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And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

Oct 31, 2012, 1:46 PM EST

Paul Chryst

Expect things to be testy in Bristol this weekend, as Mark May and Lou Holtz actually have something to bicker about. After a massive win in Norman, the Irish return home to South Bend, a place that’s been much tougher on Notre Dame than any opponent’s stadium.

They’ll face a familiar opponent in the Pitt Panthers. Yet there isn’t much too familiar with Pitt. Another season, another head coaching change. After Todd Graham headed to Arizona State after just one season in the Steel City, Paul Chryst has taken over the program, bringing with him a strong offensive reputation after putting together some high-powered seasons in Wisconsin.

It was far from a smooth start for Chryst and company, who lost their debut against Youngstown State and started 0-2 before rallying to get to 4-4 on the season. Getting us up to speed on the state of the Pitt program is the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. Sam is in his first year covering the Panthers’ beat and is no stranger to the Notre Dame program, having covered the Irish for the student-run Observer not too long ago, working the Irish beat in ’09 and serving as managing editor in ’10.

I asked, Sam answered. Let’s all enjoy.

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It seems that Paul Chryst has stabilized the Panthers’ program after a few rocky years. One of the elite offensive coordinators in the game at Wisconsin, he’s brought back to Pittsburgh an offensive philosophy probably more befitting the program’s identity. How do you assess the job Chryst and his coaching staff have done in their first season?

It’s certainly been a little up and down, results-wise. The loss to Youngstown State was pretty much the worst way a coach could imagine starting his first head job, but Pitt has bounced back nicely to win some big games, notably over future ACC rival Virginia Tech. More than just the on the field results, though, Chryst’s job is about providing some program stability. That part of the job won’t happen for a few years, after he has sort of established himself as the head coach and the whirlwind of coaches that came in here is no longer an issue.

I do think Chryst has a bright future at Pitt for a couple of reasons. First, like you mentioned, the style of his offense fits in much better with the identity of the program and city. Todd Graham’s now-infamous “high-octane offense” just never really seemed to mesh. Two, while the program-wide stability may take a couple of years, Chryst is the perfect guy to do it. I’ve never been around a coach who is as consistent day-in, day-out with his approach to things. He’s the same guy after a win or after a loss, and he prepares the same way each week whether they’re playing Notre Dame or Gardner-Webb. That has to rub off and have a positive effect on his team.

In Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, the Panthers have two really talented runners. It looks like Graham is rounding back into form after a knee injury slowed down one of college football’s most under-the-radar players. And Shell was a prep phenom and looks impressive physically for a young guy. Running against the Irish has been no easy task. Can Pitt do it, especially with an offensive line that’s been up and down?

This is the matchup I keep coming back to when I’m looking at ways Pitt could win this game. I think the Panthers have to run the ball effectively to keep drives going and keep the game close, but I’m not so sure if that’s going to happen. Graham and Shell are very talented (and Shell especially is going to be a monster as his career progresses), but the running game has had some fits and starts over the last few weeks. They couldn’t really get it going against Buffalo two weeks ago, which doesn’t bode well for them this weekend. Having a first-time starter at right guard after losing Ryan Schlieper for the season last week won’t help either. So, in short, Pitt definitely does have a formidable rushing attack, but they haven’t shown me enough consistency this season to have me convinced that they’re going to be able to establish the run against Notre Dame’s defense.

One person really benefiting from the coaching change is quarterback Tino Sunseri. He’s playing the best football of his career in his final season at Pitt. With two really big and physical targets, the Panthers passing attack looks sneaky good. Assess for me what’s been the difference for Sunseri, who Notre Dame fans have seen quite a bit these past few years. And are Devin Street and Mike Shanahan the best receiving duo Notre Dame will see this season, outside of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee?

