Tag: And in that corner

Les Miles

And in that corner… The LSU Tigers


Notre Dame’s inclusion in the ACC’s bowl selections came in handy this year. As the Irish back-slid throughout November, they still held onto some preferred real estate, finding themselves in a pretty nice consolation game, with the opportunity to play in Nashville in the Music City Bowl.

Unfortunately, they’ll be going up against one of the SEC’s premier programs in LSU. The Tigers, who went through some of their own growing pains this season in an 8-4 campaign, still managed to produce one of the nation’s top defenses and a running game that’s a tough draw for a decimated Notre Dame defense.

While visions of Sugar Bowl’s past don’t necessarily apply, the Irish are significant underdogs heading into their December 30 finale. And to get us ready for the Music City Bowl, Bleacher Report’s Carter Bryant.

Hope you enjoy:


Quite a bit has been made of the quarterback situation at Notre Dame, with Everett Golson playing his way from Heisman contender to platoon player. But the LSU quarterback position has been a bit of a mess as well. What should we expect from the position during the Music City Bowl?

LSU’s quarterback has been a headache. Fans have clamored for Brandon Harris to get snaps, but Miles has stuck with Anthony Jennings. Jennings is a limited passer that completes less than 50 percent of the throws. Expect him to start, but there is a slight chance Harris will play though he has rarely seen the field since Auburn.


Help me figure out this LSU defense. On paper, it looks really strong, a top 10 defense by just about every measure available. But the Tigers are giving up 4.2 yards per carry, pointing to some softness on the inside — not surprising given some of the youthful concerns entering the season. If you’re Brian Kelly, how do you attack LSU?

Those rushing statistics are a tad inflated due to inexperience to start the season. Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn, the first three Power Five teams the Tigers faced, gashed them. Since then, no team has rushed for more than 137 yards in a game. LSU’s defensive tackles became better players after limited mike linebacker D.J. Welter was replaced by the more athletic Kendell Beckwith.

Notre Dame should try to run the football some, but the Irish are best through the air (no matter who is at QB). LSU is not great at rushing the passer and Notre Dame has the receiving talent to eventually get open against the Tigers’ fantastic secondary. I would also not be surprised if Brian Kelly tries some zone read.


Just about every Notre Dame fan alive expects to see LSU run early and often against a front seven that’s decimated by injuries. Will this be the kickoff to Leonard Fournette’s 2015 Heisman campaign? It wouldn’t be an LSU offense without ridiculous depth at that position. Who else joins him?

My viewpoint of LSU’s running backs is a tad different than others. Fournette is the best of the bunch, but he, along with the rest of LSU’s running backs, are not great at breaking tackles. Backups Terrence Magee and Darrel Williams are powerful, between the tackles runners. Jaylon Smith should have a big game in the box score.

LSU’s offensive line has had some spectacular games (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Florida) and some duds (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Wisconsin). With ND’s injuries, there is no excuse for the Tigers to not have success (despite starting center Elliott Porter being sidelined with an injury).


Sticking with Fournette, what did you make of his freshman season? Underwhelming? About what you expected? What kind of football player do you see him developing into?

The final statistics look fine for Fournette. 891 and eight touchdowns is a good number considering some dud games he had and the lack of a passing game.

But Fournette’s frosh year was a tad underwhelming as well. He went down easy often and struggled to make defenders miss in the open field to create big gains. It is easier said than done, but the No. 1 recruit in the country should be able to do that. He also got plenty of touches as a kickoff returner and did little.

(Here is some tape study I did on Fournette’s masterful game against Texas A&M.)

I’m not sure if he will ever be a Heisman finalist. LSU’s got some great 2015 commits along with Williams. Miles will never make him the bell cow. I do think he can be an All-SEC performer. His speed and power is off the charts. A summer watching Jeremy Hill tape will do him some good.


When you look at the personnel Les Miles continually turns out, he’s responsible for practically a two-deep of starting talent on Sundays, with no college program passing the NFL eyeball test better than the Tigers. Yet it doesn’t feel like LSU wins at the clip it should. (Look at the offensive talent Zach Mettenberger had surrounding him last year…)

Is that a product of playing in the rough and tumble SEC? Is it the peculiarities of Miles as a head coach? Am I just seeing this incorrectly? LSU is still a Top 10 program in college football. But it also feels like they’re underperforming. (Or tell me I’m nuts.)

This is a tough philosophical question I get asked often. It all depends on what is the determination of success. If 10 wins a year is considered successful, Miles is the guy. He has done that seven out of 10 possible times. He’s won multiple SEC titles and a BCS crown. His players love him.

