Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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On an Irish schedule that’s seen its share of change these past two years, not many people on the Notre Dame side of the tracks view the game against Pitt as a rivalry. But that’s not to say it isn’t a unique game. Nor can you say that there’s a lack of familiarity between these two programs.

This will be meeting No. 70 between the two programs, a matchup that dates back to 1909. So before stainless steel, the Titanic, and even the Oreo cookie, there was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh doing battle on the football field.

Pitt understands the gravity of this matchup. And with a natural rivalry against Penn State nonexistent, the Panthers always circle the Irish on the schedule, relishing the fact that the feeling isn’t always reciprocated.

Saturday’s game has the opportunity for another maximum impact matchup. The Panthers are still alive in the Coastal division race of the ACC, a two-loss season already feeling like a success for first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 5 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff poll, their inclusion in the Big Dance in the crosshairs. With the Irish already in the Steel City readying for an early start, they can expect a Panthers team that isn’t just playing gate-crasher, they’re still looking to make their mark and play for a conference title.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. On a weekend that always seems to fly below the radar, there’s a high likelihood we are in for another interesting Saturday.

 

Forget about what the point spread says—history tells us this will be close. 

The last time Notre Dame won easily against Pitt, we still weren’t really sure how to pronounce Jeff Samardzija’s name. It was the coming-out party for Charlie Weis’s 2005 football team, when the Irish offense blitzed Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers and cruised to a 42-21 victory.

But since then, this game has been a nail-biter. The next six games have all been close. It’s a series that’s split the past eight contests and stayed within one score in nine of the past ten matchups, including multiple overtime battles in 2008 (Pitt won) and 2012 (the Irish escaped).

So much has changed inside the Pitt program since that meeting in 2005. Wannstedt was replaced briefly by Mike Haywood, who never coached a game before being replaced by Todd Graham. Graham didn’t make it a calendar year before he bolted for Tempe and was replaced by Paul Chryst, who left to coach Wisconsin last offseason, clearing the way for Narduzzi.

But even amidst the coaching turmoil and changes on the roster, this game has been a close one. So even with the Irish favored by nearly double-digits and the Panthers coming off a disappointing loss to North Carolina, expect a tight football game.

One possible solution for the close-game blues? Call Ara Parseghian. The former Irish coach beat Pitt all 11 times he played them, winning on average by a score of 42-9.

 

 

Tyler Boyd needs 49 yards to become Pitt’s all-time receiving leader. Notre Dame needs to make sure he doesn’t get them all in one play.

Brian Kelly deemed Tyler Boyd the latest “game-wrecker” that the Irish will have to face this season. And the veteran Pittsburgh receiver has earned that title, one of the best receivers in college football, even as the Pitt passing game still sorts itself out.

Boyd’s consistency and game-breaking ability have him ready to pass Antonio Bryant as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, needing just 49 yards to do it. And as the only big-play threat in the Pitt offense with James Connor’s season erased in week one, expect to see the achievement happen Saturday, even if he’s locked up in battle with KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame needs to make sure it doesn’t happen on one play. We’re in for an interesting battle on Saturday—a Pitt offense that struggles to make an explosive play and a Notre Dame defense that can’t seem to stop allowing them.

So while Boyd’s yards per catch is down to just 9.3 per touch, he’s the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver, nearly quadrupling the next closest pass catcher with 63 receptions on the season. An explosive player in space and also on special teams, Notre Dame needs to tackle cleanly and make sure they limit the damage Boyd does after the ball gets in his hands.

 

On the road and starting early. How the Irish adjust will be critical to success. 

Notre Dame hasn’t had a game start this early in the regular season since the Irish traveled to Pitt in 2011, winning an ugly slugfest 15-12. So to help adjust for the early start time, Kelly and the Irish brass decided to get out of town early, flying out Thursday night to help acclimate for the new schedule by going through a dress rehearsal on Friday.

Kelly talked about the decision to leave Thursday, and the thought process behind it.

“This will be the first time that we’ve used this type of schedule. We want to be able to duplicate Saturday’s schedule,” Kelly explained. “We took out some of our periods from practice today and we’ll include those tomorrow… to again get them used to a duplicate schedule on Friday and Saturday.”

UND.com’s Curt Rallo wrote about the logistics behind the decision, and some of the challenges that came along with it. Finding the hotel rooms was the first big one—Notre Dame needed 100 rooms for Thursday night. Then came booking the plane.

Now comes playing a dominant, mistake-free football game away from Notre Dame Stadium. That’s easier said than done.

 

Narduzzi’s defense will want to stuff the run. Whether they can do it is another story. 

