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And In That Corner … The Pittsburgh Panthers, owners of two top-5 upsets the last two seasons

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One of the least-discussed byproducts of Notre Dame’s relationship with the ACC is how much it actually diminishes the Irish interactions with Pittsburgh. The two programs have met 69 times in history, including 11 times from 2001 to 2013 — Notre Dame went 7-4 — but now have not seen each other in three years. It used to be a consistent series, just one undersold in comparison to certain Big Ten or Pac 12 relationships.

As such, an Irish fan can be forgiven for not knowing too much about the Panthers this year. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brian Batko is here to fix that.

DF: Thanks, Brian, for giving up some of your week to educate Notre Dame fans and, if being honest, myself. I haven’t updated my own version of power rankings yet this week, so let me check in on my ACC chart real quick — I projected Pittsburgh to win 4.33 games this season, with 2.67 of them coming in the first six weeks. I obviously did not think very highly of the Panthers, and by reaching this point at 3-3, they have hardly proven me wrong. Broadly speaking and thinking back to August, what did you expect out of Pat Narduzzi’s fourth season in Pittsburgh?

BB: I expected a team that would be much improved from last year’s disappointing 5-7 outfit, but did not necessarily think it would be obvious in the win-loss column. That’s because Pitt entered 2018 with a remarkably daunting schedule, one rated by ESPN as the toughest non-conference slate in the country, and for good reason. Penn State. Central Florida. Notre Dame. Albany. OK, one of those is not like the others, but in this year particularly, those first three make for an absolute meat grinder outside of ACC play. Inside the league is where the Panthers could make some hay, but losing to North Carolina in Week 4 was a bad, bad look in one of several matchups I viewed as 50-50 games in the preseason.

My preseason outlook posited, “A strong season from [sophomore quarterback Kenny] Pickett could spark a good amount of Pittsburgh hype for 2019 and 2020.” Just looking at Pickett’s stat line, he has done alright this season, but not much better than that with 886 yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions and a 61.3 percent completion rate in six games. What has held him back thus far?

And really, the stat line is deceiving. One of those touchdowns and 58 of those yards came on a garbage time flip pass to wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, who did all the work. Pickett’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Rafael Araujo-Lopes this past weekend was a bubble screen the receiver broke open. Another one went for one yard at the goal line against North Carolina. What I’m trying to say here is that even the success Pickett has had, for the most part, it hasn’t been the result of sharp throws downfield and Pitt getting vertical in the passing game. The book on him all training camp was how good of a decision-maker he’s becoming, and even that has been a work in progress, as evidenced by the picks. It’s tough to say how much of it his is own inexperience being a roadblock in his development, versus an offensive system that wants to run first and hasn’t shown much proclivity to try to stretch the field.

Panthers running back Qadree Ollison has rushed for 596 yards this season while averaging 6.5 yards per carry, leading the only reliable aspect of the Pittsburgh offense. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

The Panthers do have a decent running game, averaging 203.8 yards per game, but Notre Dame allows only 127.8. How devoted is Narduzzi to the running game?

He loves it, and for good reason. It’s tough to argue with a 14-5 mark for the Panthers when they’ve rushed for at least 200 yards under Narduzzi. It would seem that the drop-off from senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall (plus senior fullback George Aston) to Pitt’s next-strongest position group is quite pronounced, so might as well do what works until the opponent takes it away. It stands to reason Notre Dame will be more equipped to do that than Syracuse was, as the Orange did the unthinkable and actually allowed Pitt to mount its game-tying comeback drive solely on the ground (11 rushing attempts until one desperation end-zone pass before a field goal sent it to overtime).

I ask in that fashion because the Irish defense has basically forced opponents to pass this season by rendering the run so ineffective. If it comes to that, possibly in tandem with Notre Dame’s offense opening up a lead, does Pickett have the weapons to get aggressive through the air?

Not so much, no. Ffrench and Araujo-Lopes have had their moments the past couple years, but they’re fairly similar players in terms of mostly working out of the slot given their lack of size. Indiana transfer Taysir Mack is the closest guy the Panthers have to a conventional No. 1, go-up-and-get-it receiver, but he’s been banged up and didn’t play last week against Syracuse. He seems questionable, at best, for Notre Dame, so that again leaves Pittsburgh wanting for big-play pass-catchers. True freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis is one to keep an eye on, but his breakout game hasn’t arrived just yet.

