Skip to content

And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

Oct 31, 2012, 1:46 PM EDT

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.

***

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).

***

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

Latest Posts
  1. Brian Kelly on Dan Patrick Show

    Aug 28, 2015, 2:50 PM EDT

    TheDanPatrickShow

    Brian Kelly was on the Dan Patrick Show this morning and the Irish head coach got his last weekend without a game started by chatting it up with the popular radio host. While Kelly didn’t make any headlines in the interview, he did conduct it from his desk with a Showtime crew hanging a boom mic over his head, part of life with a documentary film crew following him around.

  2. Last looks: Offensive line

    Aug 28, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT

    Purdue v Notre Dame Purdue v Notre Dame

    Just about everybody expects Harry Hiestand’s offensive line to be a dominant unit. But after months of preseason hype, they now need to prove they can do it.

  3. Williams loses NCAA appeal, college career over

    Aug 27, 2015, 8:48 PM EDT

    USC v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Ishaq Williams’ college football career is over. Notre Dame’s exiled defensive end, who sat out last season as part of a two-semester suspension for his role in the “frozen five” academic dishonesty investigation, has lost his NCAA appeal for reinstatement. Brian Kelly shared the news on Thursday after practice

  4. Brian Kelly names five team captains for 2015 team

    Aug 27, 2015, 8:25 PM EDT

    2015 Team Captains

    The votes are in and Notre Dame’s football team will be captained by five players. Graduate students Matthias Farley, Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt will be joined by senior Sheldon Day and junior Jaylon Smith as the captains of the 2015 Irish.

  5. Bryant begins Juco career, opens up recruitment

    Aug 27, 2015, 12:34 PM EDT

    Notre Dame v Syracuse Getty Images

    It appears that the Greg Bryant era at Notre Dame is over. The junior running back, who was declared academically ineligible to play for the Irish this fall, has enrolled at ASA Miami, a junior college with a new football program run by former Irish assistant Ernest Jones.

  6. Last looks: Running back

    Aug 27, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Getty Images

    After two seasons of trying to find carries for a handful of emerging running backs, Notre Dame has the opposite problem: Trying to spread out a growing workload among a smaller, highly-differentiated position group.

  7. Last looks: Defensive line

    Aug 26, 2015, 1:56 PM EDT

    North Carolina v Notre Dame Getty Images

    With the season right around the corner and preseason camp finished, it’s time to get our final preparations done before the games start counting and the journey begins. We spent the summer pumping out tens of thousands of words on Notre Dame’s evolving roster, so if you’re looking for 50 hours of easy reading, check out the Irish A-to-Z series.

  8. Now Open: Final preseason mailbag

    Aug 26, 2015, 12:42 PM EDT

    New Mailbox

    Have a final question before we have actual football to talk about? Today’s the day. Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

  9. It’s here: Video board going into south end zone at Notre Dame

    Aug 25, 2015, 5:06 PM EDT

    Updated Notre Dame Stadium

    Notre Dame announced a number of enhancements to Notre Dame Stadium on Tuesday. Most notable among them, a video board that’ll go atop the south end zone.

  10. Irish A-to-Z: Malik Zaire

    Aug 25, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT

    Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Getty Images

    Our final installment of the A-to-Z series is perhaps our most important one. Because Notre Dame’s fate is in the hands of quarterback Malik Zaire.

  11. Butler makes surprise ascent to third cornerback role

    Aug 24, 2015, 2:18 PM EDT

    Purdue v Notre Dame Purdue v Notre Dame

    With the injury to freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford, an unlikely candidate has emerged as the frontrunner for the No. 3 cornerback job: Devin Butler. The junior, who struggled mightily at times last season after he was forced into action, looked to have lost his grip on that spot this spring after strong work by sophomore Nick Watkins.

