And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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While it’s difficult to call Notre Dame’s rivalry with Pitt—well, a rivalry—there’s certainly a long history between the two football programs. The Irish and the Panthers started playing in 1909. They’ve rarely taken a break longer than two years. And over the past decade, Pitt has routinely been a thorn in the side of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s last visit to the Steel City ended the Irish’s BCS hopes, with the Irish losing a disappointing 28-21 game in early November. The Panthers most likely felt like they were getting even from the year before, when Notre Dame kept their undefeated season alive thanks to some late-game heroics by Everett Golson, a missed 33-yard field goal and a triple-OT escape.

In 2011, the Irish won ugly against Todd Graham. In 2010, Kelly beat Dave Wannstedt. It feels like an eternity since Wannstedt roamed the sidelines, and nearly a half-dozen head coaches later, the Irish will face former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi as he heads down the home stretch of his debut season atop the program.

Joining us to talk Pitt football is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. While we’ll let him get away with being a Taylor Swift apologist, he’s a Notre Dame grad and an Observer Sports alum who covered the Irish for the student newspaper.

Sam works the Panthers beat and runs the Post-Gazette’s Pitt football blog, The Redshirt Diaries.  So he has a better handle than most on the “rivalry” between Notre Dame and Pitt, and also had Narduzzi threaten to ban him from practice this week for his alma mater, which would’ve been kinda nice from a workload perspective, I’m guessing.

Hope you enjoy this Q&A, and special thanks to Sam for joining us on a busy week.
* The Panthers had been flying nicely below the radar, ranked until their loss to UNC last week. Taking a step back, can you give us an assessment of Pat Narduzzi as a head coach, considering it took longer than most expected for him to get a chance at leading a program?

I think it’s hard to be anything but optimistic about Narduzzi’s future potential as a head coach. I really do think he was sort of biding his time at Michigan State until the right job came along. That job happened to be Pitt, just about an hour away from where he grew up in Youngstown.

One of the benefits of that patience is that he really got a good look at what exactly it takes to build a program the way Mark Dantonio did in East Lansing. It was sort of clear for the last few years that he was going to get a head job eventually, and Dantonio did his best to prepare Narduzzi for when he got there.

Now, there are still some hiccups, as there would be with any first-time head coaches. Things like clock management, when to go for it on fourth down are parts of the job that you can never prepare for until you get there, so Narduzzi has had some growing pains in those areas.

From a big picture sense, though, he seems to have a very clear and detailed vision about what he expects this football team to be and what it takes to get there. He’s a stickler for every single little detail, and that’s usually a good quality in a head coach.

 

* Like Notre Dame, Pitt’s season got started with a terrible injury, losing the ACC player of the year just eight carries into his season when James Conner tore his ACL. But Qadree Ollison has filled in nicely, the freshman averaging 5.4 yards a carry and scoring eight touchdowns.

Has the power-running identity of the Panthers had to change because of the injury to Conner? Is Ollison the main weapon you expect Pitt to challenge the Irish with?

I wouldn’t say Pitt’s identity as a power-running team has changed without Conner, I would just say it’s not as good. Ollison has been effective in spots this year, but has also ceded time to sophomore Chris James and true freshman Darrin Hall at various points in the year, so he hasn’t exactly been the workhorse back that Conner would have (though, to be fair to Ollison, it’d be ridiculous to expect him to step in and replicate what James Conner did). I also get the sense that Ollison is a bit of a liability in pass protection, which has probably cost him playing time in certain situations, too.

Ollison will probably be the main back Pitt uses against Notre Dame, but I would expect to see James and Hall, too. Whichever one of them looks best early will probably be the guy in the second half. The way Pitt will get into trouble is if none look good early on and they have to play musical chairs at running back all the way through the game.

 

* Defensively, Narduzzi was well known as one of the best defensive coaches in the country. Statistically, it looks like a minor uptick is just about every category since taking over. But what’s the major difference you’ve seen in the Xs and Os this season?

I know it’s sort of a coaching change cliche, but everything really does seem to be much simpler than it was last year. Players have said that, last season, the Panthers would change up the gameplan just about every week to match up with their given opponent, whereas this year it’s just about executing their scheme to the best of their ability and daring opponents to beat them. Defensive lineman Mark Scarpinato, a grad transfer who played for Narduzzi at Michigan State, said that one of the trademarks of those defenses was that the offenses knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop them.