Part of this is Alabama. They are a damn strong football team. The Crimson Tide continuously have No. 1 classes and Saban is Saban. Plus the SEC as a whole is pretty good.

It is fair though to question if LSU has gotten maximum value on its talent, especially last season. The defense was gutted from the year before, but it was still embarrassing. As were the Tigers’ performances against Ole Miss and Arkansas (though they won the game, it took a miracle comeback). Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill tweeted about this, and Dan Patrick has mentioned it on his radio program.

There is so much more to this, but that’s a start.


What’s John Chavis got to do to get a chance at being a head coach? Or is he just a guy that’s built to be a D-Coordinator? Brian Kelly said he expects a ton of man coverage on the Irish receivers and physicality in the trenches. How do you expect LSU to take on some talented skill players for the Irish?

Chavis is getting paid a ridiculous amount to be LSU’s defensive coordinator. Though he is an interesting coach, he isn’t flashy and lacks a true desire for fame.

Notre Dame’s offensive line has given up some three sack games, but LSU’s pass rush is not that great. That should give time for Fuller and Robinson to get open. Also, playing man coverage opens up huge rushing opportunities for both of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks.

If the Irish can’t run, expect Chavis to play a ton of his 3-2-6 “Mustang” package, which puts six defensive backs on the field at once. This creation by Chavis has been dangerous for defenses. Expect to see Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills to be all over the field.


Notre Dame fans don’t feel too good about this matchup. Memories of the boat race that turned Jamarcus Russell into the No. 1 pick are still fresh. What kind of game do you expect to see in Nashville?

That Sugar Bowl was great for LSU fans. Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and the rest of the Irish had a ton of hype going into that game. It is still crazy how easily the Tigers won that game.

There is no reason for LSU to not win this game by two possessions. I watched some of Notre Dame’s final four games. The Irish looked so bad. Fuller and Robinson could give the Tigers trouble, but uncertainty at quarterback makes that tough.

LSU has been sluggish in some bowl games under Miles. The last two years are prime examples. But in the end, I expect an LSU victory.


Special thanks to Carter for getting this done before the holiday crush. You can find more of his work at B/R and follow him on Twitter @CarterthePower.

And in that corner… The Rice Owls

UTEP v Rice

Notre Dame opens the 2014 season with a visit from Rice on Saturday afternoon. While on paper, a matchup with the Conference USA squad looks like it could be a good way to get the rust off, taking the Owls lightly would be a large mistake.

Head coach David Bailiff has slowly built up his program, with 2013 the high-water mark. The Owls won their conference and 10 games, relying on a strong ground game, an inventive offense and a stingy defense.

To get us ready for the Owls, the Houston Chronicle‘s Joseph Duarte was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Rice. With just 10 starters back, the Owls will certainly look different than they did last season, though they’ve got some returning weapons that make for a good challenge.

Hope you enjoy.


Q: Coming off a 10-win season and a Conference USA title, Rice is the type of opening game opponent that might not draw headlines, but certainly deserves some respect. For those of us getting our first look at the Owls, tell us about head coach David Bailiff and the work he’s done building this program.

After a 10-win campaign in Bailiff’s second season – fueled by one of the nation’s top pass-catch combos in Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard – the Owls went 2-10, 4-8 and 4-8 and there were rumblings about his job security. But a funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment line: the Owls got hot during the second half of the 2012 season, becoming bowl eligible on the final day, and have been on a roll ever since.

Rice has won 15 of its last 19 games, matching the best two-year stretch in the 102-year history of the football, and is coming off a second straight bowl appearance. With his Texas roots, Bailiff has proven to be the right fit for the academic-first Owls program and is well-respected and liked by his players. He received a new five-year contract this offseason.


Q: Driphus Jackson takes over at quarterback after playing a supporting role in 2012 and 2013. All reports show a very capable athlete. Is he the type of quarterback that can break open a game with his legs? Will he be able to take advantage of some very solid wide receiver depth the Owls return?

Jackson isn’t your typical first-year starter, having received plenty of meaningful snaps the last two seasons as an injury replacement for former starter Taylor McHargue (graduation). He’s pulled off two big rallies in his brief career, a second-half comeback to beat Air Force in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl and against Kansas in 2013. McHargue was a running threat, and that will continue with Jackson.

While the coaching staff knows Jackson can take off at any moment the big test early on will be how he develops a comfort level in the pocket and takes advantage of what should be a deep receiving corps, led by Jordan Taylor (55 receptions, 848 yards, 8 TDs) and Dennis Parks (29 receptions, 508 yards, 3 TDs). One injury-related note out of camp: starting tight end Connor Cella will be out 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured rib.