I think the biggest difference for Sunseri this season has just been his comfort level in the offense that Chryst runs. He’s being asked to much make fewer on-the-fly reads and decisions than he was last year, and get just get into a rhythm and make his throws. This has directly led to a drastic reduction in turnovers (he hasn’t thrown a pick in five weeks). I think there’s also something to be said for a fifth-year senior just sort of putting everything together in his final year. Bill Stull did it for Pitt in 2009, and Tino’s doing it this year. I said coming into the year that, in Chryst’s offense, Sunseri didn’t need to be a game-breaker quarterback, he just needed to be the equivalent of Scott Tolzien from the 2010 Badgers. So far, he has even exceeded that.

The receivers, too, have played a significant part in Sunseri’s development. Street is enjoying a breakout year as the passing game’s top target. Looking at him, he has always had the physical skills to be an elite receiver and the mental side of the game just seems to have started clicking this year. He also has talked about how he and Tino are on the same page in terms of breaking down coverages on the sideline this season. Shanahan is also important for the passing game, mostly because of his versatility. He mostly plays split wide but, especially with Pitt limited at tight end over the past few weeks, he has also worked inside on some blocking. I don’t know if these are the “best” receivers Notre Dame will face this side of USC, but they’re probably the most physically imposing.

Statistically, the Panthers defense looks decent, holding points down, rushing attacks to just 141 yards a game, and passing offenses to less than 200 yards a game. But they don’t force a lot of turnovers and they lack size at linebacker. Jarred Holley is a playmaker and the team looks strong up the middle. Can Pitt make things hard for Everett Golson and slow down an Irish running game that’s really hitting its stride?

The defense was dealt a huge blow this week with the news that two linebackers — MLB Dan Mason and WLB Manny Williams — will be out for the season. Regulars starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain, so he’s questionable as well. If he can’t go, Pitt will likely only have five linebackers to dress for Saturday’s game. I would expect Pitt to go with a lot of nickel and dime coverages Saturday. This will help them match up against Notre Dame’s spread, but also gets their best players on the field. Holley and Jason Hendricks have started at safety, but backups Andrew Taglianetti and Ray Vinopal are outstanding players, as well. Pitt will work to get those guys on the field.

This is also one of the areas that will be key for Pitt keeping it close. The run defense has been almost astonishingly inconsistent this season, shutting down Virginia Tech and Temple’s running games, but allowing Cincinnati, Youngstown State and Buffalo to get over 150 yards on the ground. If the good run defense shows up, this one will be close. If the bad run defense does (and those linebacker injuries really concern me), this has a chance to get out of hand like Notre Dame’s wins over Navy and Miami.

The Panthers are pretty heavy underdogs heading into Notre Dame Stadium. Who are two people that are going to have to play really big for Pitt if they’re going to pull off the upset? What’s the blueprint for success for Paul Chyst’s squad?

I’m going all-uglies on this one and pointing to two linemen. On offense, center Ryan Turnley is going to have his hands full going up against Louis Nix. He’ll have to at least slow down Nix from getting into the backfield immediately after the snap. On top of that, he’ll be tasked with organizing the offensive line as a whole facing the best defense they’ll play all season, with a first-time starter at right guard. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Pitt’s offensive line to totally contain Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and company, since no one has done that this season. But if they can keep Sunseri relatively clean and generate enough push to get consistent positive yardage on the ground, Pitt has a chance. On defense, I think Aaron Donald really needs to have a game on the line. He’s probably Pitt’s best player, regardless of position, and can be a force. If he can get pressure on Golson and make him scramble around, Golson has shown that he’s still sort of working out the kinks of finding guys on the run. In the Oklahoma game, a lot of times he was just content to throw it away. That said, the rest of the defensive line has to do a good job setting contain on the edge so Golson doesn’t pick up big chunks with his feet.

