Quayshawn Nealy, Devin Street

And in that corner… The Pittsburgh Panthers

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One year after an underwhelming Pitt team came into Notre Dame Stadium and nearly ended the Irish’s dream season early, Paul Chryst‘s squad once again has the Irish in their sights. An up and down season could be kickstarted by a victory over Notre Dame.

It’s been a mixed back for the Panthers this season. They’ve shown spurts of having the offensive firepower to hang in the ACC, but haven’t been able to play the type of consistent football needed to take the program back to a winning level. Part of that is the product of massive instability at the top of the food chain, with Chryst replacing current Arizona State coach Todd Graham after a year, who replaced Mike Haywood before ever coaching a game, who was hired after the Dave Wannstedt era was ended.

Getting us up to speed on all things Pitt is Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill. He’s been writing about all things Pitt Panthers, and was kind enough to answer my questions as a battered Irish squad gets ready to head east to play another primetime football game this Saturday.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

***

Sitting at 4-4 after eight games, things from 30,000 feet feel like a mixed bag. The rushing offense is anemic, curious for a Paul Chryst offense. The defense is a respectable 34th in total defense, two slots ahead of Notre Dame, but has looked shaky against decent competition. Just how frustrating is this team for Panthers fans?

It’s been even more frustrating than normal to be honest. The team hasn’t shown any type of consistency all year and after some strong offensive games early this season, that unit has really taken a nosedive. The defense, as you stated, has been reasonable overall, but has had its share of struggles, too. That side of the ball gave up 55 points to Duke and a total of 75 to the likes of Old Dominion, New Mexico, and Navy. There have been far too many lapses, particularly in pass coverage.

What fans are starting to realize is that this just isn’t a very good team. They’ve proven they can beat bottom feeders, but don’t have a single quality win (no, beating a 6-2 Duke team doesn’t count) and while they’ve been competitive against some good teams, they also haven’t been able to put it all together.

It feels like Devin Street has been at Pitt forever. Tom Savage might be the truest journeyman quarterback in college football. Sprinkle in the impressive freshman campaign of Tyler Boyd, and will Pitt challenge the Irish secondary through the air?

Not if recent history holds true. Pitt’s aerial attack looked pretty good earlier in the season and Savage even tied a Pitt record with six touchdown passes against Duke. But the passing game has really struggled against better defenses. It’s not so much the fault of the skill players, who have been serviceable when Savage has had enough time to throw. The problem has been a very weak offensive line that has allowed Savage to be harassed for much of the season. Under pressure, it’s been hard for him to get anything going.

Tyler Boyd, who started the season strong disappeared off the radar screen until last week against Georgia Tech when he had 11 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. The hope is that the team will start to look for him a bit more, but if the Irish defensive line pressures Savage, it’s hard to imagine the passing game having any kind of rhythm.

After saying goodbye to Rushel Shell, how has the Pitt run game done without him? Notre Dame could be heading into this game missing over half of its two-deep along the defensive line. Will Pitt do their best to pound the football?

The running game has, overall, been a bit of a mess. The same thing I mentioned earlier holds true here as well – they’ve played well against bad teams, but poorly against good ones. Unsurprisingly, Isaac Bennett and James Conner have had their best games against Old Dominion, New Mexico, and Duke. But they’ve struggled mightily against Florida State (69 combined yards), Virginia (32 combined yards), and Virginia Tech (32 combined yards). Things hit rock bottom last weekend against Georgia Tech as the pair had a whopping 19 yards. Pitt really misses Shell as Bennett and Conner have had trouble against better competition. It’s not all on them as the offensive line has been pretty bad, but they just haven’t gotten much going.

Paul Chryst is a run-first type of guy and I’d expect he’ll start by trying to establish the run to see what the pair can do. Savage will get his fair share of attempts, but Chryst will surely try to run the ball.

On the defensive side of the ball, the strength of the Panthers looks to be up front with Aaron Donald and company. Just how good is Donald? And will this group make things difficult for an Irish offensive line that could be short two starters?

Donald is an absolute freak and is looking like a potential first- or second-round talent. He’s doing things on the interior of the line that even defensive ends don’t do. You name it he does it – sacks, forced fumbles, double-digit tackle games … he’s just too much for 95% of the offensive linemen out there and even drawing double teams still finds a way to make an impact.

Unfortunately the rest of the line has been only mediocre, although defensive end Bryan Murphy has had some good games lately. Even so, though, Donald is capable of causing havoc on his own.

Assess the Paul Chryst era so far?