Q: It looks like Rice has a star along the defensive line in Christian Covington, and then it gets pretty dicey. After a solid defense propelled the Owls last season, the ability to reload is in question. With a lack of size up front, do you expect Notre Dame’s large offensive line to try and win a power game?

The defensive line is the Owls’ biggest concern. Covington is on most of the major preseason awards lists and could become a rarity at Rice and leave for the NFL a year early as a projected first-rounder. Rice had counted on a formidable inside combo of Covington and Stuart Mouchantaf, but those plans were derailed when Mouchantaf suffered a knee injury in the offseason. The Owls also went through camp without Derek Brown, who was expected to start but has been absent due to an undisclosed reason. Even so, the Owls will break in a pair of new inexperienced players at defensive end (junior Brian Nordstrom and senior Zach Patt).


Q: For Notre Dame fans getting their first look at the Owls, who are the playmakers on both sides of the ball that could be primed for big games?

On offense, Jordan Taylor has a knack for making big catches. He sat out most of the last week of camp with a sore foot but that was as a precaution and he is expected to be fine for the season opener. He is a big part of the offense and a regular target for Jackson.

On defense, keep an eye on senior cornerback Bryce Callahan. Last year the Owls had Phillip Gaines, considered the best cornerback in school history who was drafted in the third round by the Chiefs. Teams rarely threw in Gaines’ direction – a strategy that will likely be the case with Callahan, who has 11 career interceptions and needs four more to tie the school record.


Q: What’s the recipe for a Rice victory? Will the Owls try and overwhelm a young Irish defense that could be getting younger without KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams? Is the run game capable of limiting Notre Dame’s touches? What’s your take on the Owls’ best way to win, especially early in the season?

The Owls led Conference USA in rushing (227.4 yards) last season and have regularly been among the nation leaders in time of possession – just the type of grinding, time-consuming style that they will need to have a chance against the Irish. They must replace 1,200-yard rusher Charles Ross and will do so with a backfield that is five deep with Jowan Davis, who had 476 yards in a strong freshman season; C-USA title game MVP Luke Turner, a former high school quarterback who works out of the Wild Owl formation; Darik Dillard, the younger brother of former Rice All-American receiver Jarett Dillard; and Brandon Hamilton, considered the bruiser of the bunch who redshirt with an injury last season. The Owls won’t be scared to pull a few surprises with the deep pass, but expect them to try and establish the run game early.


For more from Joe in the lead-up to Saturday’s game, you can find his work here or follow his Rice coverage on Twitter @Chronicle_Owls

And in that corner… The Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Kyle Flood

The Fighting Irish boarded a Delta 747 for New York on Monday afternoon, set to spend Christmas in the Big Apple before playing Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday. The mood was jovial (if Twitter and Instagram are an indication) as the team took to the skies, a rare game where the Irish are playing for themselves.

While there was griping among fans about a northern destination, New York was an oasis this weekend, with temperatures reaching the 70s. It won’t last until the weekend, but Saturday’s high temperature should be in the low 40s, perfectly fine weather for football.

Now onto the game. Rutgers salvaged a postseason bid with a win in their season finale against USF, bringing Kyle Flood’s squad up the Jersey Turnpike for their highest profile game of the season. To get us a better idea of what awaits the Irish, The Star-Ledger’s Tom Luicci was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Tom’s been covering college football for as long as I’ve been alive, with 34 years of experience, including 21 seasons as a national college football writer. That means he’s spent a lot of time covering the Irish, attending roughly 60 Notre Dame games between 1979 and 2000. He is New Jersey’s state chairman for the Heisman, a Harris Poll voter, and an instructor of elite Naval Aviators in Miramar (maybe one of these is a fib).

At a really busy time of year, I’m thankful Tom could spare some of his expertise to get us ready for the bowl game. Hope you enjoy.


On paper, it’s not hard to see why Rutgers finished the season 6-6. They struggled with turnovers, gave up a ton of big plays, and just didn’t compete against above average teams in the conference. A year after winning nine games, what went wrong?

The short answer is this: The NFL Draft and key injuries. Rutgers had seven players drafted last year — which was more than any Big Ten team. And Rutgers isn’t a program like Ohio State that simply re-loads. It takes a little time to rebuild. Three of those players drafted were from the secondary, two were starting LBs (one was the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year) and the defense had to be overhauled.

