was waiting for you on the field?