Opponent preview: Pittsburgh

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This is the fourth of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. you can also read previews of South Florida, Michigan, and Michigan State.

The Overview:

It was an offseason to forget for Pitt fans. After six seasons coaching at his alma mater, Dave Wannstedt was dismissed before the Panthers’ bowl game by athletic director Steve Pederson, even though Wannstedt just completed one of the  program’s most successful three-year stretches in school history. (Pederson also dismissed Frank Solich at Nebraska after a nine-win season.) Pederson tapped Miami (Ohio) head coach Mike Haywood as Wannstedt’s replacement in a controversial hire. Just two short weeks later, Haywood was arrested on domestic charges, an incident that cost him his new job. Given a second shot to make the same hire, Pederson looked to Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, who will bring a completely new style to the Steel City.

With fourteen starters returning, Graham will have more talent at his disposal than he had when he shocked the Irish last October. But without standouts Jaball Sheard and Greg Romeus on defense and Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis on offense, the Panthers success will be determined by how quickly they adapt to a very new way of doing things, with Graham completely changing the culture of a program in need of putting 2010 in the rear-view mirror.

Last time against the Irish:

The Irish jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead against Wannstedt’s Panthers, but needed kicker David Ruffer and a stingy defense to hold on to win 23-17 against a Pitt squad that shot itself in the foot with special teams blunders.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

With Kyle Rudolph trying to battle through a nagging hamstring injury and Taylor Dever out at right tackle, the Irish used an up-tempo offense in the first half to limit Pitt’s pass rush, one of the biggest concerns going into the afternoon. Dayne Crist threw for 242 yards (and had almost 100 more taken off the board by penalties) and Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd each had seven catches.

The win took the Irish to 3-3 on the season, leaving people to believe Notre Dame was ready to make a run as they reached the “easy” stretch of their schedule with Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a bye week.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Pittsburgh as the fifth toughest opponent on the schedule.

7. South Florida
6.
5. Pittsburgh
4. Michigan State
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

It will be a brave new world for Pitt on offense, needing to replace their best player, Jonathan Baldwin, after he left early and went in the first round of the NFL Draft. Tino Sunseri returns at quarterback, and he’ll be tasked with turning the three-yards and a cloud of dust offense Wannstedt employed into the hyper-speed spread attack that Graham is bringing with him. While that’ll surely mean better numbers for the passing game, Graham’s Tulsa squads were also some of the best in the country at running the football, which means good things for Ray Graham, who averaged a gawdy 6.2 yards per carry last season in a supporting role to Dion Lewis. Pitt also brings in Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown to the backfield.

The Panthers have experience on the offensive line, but they’ll need to replace Jason Pinkston. At receiver, there’s Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Cameron Saddler — three guys who might have their production buoyed immediately if Sunseri is a quick study.

Graham’s defense will shift to a three-man front, a move better timed than most with Sheard and Romeus gone. Pitt has depth up front with guys like Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein, with Alecxih getting 7.5 sacks last season. The rotation can actually go six deep. But the biggest beneficiary to the change will likely be Brandon Lindsey, one of the best defensive players in the country. Lindsey had 10 sacks and 17.5 tackles-for-loss last season, and will play a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker role, giving him more opportunities to wreak havoc on offenses.

The secondary needs to replace two starters, but returns a deep roster at cornerback and All-Big East safety Jarred Holley. Sophomore Jason Hendricks will get the first shot at the bandit position, a hybrid safety spot that’ll have Hendricks all over the field. K’Waun Williams is a talented cornerback, and the sophomore could be ready to make a big leap this season.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish won ugly last year, committing six penalties and getting outgained by the Panthers, but dominating on special teams and playing good red zone defense. How many times did the Irish win under Charlie Weis when they were outgained by more than 50 yards? Only three times, and twice, the opposition imploded with turnovers.

With a noon kickoff at Heinz Field, Pitt fans will lack the venom of a prime-time start. While the battle at the line of scrimmage should be hotly contested, the Irish have the edge on both sides of the ball, and Notre Dame can take advantage of Pitt’s lack of depth for the systems they’ve installed.

With the Irish upping the tempo on offense and understanding both the personnel at Pitt and the scheme Graham runs, the Irish shouldn’t have much of a problem winning during a transitional year at Pitt.

How the Irish will lose:

Graham has already shown Irish fans that he knows how to pull a rabbit out his hat, and with his offense installed, the Panthers could have the best rushing offense the Irish face all season, the perfect recipe for keeping Notre Dame’s offense off the field and the tempo dictated.

With Brandon Lindsey and an assortment of Panthers coming off the line of scrimmage, the Panthers will force a few early turnovers, taking advantage of a stellar defensive front and a great centerfield safety in Jarred Holley. A Pitt victory would put Graham’s squad on the national map early, and make ESPN analyst Mark May very happy.

Gut Feeling:

While he wasn’t the Pitt administration’s first choice, Graham looks like the right man for the job. He’s shaken up a program that seemed to plateau under Wannstedt, and infused excitement in a fan base that was getting disinterested. In a Big East that’s a bit wayward, Graham is a good reason for Pitt fans to be excited about the future. Unfortunately, I think the learning curve is too steep this season, and the Irish sprint by the Panthers, a team that’s a work in progress.