Rutgers was the only team in the country to start two true freshmen corners in the same game this year. Teams took advantage of that, spreading out Rutgers’ defense and schooling the young secondary. Offensively, Paul James was the nation’s No. 2 rusher after four games when he broke his fibula and missed eight weeks and QB Gary Nova never elevated his play, which is why he was benched the final two games. In the secondary, one of the new starting CBs (Ian Thomas) abruptly quit the team and another (Lew Toler) suffered a season-ending broken arm. So the secondary was a mess all year.

What’s the latest with the Scarlet Knights’ QB situation. Will the Irish see senior Chas Dodd or Gary Nova? Where does Rutgers go moving forward at the position?

Dodd will start for the third straight game — after not starting a game before this year since the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State. Nova’s decision-making, turnovers and inability to jumpstart the offense are why he got benched after 23 straight starts. A spark or some change was needed. Going forward there will be a QB competition in the spring. Chris Laviano, a true freshman who is redshirting this year, is expected to give Nova a run for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Blake Ranking could as well.

Rutgers is bowl eligible, but it seems that Kyle Flood struggled to hold onto his job. He fired three coaches on his staff the day after the Pinstripe Bowl announced their selection of the Scarlet Knights. Looking past the bowl game, how does this program look as it enters the Big Ten?

With fewer spread teams in the Big Ten (and a new defensive coordinator to be named) Rutgers should be competitive. I know that sounds strange given how they were beaten up by spread teams this year but this defense is built more for the Big Ten style of play. Offensively, Rutgers returns everyone except WR Brandon Coleman. But Nova may or may not be the starting QB. The offensive line returns intact. TE Tyler Kroft is coming off a breakout year. And WR Leonte Carroo, if he can stay healthy, is an NFL-caliber player. Defensively, Rutgers loses four starters — but the reality is not one had a good year. And there is some promising young defensive talent on the roster. So on paper, this can be a competitive, Iowa-type team.

Flood fired his defensive coordinator Dave Cohen. The unit seems to have given up a ton of points, but they are ranked 4th in the country against the run, though have struggled mightily against the pass. How bad are things on that side of the ball? Or was Cohen fired for the off the field accusations of bullying players?

Cohen was fired because this was the worst pass defense in school history statistically — by a wide margin. And if Notre Dame gains 401 yards it will have allowed more yards than any defense in school history. This defense is good against the run, but the reality is that teams pass on this defense because they can. The secondary is the biggest issue. It’s painfully young. Even the one senior there — free safety Jeremy Deering — played offense his first three years. The front four has not done a good job helping out the secondary by getting enough pressure, either.

What can the Irish expect from the Rutgers offense? One-time Irish running back target Savon Huggins looks buried on the depth chart. Will the Scarlet Knight attack feature a heavy dose of Paul James?

With James healthy, as well as promising true freshman Justin Goodwin, Rutgers will have a run-first offense. Notre Dame appears vulnerable there — at least statistically — and ball control is the best way to keep a wobbly defense off the field. Rutgers is trying to expand its offense with some zone read wrinkles, so we may see more of that. Chas Dodd isn’t a high percentage passer but he does have a knack for making plays and he is a senior. Running the ball, throwing to the tight end, a controlled passing game with a few deep shots. That’s how Rutgers generally tries to approach games — unless (or until) they get out of hand.

The Irish are a pretty resounding favorite heading into the Bronx next week. Do you expect Rutgers to put up a fight and keep things close? Do you think Scarlet Knight fans will try to stake a claim to Yankee Stadium and New York City, or is that just the Yankees marketing department’s dream?

Rutgers is 2-0 in the new Yankee Stadium and I think there’s a general feeling that a good showing — not even a win necessarily — will provide some momentum into the off-season. If Notre Dame gets up by double digits quickly, this could just be another ugly Rutgers loss. But I think there’s far more motivation on Rutgers’ part to be playing Notre Dame than the other way around. But emotion only can carry a team so far. They have to play and play well. And Rutgers will have solid crowd support for the game.


For more from Tom, check out his work at the Star-Ledger and give him a follow on Twitter @TomLuicci.

And in that corner… The BYU Cougars

BYU defense

If you hadn’t noticed, Notre Dame is in for a dog fight. With BYU coming to town with a score to settle, oddsmakers aren’t quite sure what to make of Saturday’s game, with the line swinging each way, a veritable toss up between two 7-3 teams.

Part of that is courtesy of Notre Dame’s big miss last week against Pittsburgh and the other part is the rather impressive football that BYU has played this season. After a rough start to the season against Virginia, the Cougars have gotten things on track, slowed only by in-state rival Utah and Wisconsin two weeks ago.