Still an incomplete grade for me. Many fans are displeased with the lack of progress so far since Pitt won only six games last year and is having a similar year this season. But the offensive line cupboard was so bare that it was hard to expect too much right away. On the recruiting end, he has managed to rebuild the line, bringing in five offensive linemen last year and has several more commitments for 2014. Chryst has unimpressed with his game coaching so far, but as I’ve said on my blog, this whole head coaching thing is new to him. Growing pains are to be expected and to grade him when he hasn’t even completed two seasons is wholly unfair.

A badly banged up Notre Dame team opened up 3.5 point favorites but that’s stretched to 5 points. How do you see this game shaking out? Pitt’s best win of the year looks like a 58-55 shootout. They’ve lost two straight to option teams Navy and Georgia Tech.

I expect Pitt to be right there. The Panthers always seem to get up for Notre Dame and are 2-3 over the past five games against the Irish. Even though they’ve dropped the past three, it’s only been by a total of 12 points and two of those games have been on the road. At home and coming off of the disappointment from last year, I expect it to be a close game. Five points against a very average team would seem to be on the low end, but with Pitt’s history against Notre Dame, I have a hard time seeing it be a blowout. I’m not sure if I’m ready to call a Pitt victory here, but a three-five win either way is how I think this will end up.

What’s the recipe for a Pitt victory?

If Pitt is going to win, the key will be getting Tom Savage time to throw. When he has that, he’s proven to be dangerous and with Street and Boyd, he has two of the better receivers in the ACC at his disposal. The Panthers need a solid defensive effort, obviously, but they’ve had that a few other times this season and still come up short. If Pitt is going to win, they’ll need to score more points than they have been lately – and for that to happen, the offensive line simply has to give Savage time to throw.

***

For more from Anson, be sure to check him out everywhere he writes. You can also follow him on Twitter @AnsonWhaley or @PittPantherBlog.  

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the grind

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Enough has been made about the fate of Brian Kelly’s football team. Now it’s time to play. Because for the young team that takes the field each week, Saturday is an opportunity to improve, a chance to win a football game, and one of 12 Saturdays that serve as a reward for the hard work that goes in all year round.

At 1-2, nothing is served by looking at the big picture. Conversely, it’s Kelly’s job to drill down, making sure his players and coaches understand that the details are what will be critical on this third-straight home weekend.

With the team focusing on the little things, let’s do the same in the Pregame Six Pack. With the Irish and the Blue Devils meeting for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon, let’s focus on six key position groups that will ensure the Irish leave the game at a level 2-2.

 

The defensive backs. Players young and old need to take a step forward. That means Cole Luke needs to rebound from his worst week wearing an Irish uniform and Devin Studstill needs to keep improving. That means the Irish need to hold up not just in pass coverage, but in run fits as well—the focus as much on youngsters as it is on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.

Without Max Redfield, Shaun Crawford, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this group has no reinforcements other than the youth on the roster. And Kelly sounded fairly clear that with the Irish out of the picture for a big postseason spot, he may be inclined to save Watkins’ year of eligibility and let him forearm heal with time.

“We’re at a point right now where we have to make a decision whether we want to get him in,” Kelly said.  “I would say standing here in front of you right now, based upon my conversation with Dr. Ratigan, he thinks it’s still two more weeks, and if that’s the case, I would lean toward not playing him this year. Not to use up a half-year on him.”

That means Nick Coleman’s going to keep playing. Donte Vaughn will get his chances, too. And it’s up to everybody to step their games up—because this is the group that needs to get the job done.

 

The Offensive Line. The Irish front didn’t have a strong Saturday last weekend. And so you can guess that Harry Hiestand let his unit know this week that those results wouldn’t be good enough.

Expect to see a new attitude this week. That means a commitment to sustaining blocks. It means a diligence in spotting pressures. And it means getting the ground game—and the line of scrimmage—moving.

“It comes down to what we do and that’s the way football is, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it’s executing what you need to do and what your job is,” Mike McGlinchey said this week. “Doing that against a look that is in front of you, that’s the great thing about playing offense, especially offensive line, is a lot of it is in your control. You just have to be able to see what’s happening in front of you and trust the guys next to you to get the job done and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Expects Duke’s defense to challenge Notre Dame’s front with varied looks and a multitude of different pressures. But after struggling against the Spartans, expect a very motivated Irish offensive line to set the tone on Saturday.

 

 

The Pass Rush. Brian Kelly called Duke quarterback Daniel Jones “as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense.” That’s high praise for a young player just getting started, but it’s likely a credit to a smart quarterback and a very good offensive coaching staff. So as the Irish defense tries to find its footing, expect the Blue Devils staff to see some opportunities after watching three games of tape from Notre Dame’s defense.