  12. Irish A-to-Z: Justin Yoon

    Aug 24, 2015, 12:27 PM EDT

    Yoon

    No freshman will be tossed into the deep end quicker than kicker Justin Yoon. Essentially Notre Dame’s sole option to kick field goals in 2015, Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff are putting a ton of the shoulders of a true freshman, who’ll be asked to fix a three-point operation that went haywire down the stretch after the Irish’s all-time field goal leader Kyle Brindza lost his mojo.

  13. Irish A-to-Z: Brandon Wimbush

    Aug 23, 2015, 10:45 AM EDT

    St.Peter's Prep signing day ceremony St.Peter's Prep signing day ceremony

    When Brandon Wimbush enrolled in school this summer, he became the latest blue-chip quarterback to join the Notre Dame football program with the burden of great expectations. The New Jersey state player of the year, Wimbush would be wise to forget about the prep accolades, instead focusing his efforts on learning the playbook, with the third-string quarterback closer to the field than you’d ideally want.

  14. Even without Jones, expectations clear for Gilmore’s DL

    Aug 21, 2015, 12:12 PM EDT

    Blue & Gold Illustrated Blue & Gold Illustrated

    Keith Gilmore’s move to Notre Dame reunites him with Brian VanGorder, two football lifers who have known each other since they shared a huddle as players. After a long coaching career, Gilmore also reunites with Brian Kelly, a coach he’s worked for at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame.

  15. Irish A-to-Z: Mykelti Williams

    Aug 21, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Property of Indianapolis Star Property of Indianapolis Star

    Notre Dame landed another Indianapolis product when safety Mykelti Williams joined the Irish this summer, the freshman lending some much needed depth to the secondary. Hailing from Warren Central, the same program that brought Notre Dame Sheldon Day, Williams’ might not contribute as quickly as Day did, but he’ll have a chance to compete for a spot in the two deep behind Max Redfield at free safety.

  16. Irish A-to-Z: Dexter Williams

    Aug 20, 2015, 12:54 PM EDT

    Orlando Sentinel Orlando Sentinel

    With Notre Dame’s running back depth chart down Greg Bryant, freshman Dexter Williams has a clear line to the football field this fall. While wide receiver Justin Brent has converted to the backfield and Tarean Folston returns as a starter, Williams and fellow freshman Josh Adams couldn’t ask for a more advantageous situation, especially with C.J. Prosise taking time to heal an ailing hip flexor.

  17. Suspension behind him, Russell ready to dominate

    Aug 20, 2015, 12:17 PM EDT

    KeiVarae Russell KeiVarae Russell

    Don’t talk to KeiVarae Russell anymore about his suspension. He’s not all that interested. He discussed it with Sports Illustrated, he discussed it at the opening of training camp and he continued to answer questions about it on Media Day.

  18. Freshman CB Shaun Crawford lost for season with ACL tear

    Aug 19, 2015, 10:13 PM EDT

    Shaun Crawford, Tyree Kinnel, Andre Douglas Shaun Crawford, Tyree Kinnel, Andre Douglas

    Talented freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford tore his ACL at practice on Wednesday and is lost for the season. Brian Kelly made the announcement Wednesday night via the sports information department.

  19. Irish A-to-Z: Ashton White

    Aug 19, 2015, 1:49 PM EDT

    Rivals.com Rivals.com

    As part of a talented group of freshman defensive backs, Ashton White has made his presence felt on campus quickly, joining Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman in their attack on the depth chart. Another cornerback with good length and athleticism, White’s career begins as the freshman class looks to make an unlikely imprint on the 2105 season.

  20. Five things we learned: Notre Dame’s Media Day

    Aug 19, 2015, 4:03 AM EDT

    It was the standard Media Day dog-and-pony show in South Bend on Tuesday, with national reporters descending on Notre Dame to pay proper respects to the Irish football program, all while likely wondering if this is indeed “the year.” And perhaps it’s because Brian Kelly already delivered a lengthy state of the union address to open camp—or more likely—because he’s already sick of talking about the enhanced expectations for his sixth team, Tuesday afternoon felt like a redundancy that coaches and players alike wanted to put in the rearview mirror.