Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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On an Irish schedule that’s seen its share of change these past two years, not many people on the Notre Dame side of the tracks view the game against Pitt as a rivalry. But that’s not to say it isn’t a unique game. Nor can you say that there’s a lack of familiarity between these two programs.

This will be meeting No. 70 between the two programs, a matchup that dates back to 1909. So before stainless steel, the Titanic, and even the Oreo cookie, there was Notre Dame and Pittsburgh doing battle on the football field.

Pitt understands the gravity of this matchup. And with a natural rivalry against Penn State nonexistent, the Panthers always circle the Irish on the schedule, relishing the fact that the feeling isn’t always reciprocated.

Saturday’s game has the opportunity for another maximum impact matchup. The Panthers are still alive in the Coastal division race of the ACC, a two-loss season already feeling like a success for first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 5 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff poll, their inclusion in the Big Dance in the crosshairs. With the Irish already in the Steel City readying for an early start, they can expect a Panthers team that isn’t just playing gate-crasher, they’re still looking to make their mark and play for a conference title.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. On a weekend that always seems to fly below the radar, there’s a high likelihood we are in for another interesting Saturday.

 

Forget about what the point spread says—history tells us this will be close. 

The last time Notre Dame won easily against Pitt, we still weren’t really sure how to pronounce Jeff Samardzija’s name. It was the coming-out party for Charlie Weis’s 2005 football team, when the Irish offense blitzed Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers and cruised to a 42-21 victory.

But since then, this game has been a nail-biter. The next six games have all been close. It’s a series that’s split the past eight contests and stayed within one score in nine of the past ten matchups, including multiple overtime battles in 2008 (Pitt won) and 2012 (the Irish escaped).

So much has changed inside the Pitt program since that meeting in 2005. Wannstedt was replaced briefly by Mike Haywood, who never coached a game before being replaced by Todd Graham. Graham didn’t make it a calendar year before he bolted for Tempe and was replaced by Paul Chryst, who left to coach Wisconsin last offseason, clearing the way for Narduzzi.

But even amidst the coaching turmoil and changes on the roster, this game has been a close one. So even with the Irish favored by nearly double-digits and the Panthers coming off a disappointing loss to North Carolina, expect a tight football game.

One possible solution for the close-game blues? Call Ara Parseghian. The former Irish coach beat Pitt all 11 times he played them, winning on average by a score of 42-9.

 

 

Tyler Boyd needs 49 yards to become Pitt’s all-time receiving leader. Notre Dame needs to make sure he doesn’t get them all in one play.

Brian Kelly deemed Tyler Boyd the latest “game-wrecker” that the Irish will have to face this season. And the veteran Pittsburgh receiver has earned that title, one of the best receivers in college football, even as the Pitt passing game still sorts itself out.

Boyd’s consistency and game-breaking ability have him ready to pass Antonio Bryant as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, needing just 49 yards to do it. And as the only big-play threat in the Pitt offense with James Connor’s season erased in week one, expect to see the achievement happen Saturday, even if he’s locked up in battle with KeiVarae Russell.

But Notre Dame needs to make sure it doesn’t happen on one play. We’re in for an interesting battle on Saturday—a Pitt offense that struggles to make an explosive play and a Notre Dame defense that can’t seem to stop allowing them.

So while Boyd’s yards per catch is down to just 9.3 per touch, he’s the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver, nearly quadrupling the next closest pass catcher with 63 receptions on the season. An explosive player in space and also on special teams, Notre Dame needs to tackle cleanly and make sure they limit the damage Boyd does after the ball gets in his hands.

 

On the road and starting early. How the Irish adjust will be critical to success. 

Notre Dame hasn’t had a game start this early in the regular season since the Irish traveled to Pitt in 2011, winning an ugly slugfest 15-12. So to help adjust for the early start time, Kelly and the Irish brass decided to get out of town early, flying out Thursday night to help acclimate for the new schedule by going through a dress rehearsal on Friday.

Kelly talked about the decision to leave Thursday, and the thought process behind it.

“This will be the first time that we’ve used this type of schedule. We want to be able to duplicate Saturday’s schedule,” Kelly explained. “We took out some of our periods from practice today and we’ll include those tomorrow… to again get them used to a duplicate schedule on Friday and Saturday.”

UND.com’s Curt Rallo wrote about the logistics behind the decision, and some of the challenges that came along with it. Finding the hotel rooms was the first big one—Notre Dame needed 100 rooms for Thursday night. Then came booking the plane.

Now comes playing a dominant, mistake-free football game away from Notre Dame Stadium. That’s easier said than done.

 

Narduzzi’s defense will want to stuff the run. Whether they can do it is another story. 

