Narduzzi expecting huge challenge with Irish coming to town

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First-year Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi is no stranger to Notre Dame football. As Mark Dantonio’s defensive coordinator in the (then) annual battle between the Irish and Michigan State, Narduzzi spent eight years playing against the Irish, first against Charlie Weis and later against Brian Kelly.

But don’t expect him to talk about his last meeting with Notre Dame, the lone blemish on the Spartans’ Rose Bowl-winning season. Especially the four defensive pass interference penalties Notre Dame accepted during their 17-13 victory.

“I don’t remember those,” Narduzzi said with a smile (in a playful exchange with local reporters). “I remember they had like 220 yards of offense and we lost the football team. They were a good football team.”

The 2013 team might have been good, but Narduzzi expects an even better Notre Dame team to walk into Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon. And the first-year Pitt head coach knows his team has to move on from their disappointing Thursday night loss to North Carolina and play very good football if they’re going to get their seventh victory.

“We’re going to move on to the next game, a huge one with Notre Dame coming in here Saturday at noon,” Narduzzi said Monday. “They’re bringing a great football team, very very well coached. Obviously a Top 10 football team and probably one of the most talented teams that will walk into Heinz Field this year.”

While Narduzzi was no fan of the short week of preparation that came with a Thursday game with no week off in front of it, Pitt’s head coach used the extra few days to give his team some rest. With a depth chart that’s thinned out as the Panthers head into November, Narduzzi wasn’t sure if he’d rather face the Irish late in the year or when his team was healthier.

“I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to play Notre Dame,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a good football team. It doesn’t matter if it’s within the first four games or late in the season. It doesn’t matter.”

The Panthers need to figure out a few personnel issues before Saturday. Senior captain and cornerback Lafayette Pitts was benched against North Carolina, though he’ll be back in the lineup against the Irish’s talent receiving corps. Narduzzi’s pass rush also needs to tweaking, even as Pitt dials up more blitzes they’ve been unsuccessful getting to the quarterback. (Sound familiar, Irish fans?)

On paper, the Panthers look a notch below the Irish. But it’s also undeniable that Pitt has played Notre Dame tough for a long time, and Heinz field hasn’t necessarily been the easiest place for the Irish to play. With the Panthers still alive for a big-time bowl bid in the ACC and the Irish still intent on making the College Football Playoff, Saturday’s early start doesn’t take away from the importance of the game.