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).
Mar 13, 2014, 9:26 PM EDT
Around this time of year, most Irish fans thought the worst was behind them. The sting of a lopsided defeat in the national title game had almost worn off. The shock of the Manti Te’o catfishing story had faded, and the Irish had just inked one of the top recruiting classes in the country. While Gunner…
Mar 12, 2014, 3:37 PM EDT
Louis Nix appeared on the Jim Rome Show this morning and as you might have guessed, he didn’t disappoint. In under 11 minutes, Nix and Rome touched on all the greatest hits, everything from his tough upbringing in Jacksonville, his decision to come to Notre Dame, the disappointment that came from an injury plagued senior…
Mar 11, 2014, 2:52 PM EDT
Brian Kelly has never been afraid to move players. In his four seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly has filled his secondary with former wide receivers, turned a linebacker into a tight end, running backs into wide receivers, and bounced lineman across the line of scrimmage. After beginning his career at Grand Valley, the Irish head…
Mar 10, 2014, 2:19 PM EDT
The long discussed idea of having an early signing period for college football appears to be picking up traction. A recent report by ESPN says that a panel of conference commissioners will meet this summer as momentum for legislation picks up. With Signing Day becoming one of the signature holidays in college football, a cottage…
Mar 8, 2014, 2:23 PM EDT
After getting our first taste of spring ball, we’re going to have to wait two weeks for practice No. 3. While it’ll give South Bend a chance to thaw, it’s leaving all of us in a lurch. So let’s get caught up on some recruiting. Notre Dame held its first Junior Day last weekend, entertaining…
Mar 6, 2014, 12:08 PM EDT
As we look for subplots to cover with practice now on a two-week hiatus, the schedule of this “spring’s” 15 sessions is definitely worth discussing. It’s no secret that football coaches are creatures of habit. So it’s likely that a ton of thought went into determining the unorthodox set-up for the Irish’s 15 critical workouts. Planning for…
Mar 5, 2014, 11:33 PM EDT
The Fighting Irish took the field Wednesday morning for their second session of spring practice. With two weeks off and the university’s spring break sandwiched between practice two and three, it’s certainly an interesting time for the football program to get work done. Yet it’s clear that there’s work to be done and the team…
Mar 4, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
There was no question that by the end of the 2013 season, Notre Dame’s coverage teams were a mess. The product of a ravaged depth chart, the Irish were miserable covering kicks, likely a deadly mix of mismatched personnel and some questionable schemes. After a commitment to putting better players on the special teams units…
Mar 3, 2014, 8:40 PM EDT
Well, it’s finally that time of year. (Again.) Let’s get to over-analyzing UND.com practice videos! With the Irish taking the practice field bright and early Monday morning, our friends at UND.com released their first practice video of the new year. Let’s spend an unhealthy amount of time talking about what we see here: Enjoy. 0:06…
Mar 3, 2014, 4:29 PM EDT
Everett Golson is finally back where he belongs. After a season away from the Irish, Golson took his first snaps with the football program Monday morning and addressed the media after the team’s first spring practice. While he didn’t want to rehash the situation that forced him away from the program for a season, Golson…
Mar 1, 2014, 6:24 PM EDT
In addition to Brian Kelly’s opening press conference, UND.com brought us a behind the scenes peek at winter workouts. With some footage from Camp Kelly, a few epic tire fights, and a whole lot of sweat, steam, and hard work, it’s a fun watch and good update on the team’s progress since the bowl game.…
Feb 28, 2014, 9:55 PM EDT
It was a slightly more newsworthy opening press conference than you might expect from Brian Kelly. While the usual introductory remarks were certainly there, Kelly also broke a fair amount of news as the 2014 Irish begin their work in earnest. We’ve already talked about the tweaks to the coaching staff. But some significant roster…
Feb 28, 2014, 4:35 PM EDT
It didn’t feel like spring this morning in South Bend when Brian Kelly started his car, the temperature well below zero as the Irish head coach headed to the Gug. But after a week skiing with his family, Notre Dame’s fifth-year head coach prepares to start one of the more unique spring schedules he’s ever…
Feb 27, 2014, 4:09 PM EDT
No unit in the country is looking at bigger shoes to fill than Notre Dame’s defensive front. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two once-in-a-decade talents who left South Bend after injury plagued and underachieving seasons. With injuries marring the development of linemen young and old, there’s no question that the defensive line is…
Feb 27, 2014, 3:24 PM EDT
With Brian Kelly set to kickoff spring football tomorrow, one of his key players not taking part in practice opened up about life away from Notre Dame. DaVaris Daniels, the Irish’s leading returning receiver, is away from school after failing to achieve a 2.0 grade-point-average during the fall semester. He spoke with CBS Sports’ Jeremy…
Feb 26, 2014, 4:40 PM EDT
Notre Dame had nine players at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. To a man, they all left town improving their proverbial draft stock. We’ve already touched on what the nine-man Irish contingency meant to the football program. Speed, strength and athleticism were on display by Irish prospects, with statistical gains under Paul Longo’s direction…
Feb 25, 2014, 7:31 PM EDT
Notre Dame headed into last season without a All-American candidate to catch the football. After a pretty incredible run at the position — from Jeff Samardzija-to-Golden Tate-to-Kyle Rudolph-to-Michael Floyd-to-Tyler Eifert — the Irish had TJ Jones to anchor the position, a solid yet far from spectacular veteran receiver. Jones flourished in his final season in…
Feb 24, 2014, 1:56 PM EDT
One of the more competitive positions on the Irish depth chart has 15 practices to gain some clarity. Running backs coach Tony Alford has one of the deepest position groups to sort through this spring, though the unit is still looking for a breakout star at the position. While rising sophomore Tarean Folston showed some…
Feb 24, 2014, 2:13 AM EDT
After reaching his weight loss goals for the NFL Scouting Combine, Stephon Tuitt suffered a setback in his quest to be taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. The former Irish defensive end has a small fracture in his left foot, according to a report by NFL.com. According to the report, Tuitt won’t work out…
Feb 23, 2014, 1:16 PM EDT
Former Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo spoke publicly for the first time about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former St. Mary’s student who committed suicide a week after accusing a Notre Dame football player of a sexual attack. While the player’s name had stayed anonymous in media reports, Shembo acknowledged that he was the…
- Kelly rolls the dice again with position switches 61
- Golson returns to the practice field 20
- Spring Solutions: Wide receivers and tight ends 23
- Cody Riggs officially joins the Irish 39
- Academic casualties proof that foundation at Notre Dame remains 120
- Irish succeed with 2014 class, even against the odds 121