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).
Apr 18, 2015, 3:40 PM EDT
On a perfect day in South Bend, Notre Dame capped off spring practice with a perfect Blue-Gold game. Let’s go over the five things we learned in the defense’s 36-34 victory.
Apr 18, 2015, 10:31 AM EDT
You’ve come to the right place if you’re looking to stream the 86th annual Blue-Gold game.
Apr 18, 2015, 10:13 AM EDT
It’s a spring game everybody can get behind, as Notre Dame’s guaranteed to end this Saturday a winner. With the Blue-Gold game taking place on the LaBar Practice Fields, let’s get ready with the Pregame Six Pack.
Apr 18, 2015, 12:38 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s annual spring game kicked out of the stadium with massive renovations underway, the Irish are taking to the LaBar practice fields to play on Saturday. But NBCSN will be there to broadcast, and the livestream of the game is also available for you.
Apr 17, 2015, 12:55 AM EDT
With the Blue-Gold game set for Saturday afternoon on NBCSN, spring practice comes to an end with a rare opportunity to see Notre Dame faceoff against itself in a live scrimmage. Keith & JJ talk about some of the spring game’s storylines.
Apr 16, 2015, 11:50 AM EDT
For the first time in over a decade, Notre Dame has a roster crunch. As Notre Dame’s fifth-year candidates submit their applications to the university, Brian Kelly plans on moving forward and using every minute he has to figure out his roster.
Apr 15, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame released the official rules and format for the 86th annual Blue-Gold game. As the LaBar Practice Fields transform to house an intimate live viewing audience, an elite group of recruits and a NBCSN television production, let’s get the basics down as we begin to dig deeper into the spring finale.
Apr 15, 2015, 12:13 PM EDT
With Notre Dame Stadium under construction, this was already going to be a different kind of Blue-Gold game. But when Brian Kelly announced that quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire were going to be live for the first half, he confirmed it.
Apr 15, 2015, 10:31 AM EDT
When Notre Dame plays Boston College this November in Fenway Park, tickets will be hard to come by. But for BC fans looking for a ticket through the Eagles’ athletic department, they better bring their savings accounts.
Apr 14, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
2016 defensive end Julian Okwara committed to Notre Dame on Tuesday evening, following in the footsteps of his brother Romeo.
Apr 14, 2015, 12:05 PM EDT
Most thought C.J. Prosise spending spring practice working with the running backs was a contingency plan—finding a capable body to split carries with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. But Prosise has emerged as a true wildcard in the Irish offense, with Brian Kelly looking for new ways to get the football in the 220-pounder’s hands.
Apr 13, 2015, 11:49 AM EDT
Brian Kelly can’t be sure that Everett Golson will be here in 2015. But after 25 years of coaching college football, Notre Dame’s head coach feels like Golson’s actions are speaking for themselves.
Apr 12, 2015, 1:29 PM EDT
With a big scrimmage on Saturday to get to and a Sunday at Augusta around the corner, let’s get to some mailbag questions.
Apr 11, 2015, 3:09 PM EDT
When Jarrett Grace broke his leg in four places, the linebacker’s career nearly ended. Eighteen months later, Grace is back on the field, and back a part of the master plans for the Irish defense.
Apr 10, 2015, 12:03 PM EDT
Round one of Notre Dame vs. Ohio State went to the Irish, when Ohio native and coveted 2016 OL recruit Tommy Kraemer committed to the Irish last fall. Round two appears to be coming to a close as both the Irish and Buckeyes battle for blue-chip lineman Liam Eichenberg.
Apr 9, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT
As Notre Dame’s defensive coaches try to deal with their latest champagne problem, linebacker Jaylon Smith seems like a lone constant. He’s not coming off the field.
Apr 9, 2015, 12:01 PM EDT
Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Apr 9, 2015, 11:19 AM EDT
Wednesday, Brian Kelly confirmed what just about every Notre Dame football fan already knew: The quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will head into fall camp.
Apr 8, 2015, 7:54 PM EDT
After a promising start to spring football, defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner will need surgery. The rising sophomore will undergo a procedure for a turf toe injury, sidelining him until mid-June.
Apr 8, 2015, 2:50 PM EDT
To put into context what freshman Jerry Tillery is doing this spring, you have to look back at the last time Notre Dame saw a breakout freshman along the defensive line. It was Aaron Lynch. The lanky, pass-rushing defensive end set the Blue-Gold game on fire, unblockable off the edge in his first semester as an early-enrollee college student.
- Pregame Six Pack: Finishing spring practice strong 3
- Even without guarantee, Kelly expects Golson to return next season 107
- Grace opens up about the long road back 44
- Irish QB battle with (understandably) head into fall camp 12
- In a time of change, Denbrock a constant 35
- How does Will Fuller follow up his monster 2014 season? 33