Pat Narduzzi built his reputation playing an aggressive brand of defense, dominating at the line of scrimmage and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. The first-year head coach has done a nice job implementing that style at Pittsburgh, even as he builds the necessary personnel to do it.

Expect Narduzzi to sellout to stuff the run, unwilling to let C.J. Prosise beat the Panthers from the backfield. But unlike the job Clemson and Temple did, whether or not Pitt is able to do so remains to be seen.

Pitt is a respectable 36th in the country against the run. But the past two weeks have shown cracks in the foundation, with Syracuse and North Carolina both able to be productive on the ground.

In Pitt’s 23-20 comeback win over the Orange, two big runs allowed Syracuse to average 5.9 yards per carry. North Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry in their 26-19 win, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before riding former Notre Dame commitment Elijah Hood in the second half.

Notre Dame’s ability to run the football comes down to the play of the offensive line. Last week, the Irish struggled with missed assignments—and a stacked box—and couldn’t get the ground game off the runway. This week, it’ll be a challenge, but Kelly believes that the offensive line can find success against Narduzzi’s defense, but only if they play more consistent football.

“What we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Eliminating penalties. And that one missed assignment seems to always come at the most inopportune time. If those two things, if we can eradicate those on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line to having a big day.”

Pitt’s pass rush has struggled to get to the quarterback the past few weeks, leaving the secondary susceptible as Narduzzi sends blitzers. That’s a chance to make big plays on both the ground and through the air if the offensive line can hold up.

 

Jaylon Smith has played great football. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff is challenging him to elevate everybody else’s play, too. 

One of the more fascinating exchanges on this week’s “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime was the interactions between defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s leading tackler and junior captain was challenged by his coach to elevate his teammates’ play—something VanGorder hasn’t necessarily seen out of the star linebacker.

That’s an interesting piece of Smith’s development. Not just as a leader, where Smith acknowledged he wasn’t necessarily comfortable acting like someone he wasn’t, but as a football player, making sure all boats rise with him, to borrow (or butcher) a metaphor Kelly has used in the past.

Smith might be playing his final four regular season games as a college football player, a decision you couldn’t fault if he’ll be a first-round draft pick and one of the first linebackers selected in the NFL Draft. But Kelly talked about the challenge to Smith and how he expects him to respond to it, regardless of the future.

“Leadership for Jaylon has been one where he has led by example and we don’t think that’s enough to be a great leader,” Kelly explained. “We think that you have to be somebody that is interactive if you will. He has to be teaching and communicating. It has to be more than just actions. We know about his actions, they’re phenomenal. You just watch him play, that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys and I think that’s the point that we wanted to make with him. And he took it to heart.”

Smith’s “communication” doesn’t necessarily have to be in the former of mentorship, like we saw with freshman linebacker Te’von Coney on Showtime. It needs to be demanding more accountability from his teammates on the field, whether that be the situational contributors or fellow captain Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s quiet leadership style isn’t too far off from what Sheldon Day was last year, and we’ve seen the senior evolve into a more vocal leader as his play also took a huge leap forward this season. If this November is the one the Irish expect to have, Smith needs to demand better from a defense that can’t seem to shake their inconsistency.

 

Red Zone efficiency is key. 

If you’re looking for one thing to improve this week it’s Notre Dame’s red zone play on offense. The Irish have a unit averaging 495 yards a game, the best of the Kelly era. And while the 36.5 points a game is also the best of Kelly’s time in South Bend, that number could be so much better if Notre Dame did a better job finishing drives.

Notre Dame is 100th in the country converting red zone opportunities, scoring on just 79 precent of their chances. They’re only slightly better getting touchdowns, 85th in the country with a 58 percent rate.

The good news? Pitt’s red zone defense is the worst in the country statistically. The Panthers have yet to stop an opponent once they get inside the 20-yard-line, No. 128 out of 128.

But that stat is incredibly misleading. The Panthers have been much better at not giving up touchdowns—they jump to No. 22 in the country when you look at their ability to hold teams to a field goal, basically the inverse of an Irish defense that’s 27th in red zone scoring but 93rd in giving up touchdowns.

Kelly talked earlier this week about the importance of the red zone, not just from quarterback DeShone Kizer eliminating the mistakes that plagued the offense against Pittsburgh, but the need for everybody to do their jobs when they get in the scoring areas.

“Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

“We’ll take some extra time this week. We’ve done some more self-scouting in terms of play calling, what we’re doing down there. But I think at the end of the day execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

That extra time came on Thursday, with the Irish working short yardage running and their playcalling inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Now they need to take a step forward, cashing in when they have the chance to beat a team, opportunities they missed against Virginia, USC and Temple.

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…)