And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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While it’s difficult to call Notre Dame’s rivalry with Pitt—well, a rivalry—there’s certainly a long history between the two football programs. The Irish and the Panthers started playing in 1909. They’ve rarely taken a break longer than two years. And over the past decade, Pitt has routinely been a thorn in the side of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s last visit to the Steel City ended the Irish’s BCS hopes, with the Irish losing a disappointing 28-21 game in early November. The Panthers most likely felt like they were getting even from the year before, when Notre Dame kept their undefeated season alive thanks to some late-game heroics by Everett Golson, a missed 33-yard field goal and a triple-OT escape.

In 2011, the Irish won ugly against Todd Graham. In 2010, Kelly beat Dave Wannstedt. It feels like an eternity since Wannstedt roamed the sidelines, and nearly a half-dozen head coaches later, the Irish will face former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi as he heads down the home stretch of his debut season atop the program.

Joining us to talk Pitt football is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. While we’ll let him get away with being a Taylor Swift apologist, he’s a Notre Dame grad and an Observer Sports alum who covered the Irish for the student newspaper.

Sam works the Panthers beat and runs the Post-Gazette’s Pitt football blog, The Redshirt Diaries.  So he has a better handle than most on the “rivalry” between Notre Dame and Pitt, and also had Narduzzi threaten to ban him from practice this week for his alma mater, which would’ve been kinda nice from a workload perspective, I’m guessing.

Hope you enjoy this Q&A, and special thanks to Sam for joining us on a busy week.
* The Panthers had been flying nicely below the radar, ranked until their loss to UNC last week. Taking a step back, can you give us an assessment of Pat Narduzzi as a head coach, considering it took longer than most expected for him to get a chance at leading a program?

I think it’s hard to be anything but optimistic about Narduzzi’s future potential as a head coach. I really do think he was sort of biding his time at Michigan State until the right job came along. That job happened to be Pitt, just about an hour away from where he grew up in Youngstown.

One of the benefits of that patience is that he really got a good look at what exactly it takes to build a program the way Mark Dantonio did in East Lansing. It was sort of clear for the last few years that he was going to get a head job eventually, and Dantonio did his best to prepare Narduzzi for when he got there.

Now, there are still some hiccups, as there would be with any first-time head coaches. Things like clock management, when to go for it on fourth down are parts of the job that you can never prepare for until you get there, so Narduzzi has had some growing pains in those areas.

From a big picture sense, though, he seems to have a very clear and detailed vision about what he expects this football team to be and what it takes to get there. He’s a stickler for every single little detail, and that’s usually a good quality in a head coach.

 

* Like Notre Dame, Pitt’s season got started with a terrible injury, losing the ACC player of the year just eight carries into his season when James Conner tore his ACL. But Qadree Ollison has filled in nicely, the freshman averaging 5.4 yards a carry and scoring eight touchdowns.

Has the power-running identity of the Panthers had to change because of the injury to Conner? Is Ollison the main weapon you expect Pitt to challenge the Irish with?

I wouldn’t say Pitt’s identity as a power-running team has changed without Conner, I would just say it’s not as good. Ollison has been effective in spots this year, but has also ceded time to sophomore Chris James and true freshman Darrin Hall at various points in the year, so he hasn’t exactly been the workhorse back that Conner would have (though, to be fair to Ollison, it’d be ridiculous to expect him to step in and replicate what James Conner did). I also get the sense that Ollison is a bit of a liability in pass protection, which has probably cost him playing time in certain situations, too.

Ollison will probably be the main back Pitt uses against Notre Dame, but I would expect to see James and Hall, too. Whichever one of them looks best early will probably be the guy in the second half. The way Pitt will get into trouble is if none look good early on and they have to play musical chairs at running back all the way through the game.

 

* Defensively, Narduzzi was well known as one of the best defensive coaches in the country. Statistically, it looks like a minor uptick is just about every category since taking over. But what’s the major difference you’ve seen in the Xs and Os this season?

I know it’s sort of a coaching change cliche, but everything really does seem to be much simpler than it was last year. Players have said that, last season, the Panthers would change up the gameplan just about every week to match up with their given opponent, whereas this year it’s just about executing their scheme to the best of their ability and daring opponents to beat them. Defensive lineman Mark Scarpinato, a grad transfer who played for Narduzzi at Michigan State, said that one of the trademarks of those defenses was that the offenses knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop them.