Now, Pitt isn’t quite there yet. There was a lot of optimism early on as the Panthers raced out to lead the ACC in sacks after four games, but that has sort of tempered over the last three games (one total sack). If this defense isn’t getting to the quarterback, that puts a lot of pressure on the corners (generally in single coverage) to stay with their man for a long time, and that can have some bad results for a defense.

 

* Notre Dame’s ground game has been prolific this season, but the two best defenses Notre Dame has faced — Clemson and Temple — have done a good job shutting down C.J. Prosise. How do you expect the Panthers to fair in the trenches?

That’s the question that will, I think, ultimately decide whether Pitt stays in this game or not. While the Panthers was very stout against the run early on in the season, they seem to have taken a step back in recent weeks against Syracuse and North Carolina (they also REALLY struggled stopping the run against Georgia Tech, but I’ll throw that one out).

The interior of the defensive line is pretty solid, with a defensive tackle rotation that goes four deep. The ends have been a bit more of a concern, though, and that seems to be where teams have had success running against Pitt, either on the edge or off tackle. If there’s a good sign for Pitt, though, it’s that the rushing numbers in recent weeks have been slightly skewed by a few big plays. Obviously that’s not good that they’re giving up long runs, but it’s not like they’re getting gashed consistently for eight yards a carry.

I think Pitt will try and do whatever it can to stop the run. I’ve had multiple conversations with Narduzzi about his defense, and that is always his No. 1 priority with everything else a distant second. Even after last year’s Cotton Bowl, when his defense gave up 41 points and 583 yards to Baylor, Narduzzi was quick to point out that the Bears had -20 rushing yards, and that’s a success in his book. At his press conference this morning, he said, “We should be able to stop the run better than we have. That’s the frustrating thing. They throw a 71-yard pass, I’m okay with that. But you better stop the run. That’ll be a major focus this week.”

 

* Pitt is starting Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman for the majority of the season. Early in the year he was sharing time with Chad Voytik, but it appears he’s emerged as the man for the Panthers offense. For Notre Dame fans, can you give us a scouting report? the Irish have struggled getting to the quarterback, and also had some problems in the secondary. Can Peterman exploit those issues? And does he have a true weapon other than Tyler Boyd?

Peterman has been really solid for Pitt after beating out Chad Voytik a few games into the season. He’s been really accurate and hasn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 19 against Iowa. I think Peterman’s biggest strength would be that he really doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, if that makes any sense. He has a solid arm, doesn’t make mistakes, and can run well enough to take advantage if a defense gives him room. The one ding would be that he has a tendency to take too many sacks, but that can sometimes be just as much on the offensive line and receivers as the quarterback.

One dimension Pitt’s offense hasn’t shown yet, though, is the ability to beat teams down the field. Peterman’s longest pass this year is a 41-yarder against Georgia Tech, and the Panthers have generally kept things super, super conservative on offense. I guess there’s a chance things could open up against Notre Dame, but if it didn’t happen against lesser teams, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Panthers’ downfield passing game suddenly coming to life this week.

As for Peterman’s weapons, Dontez Ford and the tight ends (J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff) have emerged as viable options, but Boyd is still the Panthers’ only real threat to make an explosive play on offense. The problem with that is that most of his touches have come on short screens and quick passes short to the line of scrimmage. The coaching staff obviously wants to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, but in doing so they seem to have taken the deep ball out of the equation.

 

* Notre Dame has struggled coming to Pitt for a long time. The noon start was a surprise, and could make for a more tame atmosphere. What do you expect, not just from the Panthers, but from the crowd that’s supporting them?

Yeah, I think it’ll definitely be less raucous than if it was a primetime kickoff. I remember that 2011 game at Heinz Field was a noon kickoff that ended 15-12 and should never be spoken of again. I also expect (as usual) that there will be a healthy Notre Dame presence at Heinz Field. The crowds have gotten a bit better this year as the athletic department has made creating a better atmosphere part of its focus, but Heinz Field still just isn’t a very intimidating college football venue.

If anything, the noon start should help Pitt just because the Panthers are much, much more used to playing at that hour than the Irish are. Pitt has had five of its eight games start at noon, 12:30 or 1, while Notre Dame hasn’t played a noon game (I believe) since the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl. Pitt has been prone to slow starts the last few weeks, but if they can catch Notre Dame sleepwalking a little bit, that’s a good way to hang around in this game.

 

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)