Pat Narduzzi built his reputation playing an aggressive brand of defense, dominating at the line of scrimmage and forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. The first-year head coach has done a nice job implementing that style at Pittsburgh, even as he builds the necessary personnel to do it.

Expect Narduzzi to sellout to stuff the run, unwilling to let C.J. Prosise beat the Panthers from the backfield. But unlike the job Clemson and Temple did, whether or not Pitt is able to do so remains to be seen.

Pitt is a respectable 36th in the country against the run. But the past two weeks have shown cracks in the foundation, with Syracuse and North Carolina both able to be productive on the ground.

In Pitt’s 23-20 comeback win over the Orange, two big runs allowed Syracuse to average 5.9 yards per carry. North Carolina averaged 5.0 yards per carry in their 26-19 win, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before riding former Notre Dame commitment Elijah Hood in the second half.

Notre Dame’s ability to run the football comes down to the play of the offensive line. Last week, the Irish struggled with missed assignments—and a stacked box—and couldn’t get the ground game off the runway. This week, it’ll be a challenge, but Kelly believes that the offensive line can find success against Narduzzi’s defense, but only if they play more consistent football.

“What we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Eliminating penalties. And that one missed assignment seems to always come at the most inopportune time. If those two things, if we can eradicate those on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line to having a big day.”

Pitt’s pass rush has struggled to get to the quarterback the past few weeks, leaving the secondary susceptible as Narduzzi sends blitzers. That’s a chance to make big plays on both the ground and through the air if the offensive line can hold up.

 

Jaylon Smith has played great football. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff is challenging him to elevate everybody else’s play, too. 

One of the more fascinating exchanges on this week’s “A Season with Notre Dame” on Showtime was the interactions between defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s leading tackler and junior captain was challenged by his coach to elevate his teammates’ play—something VanGorder hasn’t necessarily seen out of the star linebacker.

That’s an interesting piece of Smith’s development. Not just as a leader, where Smith acknowledged he wasn’t necessarily comfortable acting like someone he wasn’t, but as a football player, making sure all boats rise with him, to borrow (or butcher) a metaphor Kelly has used in the past.

Smith might be playing his final four regular season games as a college football player, a decision you couldn’t fault if he’ll be a first-round draft pick and one of the first linebackers selected in the NFL Draft. But Kelly talked about the challenge to Smith and how he expects him to respond to it, regardless of the future.

“Leadership for Jaylon has been one where he has led by example and we don’t think that’s enough to be a great leader,” Kelly explained. “We think that you have to be somebody that is interactive if you will. He has to be teaching and communicating. It has to be more than just actions. We know about his actions, they’re phenomenal. You just watch him play, that speaks volumes. We want him to be more of a communicator with the guys and I think that’s the point that we wanted to make with him. And he took it to heart.”

Smith’s “communication” doesn’t necessarily have to be in the former of mentorship, like we saw with freshman linebacker Te’von Coney on Showtime. It needs to be demanding more accountability from his teammates on the field, whether that be the situational contributors or fellow captain Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s quiet leadership style isn’t too far off from what Sheldon Day was last year, and we’ve seen the senior evolve into a more vocal leader as his play also took a huge leap forward this season. If this November is the one the Irish expect to have, Smith needs to demand better from a defense that can’t seem to shake their inconsistency.

 

Red Zone efficiency is key. 

If you’re looking for one thing to improve this week it’s Notre Dame’s red zone play on offense. The Irish have a unit averaging 495 yards a game, the best of the Kelly era. And while the 36.5 points a game is also the best of Kelly’s time in South Bend, that number could be so much better if Notre Dame did a better job finishing drives.

Notre Dame is 100th in the country converting red zone opportunities, scoring on just 79 precent of their chances. They’re only slightly better getting touchdowns, 85th in the country with a 58 percent rate.

The good news? Pitt’s red zone defense is the worst in the country statistically. The Panthers have yet to stop an opponent once they get inside the 20-yard-line, No. 128 out of 128.

But that stat is incredibly misleading. The Panthers have been much better at not giving up touchdowns—they jump to No. 22 in the country when you look at their ability to hold teams to a field goal, basically the inverse of an Irish defense that’s 27th in red zone scoring but 93rd in giving up touchdowns.

Kelly talked earlier this week about the importance of the red zone, not just from quarterback DeShone Kizer eliminating the mistakes that plagued the offense against Pittsburgh, but the need for everybody to do their jobs when they get in the scoring areas.

“Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

“We’ll take some extra time this week. We’ve done some more self-scouting in terms of play calling, what we’re doing down there. But I think at the end of the day execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

That extra time came on Thursday, with the Irish working short yardage running and their playcalling inside the 10- and 20-yard lines. Now they need to take a step forward, cashing in when they have the chance to beat a team, opportunities they missed against Virginia, USC and Temple.