Now, Pitt isn’t quite there yet. There was a lot of optimism early on as the Panthers raced out to lead the ACC in sacks after four games, but that has sort of tempered over the last three games (one total sack). If this defense isn’t getting to the quarterback, that puts a lot of pressure on the corners (generally in single coverage) to stay with their man for a long time, and that can have some bad results for a defense.

 

* Notre Dame’s ground game has been prolific this season, but the two best defenses Notre Dame has faced — Clemson and Temple — have done a good job shutting down C.J. Prosise. How do you expect the Panthers to fair in the trenches?

That’s the question that will, I think, ultimately decide whether Pitt stays in this game or not. While the Panthers was very stout against the run early on in the season, they seem to have taken a step back in recent weeks against Syracuse and North Carolina (they also REALLY struggled stopping the run against Georgia Tech, but I’ll throw that one out).

The interior of the defensive line is pretty solid, with a defensive tackle rotation that goes four deep. The ends have been a bit more of a concern, though, and that seems to be where teams have had success running against Pitt, either on the edge or off tackle. If there’s a good sign for Pitt, though, it’s that the rushing numbers in recent weeks have been slightly skewed by a few big plays. Obviously that’s not good that they’re giving up long runs, but it’s not like they’re getting gashed consistently for eight yards a carry.

I think Pitt will try and do whatever it can to stop the run. I’ve had multiple conversations with Narduzzi about his defense, and that is always his No. 1 priority with everything else a distant second. Even after last year’s Cotton Bowl, when his defense gave up 41 points and 583 yards to Baylor, Narduzzi was quick to point out that the Bears had -20 rushing yards, and that’s a success in his book. At his press conference this morning, he said, “We should be able to stop the run better than we have. That’s the frustrating thing. They throw a 71-yard pass, I’m okay with that. But you better stop the run. That’ll be a major focus this week.”

 

* Pitt is starting Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman for the majority of the season. Early in the year he was sharing time with Chad Voytik, but it appears he’s emerged as the man for the Panthers offense. For Notre Dame fans, can you give us a scouting report? the Irish have struggled getting to the quarterback, and also had some problems in the secondary. Can Peterman exploit those issues? And does he have a true weapon other than Tyler Boyd?

Peterman has been really solid for Pitt after beating out Chad Voytik a few games into the season. He’s been really accurate and hasn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 19 against Iowa. I think Peterman’s biggest strength would be that he really doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, if that makes any sense. He has a solid arm, doesn’t make mistakes, and can run well enough to take advantage if a defense gives him room. The one ding would be that he has a tendency to take too many sacks, but that can sometimes be just as much on the offensive line and receivers as the quarterback.

One dimension Pitt’s offense hasn’t shown yet, though, is the ability to beat teams down the field. Peterman’s longest pass this year is a 41-yarder against Georgia Tech, and the Panthers have generally kept things super, super conservative on offense. I guess there’s a chance things could open up against Notre Dame, but if it didn’t happen against lesser teams, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Panthers’ downfield passing game suddenly coming to life this week.

As for Peterman’s weapons, Dontez Ford and the tight ends (J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff) have emerged as viable options, but Boyd is still the Panthers’ only real threat to make an explosive play on offense. The problem with that is that most of his touches have come on short screens and quick passes short to the line of scrimmage. The coaching staff obviously wants to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, but in doing so they seem to have taken the deep ball out of the equation.

 

* Notre Dame has struggled coming to Pitt for a long time. The noon start was a surprise, and could make for a more tame atmosphere. What do you expect, not just from the Panthers, but from the crowd that’s supporting them?

Yeah, I think it’ll definitely be less raucous than if it was a primetime kickoff. I remember that 2011 game at Heinz Field was a noon kickoff that ended 15-12 and should never be spoken of again. I also expect (as usual) that there will be a healthy Notre Dame presence at Heinz Field. The crowds have gotten a bit better this year as the athletic department has made creating a better atmosphere part of its focus, but Heinz Field still just isn’t a very intimidating college football venue.

If anything, the noon start should help Pitt just because the Panthers are much, much more used to playing at that hour than the Irish are. Pitt has had five of its eight games start at noon, 12:30 or 1, while Notre Dame hasn’t played a noon game (I believe) since the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl. Pitt has been prone to slow starts the last few weeks, but if they can catch Notre Dame sleepwalking a little bit, that’s a good way to hang around in this game.