Flipping to the defense, let me ask this in a general fashion out of deference to Narduzzi — Is this a typical Narduzzi defense? Giving up 32.8 points per game (not to mention 428.3 yards) would imply otherwise, but anyone who follows the Irish is too familiar with Narduzzi’s handiwork at Michigan State to assume anything negative about his defense.

Well, it’s been typical for his time at Pitt, which has been the cause of much consternation among the fan base during his tenure, even the years he was winning. The thought was that this might be the year it could finally look something like those vaunted Spartans units with Mark Dantonio as head coach and Narduzzi as defensive coordinator, given that Pitt returned nine starters and a slew of other contributors, many of whom are fifth-year seniors, but it hasn’t worked out that way so far. Maybe that’s a testament to some of the elite offenses it’s seen (Penn State, UCF, Syracuse) but it’s more likely Pitt’s defense just isn’t there. Whether that’s talent or scheme is one of the major questions about this team — and program — but after showing signs of life in the final two games of 2017 (20-14 loss at Virginia Tech, 24-14 upset of Miami) that momentum was squashed early this season.

UPDATE: Since holding this Q&A with Brian, the Panthers defense suffered a significant blow.

To this point, Wirginis has led Pittsburgh with 41 tackles with seven for loss including three sacks. He has also forced two fumbles.

Pittsburgh will be without its best defender Saturday, losing linebacker Quintin Wirginis for the season to a knee injury suffered in practice this week. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Before I continue down the Narduzzi path into the macro, have I missed anything in particular in the micro?

Not really. Pitt has a good kicker named Alex Kessman, who boomed field goals of 45, 54 and 55 yards, all of which were needed to take Syracuse to overtime and eventually win. So, he’s a weapon in his own right, perhaps.

Focusing on Narduzzi, he looks to have lost some momentum. At least, that is the view from a distance. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, he led the Panthers to a 5-7 record last year and this season could very well match that. His job isn’t in danger yet by any means, but is there any amount of frustration within the program/from Narduzzi?

Pitt does a decent job of hiding that kind of stuff if there is any frustration. You have to imagine that no one within those walls was feeling too hot after blowing a halftime lead to dreadful North Carolina, then getting eviscerated by Central Florida a few weeks after Penn State came into Heinz Field and delivered a beating. The Pitt faithful, at least the ones I have the pleasure to interact with via email, Twitter, etc., are starting to get restless. Second-year athletic director Heather Lyke gave Narduzzi a vote of confidence, so to speak, just last week.

Now in his fourth season leading Pittsburgh, head coach Pat Narduzzi is 24-20, including 8-10 over the last season and a half. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The highlights of his tenure have been two top-5 upsets in the last two years, with Pickett leading the way over then-No .2 Miami last season in his first career start. How did the Panthers pull those off? Is there anything applicable to this weekend to be gleaned from those upsets?

One thing Narduzzi really does seem to bring to the table, especially when you consider those games, is firing up his guys for a stunner. Most of the personnel from the Clemson shock two years ago have moved on, but last season’s Miami upset was essentially the recipe for this team and program to win big showdowns. Get a suffocating and opportunistic performance from your defense and use the running game to lighten the load on Kenny Pickett, who can manage the offense and occasionally bust out a splash play with his legs. One constant with Narduzzi’s defenses over the years is they’re going to be aggressive, for better or for worse, and that’s a sword that Pitt often dies by but, once in a blue moon, can be the difference against a superior squad on paper.

Might Pittsburgh find magic again this weekend? Notre Dame is favored by three touchdowns. What goes through your head when you see that?

It might, but I wouldn’t predict it. The point spread doesn’t surprise me much given that it’s a home game for the Irish, who could be headed for an historic season even by their lofty standards. Pitt faced pretty long odds from Vegas against Penn State and Central Florida this year, too, and I projected both games to be closer than the betting line. Turned out, both were even more lopsided than that, so who knows? The Panthers are consistently inconsistent, so for as much of a Notre Dame walkover as this is in theory, I’ve come to never know what to expect from this program despite being around it more often than my wife this time of year.