I think the blueprint overall for a Pitt victory is to run the ball at least reasonably effectively, and hit one or two big plays through the air. They’re going to need to control time of possession and an early score wouldn’t hurt to get the crowd out of the game. On defense, I don’t think they’re quite ready to just shut down Notre Dame’s offense, so the Panthers are going to need a turnover or two, ideally in Notre Dame’s territory to set up some scores. Pitt isn’t going to win this game 38-35 or even 28-25. But if they play their best and Notre Dame’s focus is still in Norman, Pitt could win this game something like 13-9 (the same score they beat then-No. 2 West Virginia by in 2007).

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A special thanks to Sam for taking the time to make us smarter. For more Pitt coverage heading into the big game, check out Sam’s stuff at the Post-Gazette and follow him on Twitter @SWernerPG

  1. 808raiderinparadise - Oct 31, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    Some of this makes me nervous for ND, then again this guys bias is a little much at times.

    Either way ND has to put teams away now, a 21 to 17 win will hurt them now that they are in the top 5.

    Golson and the Offense needs to score as much as possible.

    The defense will do its thing, as usual.

    • joeschu - Oct 31, 2012 at 2:33 PM

      I found him to be pretty balanced. As an ND alum, I think he’s writing strictly from the head, not the heart.

      • joeschu - Oct 31, 2012 at 2:34 PM

        By that I mean that Sam is an alum

  2. oldestguard - Oct 31, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    The way Kelly has re-built this team from the bottom up, I don’t see any direction taken but forward.

    Maybe we’ll even see some high-steppin’ from Neal.

    Boy, I’d love to be sitting in Holtz’s seat this week, smiling across the set at M. May.

  3. bernhtp - Oct 31, 2012 at 2:45 PM

    While ND’s developmental direction continues up, they are not immune to mistakes and backslides. If they do have problems – e.g., several turnovers – they need to keep composure and press on with their execution and plan. They won’t lose if they do this.

  4. ndgoldandblue - Oct 31, 2012 at 2:54 PM

    He sounds pretty optimistic for a guy that covers a 4-4 football team that has losses to Youngstown St. and Syracuse and injuries to key players. Either he thinks that the Panthers are better than their 4-4 record would indicate, which was actually the case for our team last year (we were better than an 8-5 team), or he’s just trying to find the silver lining on the sh$tty cloud that is Pitt football this year.

    When it comes to the skill positions, I might concede that Pitt is comparable to Notre Dame (solid QB, good running backs, dependable receivers), but there’s no way they touch us when it comes to talent in the trenches. Our O-line is coming into their own, and our defensive front seven is one of, if not, the best in the country. Plus, even taking Niklas’ bad game against Stanford into consideration, we are head and shoulders better than Pitt at the tight end position.

    Pitt might eke out a touchdown at some point, but I don’t see it happening. 31-6 Irish.

  5. dudeacow - Oct 31, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    Our running game won’t be a problem; anyone else noticed how Heistand worked out the kinks during the bye week and turned the run game around? It started out as ND ran against Navy, couldn’t run against Purdue, ran decently against MSU, couldn’t run against scUM. Then came the bye week, and we have ran against everybody, including two top-ten run defenses. Stanford sits at #2 and BYU sits at #10. (ND is #9!)

  6. seadomer - Oct 31, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    Anyone reading this that is going or if you are a current student, please make a sign

    “This One’s for you Mark May”

    and keep showing it, you might get tired after the fifth time… you’ll get some TV time and a lot of appreciation from me and quite a few more people here.

  7. sinister23 - Oct 31, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    No worries this week.

    But let’s be honest…your having a phenomenal year. I think next year tho the honey-moon will be over. I think you guys stay around #20 in the nation.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Oct 31, 2012 at 3:59 PM

      Jeez let us enjoy this year first.

    • notredameirish1980 - Oct 31, 2012 at 4:37 PM

      Keeps getting better and better. Now no upset prediction, a few days ago ND was clearly a top 5 team, and now ND will be a top 20 team for the foreseeable future! Sinister will probably be hanging an ND flag out of his window any day now. Resistance is futile.

