If you were wondering when Notre Dame’s nearly annual battle with Pitt would kick into high gear, it might have happened Wednesday afternoon. That’s when Panthers standout receiver Tyler Boyd talked to the local media, and made it clear that he wanted a victory against Notre Dame.
“When you see Notre Dame on your schedule, that’s the only team you really want to beat for sure, even if you’re 1-11,” Boyd said.
And just like that, Boyd put into perspective what this game means to Pitt, heading into a weekend that feels a little different than most, courtesy of the early noon kickoff.
Boyd’s stats are down, but he’s still been the catalyst of a still-developing passing game this season. Entering the year as part of a 1-2 punch with running back James Connor, Boyd sat out one game after an offseason DUI, making headlines for the wrong reason while Connor’s season ending as quickly as it got started with an ACL tear.
Still, Irish head coach Brian Kelly knows that Boyd is the weapon in the Pitt’s offensive attack, a unit that’s struggled to make big plays going against a defense that hasn’t been able to contain them.
“He is dynamic,” Kelly said of Boyd. “He can run the ball as well on offense. They’re using him at the running back position, wide receiver. He’s a game wrecker. We’re aware of him in special teams as well as an offensive player.”
Boyd will likely be matching up with cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who has made game-changing plays to help seal wins against USC and Temple. Russell, a player with no shortage of confidence, will be going against a receiver who seems to share a similar personality trait.
“I’m definitely looking forward to going against him,” Boyd told the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner on Wednesday. “He plays the field corner and I usually go out to the field…Every time I get a chance to go up against him, I want to make sure the ball’s coming my way. I want to let the world know I’m still a great receiver. The stats really aren’t what they’re supposed to be, but I’m still the player that I have been since the first couple of years.”
While we haven’t heard from Russell this week, there’s no doubt he’s circled this matchup. On Media Day in August, he was talking about Boyd, and was confident that he’d be following him around the field, whether he was lined up outside, in the slot or anywhere else.
Last weekend, we saw Russell get beat a few times in man coverage, but recover to make the game-clinching interception. As the Irish secondary tries to play the first half without Elijah Shumate, one of the games inside the game will be the comfort and confidence Pitt has in quarterback Nate Peterman, and if they’ll take some risks downfield with him.
Taking chances down the field hasn’t been the M.O. of head coach Pat Narduzzi or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in their first season at Pitt. But going up against an Irish offense that’ll move the ball and a Notre Dame secondary with a ton of question marks, there certainly are worse strategies.
Plus, if you give one listen to Boyd or Russell, you can’t help but hope we see these two battle early and often.