Opponent preview: Pitt Panthers

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We continue on profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. If you have a spare hour or two, check out Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Boston College.

The Overview:

After three mediocre seasons, Dave Wannstedt has led Pittsburgh back to respectability, winning nine and ten games in back-to-back seasons, turning around a football program that was seemingly stuck in neutral. Both those seasons had critical victories against Notre Dame: The 2008 contest a four-overtime epic that ended with Pitt winning 36-33 and the 2009 victory an equally memorable 27-22 win, where Wannstedt’s Panthers held on as Notre dame mounted a furious comeback. While Wannstedt may have had the better of then coach Charlie Weis, new coach Brian Kelly has beaten Pitt two years in a row, a 28-21 victory in 2008 over the 20th ranked Panthers, and a remarkable 21 point comeback victory, a 45-44 triumph for Cincinnati capped by a last second touchdown pass that ended the Pitt regular season with two losses after climbing to a top-ten ranking and a 9-1 record.

Last time against the Irish:

It looked as if Notre Dame’s freefall was peaking at halftime, with the Irish offense shutdown, failing to get into the red zone as they went to the locker room down 10-3. Things were even more dire after the Pitt offense found its stride, and the Panthers had a 18-point lead before the Irish came to life. Only then did Charlie Weis’ intentionally conservative game plan go out the window and the Irish offense opened things up, once again hopping on the back of receiver Golden Tate who scored two touchdowns in a matter of minutes to get Notre Dame back within five points deep in the fourth quarter. Mike Ragone dropped a shovel pass to get the game within a field goal, but that was as close as the Irish would come, though controversy couldn’t stay far from an Irish team that desperately needed to get back on the right side of close finishes (and referee calls).  With one final chance to drive the team down the field, Clausen had 3:39 to march the Irish down the field for a touchdown, but that effort was largely sunk after a chop-block call on Dan Wenger flipped a 2nd and 1 from the 42-yard line into a 2nd and 16 from the ND 27. After throwing the ball away, the Irish were faced with a 3rd and 16 that Clausen got out of his hands just before getting hit. Faced with a 4th and Career call, Weis called timeout. That timeout gave the Big East replay crew a chance to look at the “incompletion,” which they turned into an Irish fumble, anticlimactically giving the ball back to Pitt and effectively ending the game.

Charlie Weis had this to say about the controversial replay overturn a few days later:

“I watched it a whole bunch of times and I really think that if they
would have called from watching the play a bunch of times, if they would
have called the play a fumble on the field, I could see them not having
enough information to overrule it. But the fact that they called the
play incomplete on, an incomplete pass on the field, I believe the same
thing. I believe that there was no evidence to change the call that’s on
the field.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Ranking the 12 opponents of the Irish, I slot Pitt in as the sixth-most difficult* game on the schedule.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers

*In retrospect, I definitely screwed up putting Purdue ahead of Pitt in these rankings, and I’m correcting it here. While Purdue poses a unique set of threats to the Irish with the unknown commodity of Robert Marve and the added hype of the opener, Pitt is a better football team.

Pitt has had the Irish’s number the past few years, but Brian Kelly has had Dave Wannstedt’s number, so consider it a wash. Even more boldly, I’ve never been impressed by Wannstedt’s coaching acumen, and really feel like the scale tips heavily in the Irish’s favor in that category.

The Match-up:

Last season, the Irish intentionally handcuffed their own offense to keep Pitt’s offense off the field, worried about getting in a shootout with the dynamic Panthers. If Cincinnati’s 45-44 victory was any indication, Brian Kelly doesn’t worry about shootouts, so expect the Irish offense to be going full-bore from the outset. The three players that hurt the Irish the most last season all return, in wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin and running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. That said, the offense lacks the distributor that got them the ball, the underrated Bill Stull. Also gone are tight end Dorrin Dickerson and all three interior offensive linemen, forcing the Panther offense to retool their attack, likely anchored by sophomore Tino Sunseri.

On defense, the Panthers will also need to reload. While both standout defensive ends, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard, return, gone are tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, integral cogs to the defensive machine. Romeus and Sheard dominated Paul Duncan and Sam Young, constantly harassing Clausen and disrupting the Irish offense, but likely will miss a step without a robust interior. Also gone is linebacker Adam Gunn, the most prolific tackler on the squad. In the secondary, Pitt will need to find new cornerbacks to cover Irish wideouts, as both Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel are gone. The secondary brings back Dom DeCicco, a jumbo sized safety that finished second on the squad in tackles and also had three interceptions.

How the Irish will win:

Unafraid to play a high-tempo game, Notre Dame comes out throwing, spreading a thin secondary out wide and forcing the Panthers to cover skill on skill. While Romeus and Sheard had their way with the Irish offensive line last season, they won’t have time to get vertical, with Dayne Crist throwing quickly from the shotgun before the Pitt pressure can disrupt the offense. More importantly, a hostile crowd and an improved defense will make things miserable for Sunseri, whose growing pains force an already predictable offense into being even more nondescript. While Lewis and Graham get the carries, a second-half scoreboard puts the Panthers offense into a position where they need to throw, and even though Baldwin put together a highlight film last season against the Irish secondary, expect the secondary to make a few interceptions in a fairly easy Irish victory.

How the Irish will lose:

Driving a car with an engine powered by horses like Lewis, Graham, and Baldwin won’t be too hard for Sunseri, who beats the Irish secondary for a few big plays on play-action when the safeties bite hard on play-fakes. Acting as a true game manager, Sunseri continues to hand the ball off, asking Notre Dame to stop their physical rushing attack, and the Irish can’t answer the bell. On defense, Pitt’s defensive ends make easy work of the ultra-green offensive tackles, disrupting the timing of an offense predicated on clock-work precision.

Gut Feeling:

Maybe it’s bias (or having watched Mark May for too long), but I expect Pitt to take a fairly substantial step backward this season. Between a schedule that starts off markedly harder with Utah and Miami sandwiched between cupcake New Hampshire, and replacement parts giving neither the offense or defense much margin for error, I expect a coming out party for the Irish similar to the one CW and the boys had in 2005.