Oct 31, 2012, 1:46 PM EDT
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.
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).
Jul 31, 2015, 4:39 PM EDT
With the start of training camp right around the corner, it’s time for our annual tradition of ranking the Top 25 players on the Notre Dame roster.
Jul 31, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
With Kyle Brindza gone, sophomore Tyler Newsome takes over the punting duties. And outside of seeing a few not-really live kicks in the Blue-Gold game, what that means remains to be seen.
Jul 31, 2015, 11:48 AM EDT
We wrap up our offseason look at Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents with the Stanford Cardinal. The postseason could come down to a late-season showdown in Palo Alto with David Shaw’s team trying to rebound from a five-loss season.
Jul 31, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
After a redshirt season, Quenton Nelson is ready to play. Jumping to the head of the line at a crowded (and talented) position, Nelson is taking his five-star pedigree and bringing it to the starting lineup.
Jul 30, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
This spring, you’d have probably won some money if you had Sam Mustipher emerging as the No. 2 center. But with Matt Hegarty’s departure and some failed experiments before him, it was Mustipher who was backing up Nick Martin and snapping the ball to Everett Golson in a spring game played on Notre Dame’s practice field.
Jul 30, 2015, 1:47 PM EDT
Notre Dame opens the season ranked No. 11 in the preseason USA Today Amway Coaches Poll. The Irish, who finished last season 8-5, return the majority of their starting lineup, providing some context for the bullish expectations. Only Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team is ranked higher among teams that finished with five losses in 2014.
Jul 30, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT
Last year, we saw what a talented freshman linebacker in over his head looked like. His name was Nyles Morgan, and the blue-chip recruit personified the second-half defensive collapse that flushed the Irish season down the drain. Want the good part? Stick around, as Irish A-to-Z continues.
Jul 30, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
When Brian Kelly plucked offensive lineman John Montelus from his hometown of Everett, Massachusetts, the Irish looked to be adding another mauler to the interior of Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. And after two seasons of reshaping his body and learning the ropes, Montelus is in a competitive two-deep, still looking for a role in this offense.
Jul 29, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
It didn’t take long for Notre Dame’s coaching staff to know they wanted to offer Peter Mokwuah. After getting a glimpse of the big-bodied defensive tackle, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly went to Staten Island and left with a key piece to the depth chart.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:11 PM EDT
We are a little more than a week away from the start of the 2015 football season. Notre Dame released their training camp schedule on Wednesday, highlighting the key dates leading up to the season opener against Texas.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Entering his third year in the program, offensive lineman Colin McGovern hasn’t found his way into the lineup. That’s the product of a depth chart filled with other talented options, as well as McGovern dealing with injuries and position switches as he looks to find his niche.
Jul 29, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
Last preseason, Mike McGlinchey was the odd-man out along the offensive line, losing out on the opportunity to be the team’s starting right tackle. Entering 2015, he’s one of the key X factors that’ll determine whether or not Harry Hiestand’s offensive line is one of the best in the country.
Jul 29, 2015, 11:45 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s defense falling apart, second-year player Jacob Matuska was thrown into the fire, earning playing time after the first (and most of the second) line of defense went down. Let’s check on the rising junior as Irish A-to-Z rolls on.
Jul 28, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
The first recruit to join the 2014 recruiting class, Greer Martini may have been envisioned as a 3-4 linebacker in Bob Diaco’s scheme, but he very quickly showed he could play anywhere the rebooted Irish defense needed him. Irish A-to-Z keeps on keepin’ on.
Jul 28, 2015, 12:44 PM EDT
While discussing Notre Dame’s “rivals” usually turns into some type of screaming hot-take opportunity, it’s undeniable that the Irish’s date with Boston College in Fenway Park is a wonderful place to renew a “rivalry” that’s gotten a lot less regular.
Jul 28, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
In his first season without his brother on campus, Nick Martin looked to make a name for himself. But 2014 was a battle for Martin, not just to escape the shadows of his All-Pro brother, but to regain his health after a lingering knee injury and a multitude of other ailments made the entire season a grind.
Jul 27, 2015, 3:02 PM EDT
Ready or not, Cole Luke was thrown into the deep end in 2014, forced into a starting role after KeiVarae Russell’s August suspension. Paired with Cody Riggs as the team’s field cornerback, Luke more than held his own as a sophomore starter, taking on one of the most challenging schedules in college football, with elite receivers testing the Irish secondary nearly every week.
Jul 27, 2015, 11:52 AM EDT
Looking for a sledgehammer in an offense that sometimes gets branded finesse? Look no further than tight end Tyler Luatua. The big-bodied thumper may not look like the rest of the tight end depth chart, but certainly will come in handy as the Irish do their best to transform into a run-to-win team in 2015.
Jul 26, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
The big news of the spring was supposed to be DeShone Kizer ascending to the job of holder on field goals and PATs. Instead, Kizer is one snap away from being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, his development kick-started with Everett Golson’s decision to transfer.
Jul 24, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
After Jim Grobe presided over the Wake Forest football program for 13 seasons, the school made a change bringing in coach Dave Clawson after five consecutive losing seasons. What followed was ugly, an understandable bottoming out—and a three-win season that may have been one of the least impressive in any Power Five conference.