To get us up to speed for the game, I reached out to the Deseret News’ Jeff Call. The newspaper’s BYU beat reporter, Jeff has been covering the Cougars since 1993.

He was kind enough to answer my handful of questions before Saturday’s game between the Irish and the Cougars.

I asked, Jeff answered. Let’s enjoy.

Outside of a really disappointing loss to Virginia to open the season, it’s been another solid season for Bronco Mendenhall’s squad. How good is this team compared to the groups that won at least 10 games in five out of six seasons?

At times, this BYU team has looked as good as many of those that won at least 10 games. The Virginia loss was an anomaly of sorts because it was the season-opener, on the road, beset by prolonged weather delay, and it was the Cougars’ first game under an entirely new offensive coaching staff.

Bottom line is, BYU lost that game. But there have been times when the Cougars have looked very good, particularly in wins over Texas, Utah State, Georgia Tech and Boise State. Then BYU’s biggest test to this point, on Nov. 9 at Wisconsin, the Cougar offense struggled. The Cougars are hoping to redeem themselves against Notre Dame.

Taysom Hill has been a weapon in the running game, teaming with Jamaal Williams to become one of the best duos in college football. But he seems to struggle with decision making in the passing game, as his 12 interceptions indicate. How has he developed in his second season in Provo? How important is an error-free performance by Hill?

Hill is a phenomenal athlete and is one of the nation’s top running quarterbacks. He has made huge strides this season in the passing game, evidenced by his performance against Utah State, Houston and Boise State. But yes, he has struggled at times with accuracy and making good decisions. He threw three interceptions against Idaho State, which he attributed to trying to do too much.

Hill has shown glimpses of being an outstanding quarterback, but he is still developing. Against a team like Notre Dame, he will have to avoid turnovers and be accurate if the Cougars want to knock off the Fighting Irish.

Defensively, Kyle Van Noy was rightfully an All-Everything player this preseason. Having watched Stephon Tuitt deal with the challenges that come with a national spotlight, how has Van Noy played this season?

Van Noy has made a lot of big plays this season, including a pick-six on the first play of scrimmage at Utah State. He has known for filling up the stat sheet, as he has recorded a stat in every statistical category except for blocked kick and forced fumble.

He has four sacks, 15 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, 11 quarterback hurries, and two interceptions. He is a semifinalist for the Butkus, Bednarik and Lombardi Awards. Van Noy is projected to be a high draft pick in next April’s NFL draft.

Cody Hoffman is a guy who put up some big numbers earlier in his career. His season got off to a shaky start with an injury and suspension. Are his numbers being down a bit a product of missed time or some struggles in the passing game?

Hoffman missed the season-opener due to injury and he was sidelined for the Middle Tennessee game due to a suspension, which means he’s only played in eight games. Since the Georgia Tech game, Hoffman has been outstanding.

A big part of BYU’s improved passing game can be attributed to Hoffman being healthy, in rhythm and on the field. He now owns every career receiving record at BYU, passing former greats like Austin Collie and Dennis Pitta.

BYU has already accepted a bowl bid for this season. It looks like they’ve already agreed to play in the Poinsettia bowl next year as well. Is this a product of conference independence? Is there a benefit in committing to a second-tier bowl early, or is it a necessity with conference tie-ins and an ever-changing postseason landscape?

Committing to bowl games years in advance is a necessity for BYU in this era of independence. Of course, the Cougars would love to play in a higher-tier bowl game, but the reality is, the only way that will happen is by going undefeated, and even that doesn’t guarantee anything.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe is working hard to enhance BYU’s postseason opportunities, but there aren’t a lot of bowl games that aren’t tied to specific conferences. Holmoe has said recently that he has some big bowl plans for the future. BYU is hoping that its partnership with ESPN will open doors of opportunity.

Last season, the Cougars gave Notre Dame all they could handle with Tommy Rees starting in place of an injured Everett Golson. What are the keys to BYU visiting Notre Dame and leaving South Bend with a victory?

Keys to victory for BYU: offensively, the Cougars must avoid turnovers, and be efficient on first down and in the red zone. BYU needs Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams to be at their best. Defensively, the Cougars must slow down Notre Dame’s rushing attack and make Rees beat them with his arm.


For more from Jeff heading into Saturday’s game (including a great feature on former Irish safety and current BYU Cougar Chris Badger), check out Jeff’s work at the Deseret News, or follow him on Twitter @ajeffreycall

And in that corner… The Pittsburgh Panthers

Quayshawn Nealy, Devin Street

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.