  8. jerseyshorendfan1 - Oct 31, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    @North of Denver……….thanks for the shout out and the concern earlier, we are fine here, except for no power which I hope is rectified by kickoff Sat afternoon. I have some stories of beautiful human kindness and some that demonstrate just how quickly the social fabric unravels in a crisis, which I will bore all of with when power returns and I’m not limited to typing on my iPhone and trying to conserve power. In any case, my favorite boardwalk is gone, but we have our lives for which we thank God, as some were not so fortunate. Gotta conserve battery so let me just say ND 42 Pitt 14 ( one of which they score in garbage time). Manti will not let this season get away at the hands of Pitt, not by a long shot. Go Irish and God Bless.

    • North of Denver - Oct 31, 2012 at 9:12 PM

      Incredible. Glad your safe. Go Irish and I hope you have power restored to watch the Pitt game!

  9. phillyj - Oct 31, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor. May Dave Wannstedt’s mustache haunt the Pittsburgh sidelines, nevermore!

  10. sinister23 - Oct 31, 2012 at 6:36 PM

    Hey guys, i admit you guys are a solid top 5! No question….just saying I think next year will be different. Learn how to take criticism…

    • notredameirish1980 - Oct 31, 2012 at 6:57 PM

      Opinion is not the same thing as criticism. I am just pleased that the Irish can continue to win over hearts and minds.

    • mdirish - Oct 31, 2012 at 8:13 PM

      Check the depth chart and you might change your mind. Also check the recruiting class coming in. BK knows how to get the new guys to contribute. As BK said….this team is not great. Next years will be.

    • gtizzo - Nov 1, 2012 at 1:38 AM

      Why? You haven’t told us why next year will be different? Were open to any thoughts (as few as they maybe) that you have.

  11. mdirish - Oct 31, 2012 at 8:21 PM

    Spend a little time on cfbstats.com and look at the numbers for PITT. They started 0-2 and have gone 4-2 since and they’re peaking right now. If they practice well this week and take another step forward they’ll be a pain in the a$$ all day long Saturday afternoon. The thing that could make this an easier game is if we find some of that home field momentum that has seemed to escape us thus far. If you think this is going to be a blow out think again. The stats and history say it’s going to a long day.

    • jmfinsd - Oct 31, 2012 at 8:41 PM

      I’ve looked. 2 losses, 2 wins, 2 losses, 2 wins. They lost to Youngstown St. and beat Gardner-Webb. Yes, they have a win against Va Tech. Not the same caliber of teams on their schedule. Plus they’re down a number of players. Do you want to be a first time starting O-lineman against ND? Don’t think so. Will ND run against their starting 11 on D – absolutely, only problem is Pitt doesn’t have their starting 11, 10 or even 9 on D. ND should have no problem – if they stay focused. They will stay focused. They will win. Convincingly.

      • notredameirish1980 - Oct 31, 2012 at 9:27 PM

        If ND had won convincingly at home this year, I would completely agree. Maybe we are finally over the hump and the offense will click. Regardless, I don’t see the defense falling apart.

    • andy44teg - Oct 31, 2012 at 10:55 PM

      Let’s play the “who beat who” game….pitt lost to youngstown state, who lost to south dakota state, who lost to Kansas…..and we all know how HORRIBLE they are this year…so according to this rock-solid approach the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will have no problem with Pitt on Saturday!

  12. fnc111 - Nov 1, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    Phoenix boys keep a coming.

    Cole Luke!

  13. steelers88 - Nov 1, 2012 at 8:41 PM

    Little Kitty want to fight fight fight!

  14. irishdodger - Nov 2, 2012 at 1:01 AM

    Three Pitt football players were reportedly charged with assault Thursday evening. The players were Devin Street, Ray Graham & Lafayette Pitts.

  15. fitz79 - Nov 2, 2012 at 11:56 AM

    Man, if Pitt is minus those three players who were charged (and they should be if Pitt has any honor whatsoever!), then hand this one over to the Irish right now!

    ND 34 Pitt 13

    Go Manti and go IRISH!

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