But a developing set of receivers and a struggling offensive line should give Notre Dame’s woeful pass rush some opportunities to establish themselves. It should also help protect a secondary that found itself in position to make plays last week, but just didn’t get the job done.

The Blue Devils short passing game has had success. But if Duke tries to extend those throws down the field, the Irish defense better be ready. You can only do so much in the secondary. Against a Duke offensive line that hasn’t been at its best, the Irish front should be able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, with veterans like Isaac Rochell or a rookie like Daelin Hayes. The door is open to get a sack or two from a position group that’s been missing in action through the season’s first quarter.

 

Special Teams. Scott Booker’s unit has to want to get that bad taste from their mouth. Jalen Elliott’s penalty took a score off the board. Miles Boykin’s mistake gave the football to the Spartans. And Nicco Fertitta took a stupid penalty, getting himself noticed for all the wrong reasons.

CJ Sanders is due for a bounce back. And Duke’s specialists have been struggling, too. If the Irish want to win this game convincingly, they can dominate the third phase of the football game, helping the defense with field position and setting up the offense with a short field or two.

 

Wide Receivers. I noticed Chase Claypool attacking the football. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did, too. Now it’s time to add the talented freshman to the mix, another downfield weapon who can exploit mismatches and bring a physicality to a unit that already features Equanimeous St. Brown.

Duke’s defense isn’t bad. But they’ll be asked to do a lot, committing bodies to stop the running game and hold up the Blue Devils if the offense can’t get rolling. But for as good as DeShone Kizer has been this season, he’s due a few big plays from the guys catching passes. A season after Will Fuller served as a home run hitter, it’s time for an Irish pass catcher to take a long ball to the house.

 

The Head Coach. Yes, I know this is cheating. The head coach isn’t a position group.

But this is Brian Kelly’s team. That means that he’s ultimately in charge of Brian VanGorder’s besieged defense, the special teams that struggled last week and the offense that went missing for two quarters.

Kelly’s been under the bright lights before. And after seven seasons, a little external heat isn’t anything that’s going to come as a surprise—no matter how successful he’s been turning this program around.

 

“It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

So it’s up to Kelly to have his team avoid the noise. It’s up to the coaches and players inside the Gug to find the motivation. And it’s up to the team to play with an internal motivation that doesn’t take into account the team’s postseason destination.

The message has been sent, at least if you listen to one of the team’s captains.

“It’s got to be self and team pride,” McGlinchey said this week. “It’s the constant battle to become the best person and player you can be each and every day. And along with that, become the best team we can be every day. That’s the motivation, just become better and do better and continue to work for that, and everything that we do is about.”

The message is clear. Now delivering on it is essential.

Behind the Irish: Gameday traditions

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With Notre Dame ready to welcome Duke to South Bend for a third-straight home weekend, our Behind the Irish feature takes a look at some of the unique home traditions of football Saturdays at Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly and players Nyles Morgan, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey give us a look at their favorite gameday traditions.

Talking Irish: Moving on after Michigan State

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Chase Claypool #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass over Vayante Copeland #13 of the Michigan State Spartans during a game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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As we have the past few weeks, JJ Stankevitz and I break things down after a tough week for Notre Dame football.

***

KA: First off — congrats on the pick. What made you think that was going to happen? (A Spartans’ win)

JJ: It was mostly a distrust of the Brian VanGorder defense. It didn’t come through last year against Stanford and it didn’t come through against Texas. And until further notice, you never bet against a streak, right? Though I guess I didn’t get MSU enough credit. (I went with 27-26 MSU)

But the loss wasn’t all on the defense. How would you evaluate the offense going forward?

KA: I’m pretty down on the offensive line play. I thought the front five has been underwhelming, I think we got WAY too excited about McGlinchey and Nelson as some type of wrecking crew, and I think, in general, these guys look a lot like a group with four new starters (at least positionally) working together for the first time.

JJ: Bingo. It’s certainly not for a lack of talent, but sometimes O-lines need time to come together. We’re seeing that now. I mean, last year, ND was 4th in opportunity rate. This year, they’re 79th. There are problems on O, no doubt.

KA:  But I think we owe it to the people with pitchforks and torches to circle back to the D.
So let me ask you this: Give me your odds (%wise) on Brian VanGorder being the team’s defensive coordinator come spring practice?

(too hot?)😎

JJ: I guess I don’t want to speculate about a guy losing his job, but I’ll say this, that just because Brian Kelly is defending him now doesn’t mean his job is safe.

