Oct 31, 2012, 1:46 PM EST
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).
Mar 1, 2015, 7:47 PM EST
Before Brian Kelly introduces us to his new coaching staff tomorrow, let’s finish the mailbag. More here on what to expect from Mike Sanford, “committing” to the run, and stopping the option.
Feb 28, 2015, 2:48 PM EST
Well crew, I’ve gotta say… I’m a little underwhelmed by the mailbag question. And in the 150+ comments of people screaming at each other about mostly stupid stuff, I think I speak for everybody when I say:
Feb 27, 2015, 12:40 PM EST
Former Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., died Thursday night on campus. Father Ted was 97. He said his final mass on Thursday, the day he passed away.
Feb 26, 2015, 3:24 PM EST
Gone are Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth. Returning is a safety position that’s struggled, another transfer, a young cornerback on the rise, and (hopefully) an exiled potential star.
Welcome to the Notre Dame secondary. New coaching, same scheme, different players, and one of 2015’s great unknowns.
Feb 25, 2015, 2:34 PM EST
As we get a few extra weeks to prep for spring practice, let’s open the mailbag.
Feb 24, 2015, 6:56 PM EST
A position that looked like a huge question mark entering the 2014 season ended the year with an embarrassment of riches. After watching Will Fuller emerge with a record-setting sophomore season, the loss of DaVaris Daniels and departure of TJ Jones didn’t do anything to slow the Irish passing game down.
Feb 24, 2015, 1:34 PM EST
None of Notre Dame’s coaching changes are official yet. But more arrows point to North Carolina defensive line coach Keith Gilmore joining the Irish staff in the same role.
Feb 23, 2015, 12:43 AM EST
There might not be a deeper unit on the roster than the offensive line. After a lack of depth made it nearly impossible to practice at full speed heading into the 2012 BCS title game, Notre Dame enters the 2015 season with a two-deep most teams would pay for.
Feb 20, 2015, 10:48 AM EST
Whether it’s the Siberian Express rolling through most of the country (sorry, guys) or the grand reshuffling taking place on Brian Kelly’s coaching staff, Notre Dame announced a delay in the kickoff of spring practice.
Feb 19, 2015, 11:44 AM EST
After an incredibly impressive run at the position, Notre Dame enters spring practice with nothing but question marks at tight end. After Brian Kelly watched Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and now Ben Koyack churn through his program, he’ll spend spring trying to figure out what exactly he has at the position.
Feb 18, 2015, 11:47 AM EST
On Tuesday, a flurry of reports had Brian Kelly focusing in on the final pieces of his reshuffled coaching staff. They include two likely additions, one transition, and a position shift.
Feb 18, 2015, 11:18 AM EST
A few days after safety Avery Sebastian announced his intentions, Notre Dame made the commitment and graduate transfer of the former Cal safety official. Sebastian will enroll in graduate school and join the team in June.
Feb 17, 2015, 4:12 PM EST
After missing out on a running back in the 2014 recruiting cycle, a once crowded depth chart now only features Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Two backs that once worried about having to find snaps will now have all the work they could ever want, with the majority of spring spent doing everything they can to stay healthy.
Feb 16, 2015, 2:20 PM EST
One of the most impressive statistical seasons in school history was flushed down the toilet when Everett Golson could not stop turning the football over. With fumbles, poor decision-making and some plain bad luck plaguing Golson’s otherwise exceptional season, Brian Kelly chose Malik Zaire to be his starter for the Music City Bowl.
Feb 16, 2015, 8:45 AM EST
Finishing up a holiday weekend with part three of the mailbag.
Feb 14, 2015, 7:18 PM EST
Let’s continue with the mailbag, starting with my guess as to how the quarterback battle this spring ends up.
Feb 14, 2015, 1:42 PM EST
Notre Dame has its next two-sport athlete. Sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. has joined the baseball team, UND.com announced.
Feb 13, 2015, 11:55 AM EST
We’re going to break up this mailbag into a few different sections as well. With a lot of changes swirling through Brian Kelly’s football program, there’s plenty to cover on a usually slow February weekend.
Feb 12, 2015, 10:18 PM EST
Brian Kelly hinted that Notre Dame wasn’t finished adding players to the roster on Signing Day. And on Thursday night, Kelly and the Irish coaching staff shored up one of their major deficiencies by adding Cal graduate transfer Avery Sebastian.
Feb 11, 2015, 1:38 PM EST
Just days after losing Tony Alford, it looks like Brian Kelly is making a large move on his offensive coaching staff. Multiple reports have Boise State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford joining Notre Dame’s offensive staff.