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).
Dec 19, 2013, 3:46 PM EST
Take the U.S. Postal Service, add to it Notre Dame football and the holiday season, and you expect a punchline. But this week, the Irish football program has received a lot of attention on the internet for its “Pot of Gold,” a recruiting tactic that has seen the Notre Dame football office presumably blow through…
Dec 19, 2013, 2:06 PM EST
Purdue confirmed this afternoon that their date with Notre Dame next year will in fact take place in Lucas Oil Stadium. Notre Dame will “host” the Boilermakers in their 2014 Shamrock Series game, an all Indiana affair. “We are excited to bring this great instate rivalry game to Indianapolis next season,” Purdue athletics director Morgan…
Dec 18, 2013, 8:56 PM EST
Ask your questions here. Or @KeithArnold on Twitter. Christmas giveaway details revealed tomorrow. But I promise, it’s a really good gift.
Dec 18, 2013, 6:00 PM EST
I’ve heard from a few people that they actually missed my UND.com practice video breakdowns. So let’s fire up the YouTube machine and over-analyze what’s going on being closed doors at Notre Dame’s practice! As usual, here is a time-coded, cheatsheet that’ll get you through an interesting practice report. 0:10 — It just feels like…
Dec 18, 2013, 3:55 PM EST
In case you missed it, former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was a guest on Jim Rome’s radio show this afternoon. It was a terrific opportunity for the new head coach of the UConn football team to get a national platform, and Diaco dazzled Rome with some of the things that made him such…
Dec 17, 2013, 3:16 PM EST
While Notre Dame doesn’t comment on redshirts or eligibility, it appears that running back Greg Bryant‘s freshman season, where he participated in three early games, will not start his eligibility clock. The running back from Delray Beach, Florida confirmed as much on his Twitter account yesterday afternoon. While the news feels a bit like minutiae for…
Dec 16, 2013, 11:40 AM EST
Blue chip tight end Tyler Luatua committed to Notre Dame Monday morning, continuing a whirlwind of action on the recruiting front for the Irish. Luatua, from La Mirada, California, picked Notre Dame over Alabama, where his brother plays football. Other schools that offered the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder include Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State,…
Dec 16, 2013, 8:00 AM EST
If there was any question how Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame program would address the departures of coordinators Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin, the opening statements from master of ceremonies Jack Nolan at the team banquet answered that question. Within the first two minutes of the show, Nolan delivered a statement to players, families…
Dec 15, 2013, 7:19 PM EST
The weekend continues to be kind to Notre Dame. In a matter of 24 hours, a linebacking corps that looked thin continues to be bolstered. A big part of that is the commitment of Texas linebacker Kolin Hill, who returned home from his official visit Sunday and called the Irish coaching staff to commit, joining…
Dec 15, 2013, 2:08 PM EST
Notre Dame’s annual award show netted more than a few trophies. The Irish football team walked away with a commitment from inside linebacker prospect Nile Sykes. Multiple outlets are reporting that the Chicagoland recruit, who was on his official visit this weekend, gave the Irish a key player at a position of need. Sykes was…
Dec 13, 2013, 7:30 PM EST
After a semester in purgatory, Everett Golson has been readmitted to Notre Dame, clearing his return to the football program. Golson received the rubber stamp today, made official by Paul Brown, Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs and communications. “Everett Golson was readmitted this afternoon to the University of Notre Dame,” the one-line statement…
Dec 13, 2013, 10:10 AM EST
An early Brian Kelly quote that’s followed the head coach from the moment he uttered it keeps bubbling back to the surface. “Get used to it.” That’s the first thing that comes to mind when you watch Irish assistants head out the door for head coaching jobs. First, offensive coordinator Chuck Martin left South Bend…
Dec 11, 2013, 10:25 PM EST
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has accepted the head coaching position at UConn. NBC Sports has confirmed the news that was first reported by CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman. The 2012 Broyles Award winner leaves another huge hole in Brian Kelly’s staff, with both Diaco and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin taking head coaching jobs in…
Dec 11, 2013, 5:30 PM EST
As Notre Dame prepares for the Pinstripe Bowl, defensive end Stephon Tuitt is likely preparing to make his own big decision. The junior defensive end is eligible to enter the NFL Draft, and depending on what you hear from various experts in the media, Tuitt will likely be a first round pick whenever he decides…
Dec 10, 2013, 8:39 AM EST
Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick will be in wintery New York today, for a press conference with Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood and his athletic director Julie Hermann. It’ll be another opportunity for us to hear from the Irish head coach, who has a busy week with recruiting, visiting Everett Golson, and preparing his football…
Dec 9, 2013, 12:59 PM EST
The Irish practiced yesterday, with Brian Kelly meeting with the local media to discuss preparation for the Pinstripe Bowl. Notre Dame will practice ten times between now and the 28th, with the Irish spending Christmas in New York, leaving South Bend on the 23rd. While other bowls were discussed, and for a time the Poinsettia…
Dec 8, 2013, 10:42 PM EST
A day after accepting a bid to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood fired three assistants. The second-year head coach fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, quarterbacks coach Rob Spence and offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski. Those changes go into effect immediately, meaning Flood will likely be short-handed in the Pinstripe Bowl.…
Dec 8, 2013, 10:21 AM EST
After visiting Notre Dame multiple times, 2015 offensive lineman Tristen Hoge gave his commitment to the Irish coaching staff over the weekend, adding another key building block for the future. The six-foot-4, 285-pound Idaho native chose Notre Dame over an elite set of early offers, giving Harry Hiestand another top lineman prospect. Hoge already had…
Dec 7, 2013, 12:29 PM EST
Notre Dame has made it official. They’ll be heading to New York City for bowl season. The Irish accepted an invitation to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl today, both the New York Yankees and Notre Dame announced. The game will take place on Saturday, December 28 at 12:15 p.m. ET. The Irish will take on…
Dec 6, 2013, 10:47 AM EST
Welcome to our first non-game / pre-bowl weekend. While conference championship games play on and bowl assignments will be coming soon, let’s throw some headlines out to get you to the weekend. * Members of the Irish coaching staff stayed on the West Coast to recruit after the Stanford game. We’ll see if it has…
- It’s official: Golson returns to Notre Dame 59
- Bob Diaco accepts the UConn head coaching job 117
- Stay or go? Stephon Tuitt has a big decision to make 40
- It’s official: Chuck Martin the new head coach at Miami (OH) 96
- The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford 79
- Five things we learned: Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20 140