KA: That’s fair. I just think it’s amazing that we’ve all essentially called the guy GONE, when BK is saying the exact opposite thing.

JJ: Giving up on a coach after three games and publicly putting him on the hot seat probably is counter-productive for a season that still has 10 weeks left in it.

KA: Couldn’t agree more. And I thought one of the big things BK had to say last week that struck me was his commentary on the personnel and the players that they recruited.

If I have a big revelation — I’m just kind of coming to the conclusion that it’s just as much about the Jimmys and the Joes as it is about the Xs and the Os. Which scares me a bit, but also explains things from a coaching POV.

JJ: Right, but it’s not an excuse.

KA: But why isn’t it an excuse? This team lost: The Butkus Award winner, their leading sacker, their leading TFL DT, a captain at MLB, a 3rd round CB, their starting free safety and starting SS. Why are we surprised they’re worse?

JJ: Because the players ultimately were recruited by the coaching staff. If the personnel isn’t there, it first and foremost falls on the guys who brought them in, which is sort of what Kelly was getting at.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, based on that. But this is college football, where every roster cycles through players on a four-year cycle. You have to be able to replace them.
Indeed.

JJ: At other schools, a down year is fine. But the expectations at Notre Dame don’t allow for that.

KA: It’s kind of maddening. The Tenuta era was a long time ago—and I don’t think this is THAT bad — but it’s now in a similar conversation.

(Palette cleanser)

So is Duke just a perfect slump buster? Or is there something about this game that scares you, too?

JJ: Duke’s efficient passing offense is a bit troublesome. But they only scored 27 combined points against Wake Forest and Northwestern, which, meh. And Notre Dame hasn’t scored fewer than 28 points at home since Oct. 4, 2014 vs. Stanford.

Are you worried about anything for this one?

KA: I’m now in “worried about everything” mode. So yes, to be candid. And mostly because I’ve done a 180 on just about every defender NOT named James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan. I’d bet Duke and take the 17 points, and then it’d be the first time ever I lost money on ND and they ended up winning convincingly.

(Strictly from a hypothetical gambling POV, of course…)

JJ: At this juncture, style points don’t matter. Notre Dame isn’t making the playoff, but just winning games is the most important thing. So even if it’s a sloppy win…hey, it’s a win, and ND will take it.

KA: That’s a really important point. And one that I really struggled to get across in my writing post-Michigan State loss. We spent a solid DECADE as ND people watching the Irish get out of September with multiple losses. Never once did it feel like the season was “lost,” at least not with nine games to go.

JJ: And it’s certainly not lost for the 80+ players inside the Gug. Torii Hunter said this week that getting to 10 wins still would be a good accomplishment, and James Onwualu basically said that playing for personal pride should count for a lot.

KA: 10 wins would be an incredible season — no matter the year. It doesn’t happen all that often around here.

I’ll have you do the same thought-exercise I did this week: How much have you changed your expectations for the remaining schedule after seeing how straight-up bad this D is?

JJ: So I predicted 10 wins before the season, either through a 9-3 regular season + bowl win of 10-2 regular season + bowl loss. I think now, the 2013 team is about my expectation, probably 9-4.

KA: So a loss to Stanford and Miami and a win against USC?

JJ: And if Notre Dame is competitive with Stanford and beats Miami, I’ll be more willing to go back to my preseason prediction.

KA: At least Irish fans can enjoy the schadenfreude with USC.

JJ:  Miami is weird. Maybe that win that game and lose to NC State or Navy or Army or something.

KA: It’s nuts. Army looks downright terrifying. I actually think Syracuse’s up-tempo attack looks pretty scary, too.

JJ: Yeah, that’s a topic for next week. Fear the Babers.

KA:  Okay – let’s get positive here! Give me 3 things areas or players who’ll take a big step forward this weekend?

JJ: The O-line, the D-Line and DeShone Kizer. I think this O-line coalesces at some point — you have to trust the talent and Hiestand. The D-line has individually played well but not consistently as a unit. But I like what I’ve seen in spurts from Cage/Jones, Tillery and Rochell. And DeShone Kizer is very good and will only continue to grow on being very good.

KA:  I’ll give you mine: Big day on Special Teams (gonna get crazy and call for a block or 40+ yard return), the TRUE freshmen, and the pass rush. (First sack coming!)

JJ: It has to, right?

I’ll give you my projection: Notre Dame 42, Duke 27

KA: I’ll give you, ND 37, Duke 21.No cover. ND win.

Looks like a summer day this weekend in South Bend — don’t get too crazy drinking Tim O’Malley’s free Cherry Coke.