Notre Dame vs. Pitt Preview: Time for a Winning Streak?

"I will haunt your dreams." (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Notre Dame (-6.5) at Pittsburgh

For the fourth straight season, Notre Dame will take on the Pitt Panthers with this year's game set for a noon kickoff this Saturday on ABC.

The Panthers are now coached by Todd Graham, the former Tulsa coach who came into Notre Dame Stadium last year and pulled out a victory over the Irish.

Gone is the pro-style power running game that defined the Dave Wannstedt era, and in comes the up-tempo spread offense that Graham brings with him from his days at Tulsa.

Pitt comes into this game with a 2-1 record after suffering a loss last week---is this an easier game for Notre Dame, or yet another tough rivalry matchup?

If you want a preview of the game, keep reading after the jump. Or you could go back to debating the 19,376 different conference alignment scenarios.

Your choice.

How Has Pitt Been Doing This Year?

It's been a little bit of a struggle so far this year for Pitt as they make the transition to a spread offense and a 3-4 defense.

The Panthers opened up their season at home against Buffalo, and dealt with a Bulls team intent on draining the clock and running the ball to keep it away from Pitt. The Panthers led 7-3 at the half, and only 21-16 into the fourth quarter, but scored two late touchdowns to pull away for the victory.

In their second game, Pitt started out more efficiently against Maine, but led by only 5 late into the third quarter. Eventually the Panthers built a 20-point lead after two scores, but Maine would also add two more touchdowns of their own making it a much-too-close 6-point win for Pitt.

If the first two uninspiring wins against inferior opponents didn't do much for the Pitt fan base, last week's loss at Iowa certainly could bring about more skepticism.

Up 24-3 late in the third quarter, Iowa came storming back and eventually defeated the Panthers 31-27, marking the largest comeback in Hawkeye history.

Notre Dame Defense vs. Pittsburgh Offense

Officially, Pitt has returned 5 starters on offense from last year, but it's really 6 when you factor in running back Ray Graham, who shared carries with Dion Lewis for the past couple seasons.

There's no doubt that the Pitt offense begins and revolves around Graham because he is an explosive back and the team's biggest weapon by a country mile.

Up front, Pitt returns three offensive linemen and they are all pretty well regarded. The line might still be struggling with adjustments to the spread offense, but they are one of the more talented the Irish will face this year. They'll certainly be an upgrade over what Notre Dame saw last week with Michigan State.

With a premier running back and solid line, the Pittsburgh offense should be pretty explosive, yet they aren't quite there at this point for a couple reasons.

At quarterback, redshirt senior Tino Sunseri is back as the starter for the second straight season. He's got good size, but has always struggled with accuracy and consistency, and doesn't particularly fit the new Pitt offense that well.

At wide receiver, the Panthers lost All-Big East standout Johnathan Baldwin and don't return any proven talents that will need to be double covered. However, redshirt junior Mike Shannahan is a good possession-type receiver and redshirt sophomore Devin Street is emerging playmaker with good speed.

Overall, this Pitt offense has some potential but they are likely being a little handcuffed right now learning a new system, not having a great fit at quarterback, and a lack of proven threats outside of Graham at running back.

The bad news for Notre Dame is that they are in fact playing a spread team again, but the good news is that Sunseri isn't very mobile (19 yards on 28 attempts) and it will basically like playing a pro-style team that's trying to fit a square peg in a round hole running Graham's uber-spread system.

Diaco might not be able to let the dogs loose like he did last week, but we should see plenty of pressure applied to Pitt's offensive line and quarterback all the same.

The key for the Irish defense will be to limit Graham on the ground and force the ball into Sunseri's hands in third and long situations.

Graham is averaging just under 140 yards per game (3rd nationally in total rushing), but might be feeling the effects of not having Dion Lewis in the backfield anymore, as well as adjusting to a new offense. He dropped 322 yards and 6 touchdowns against two weak opponents to start the season, but rushed for just 97 yards on 22 carries without a touchdown* against his first BCS defense last week.

*Graham gained 24 of those yards with an amazing spin move at the line of scrimmage, leaving two Iowa defenders falling over themselves, so for the rest of the day he was averaging a pedestrain 3.4 yards per carry.

Head coach Todd Graham will try many different ways to get the ball in his namesake running back's hands, so Notre Dame is going to have to make sure they know where he is at all times, and not allow him to gain extra yards with poor tackling.

If the Irish can limit Graham to 100 yards or less, the game should go pretty favorably for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense

Pitt loses three outstanding players from last year's defense in DE Jabaal Sheard, DE Greg Romeus, and S Dom DeCicco, but 7 starters return nonetheless. It's actually 8 returning starters since Romeus missed most of last year with an injury.

Despite two defensive line losses, the Panthers return a very good three-man front this year with defensive end Brandon Lindsey, tackle Chas Alecxih, and tackle Miles Caragein. Lindsey notched 10 sacks last year and was on Phil Steele's first team Preseason All-Big East team, while Alecxih and Caragein were second and third teamers respectively.

At linebacker, Pitt has one of the best defenders the Irish will see at this position in redshirt senior Max Gruder. He's got great instincts and is always around the ball---leading the Panthers in tackles so far this year, as well as being 2nd in team tackles in 2010.

One problem for Pitt is that the switch to a 3-4 scheme takes away from their strength on the defensive line, and puts pressure on a linebacker corps that isn't as deep or talented.

Next to Gruder in the middle the Panthers have a quality linebacker in Tristan Roberts, but they are also currently starting a true freshman and a redshirt freshman at the outside positions.

The secondary has two returning starters and a decent amount of experience, but has been woeful so far in 2011. Through three games, Pitt has given up 6 touchdowns, over 1,000 yards through the air, and currently sits as the second to worst passing defense in the country with a ranking of 119th nationally.

This poses quite the dilemma for Notre Dame.

Judging by the statistics and general dispersal of talent, it would seem obvious that the Irish should throw the ball quite a lot on Saturday. For example, every Pitt opponent has thrown the rock at least 45 times in each game this season and had a lot of success doing so.

However, Brian Kelly has already mentioned Pittsburgh runs some complicated defensive schemes and that he will keep it relatively simple for Tommy Rees at quarterback. The notoriously bad playing surface at Heinz Field also lends itself to running the ball more often and keeping things pretty conservative as well.

Ultimately, I foresee Notre Dame trying to run the ball early with moderate success but also airing it out over 30 times with Rees too. I don't think this Pittsburgh defense is on par with Michigan State's, and that should lead to a little bit more consistent run game and a much more productive day through the air than last weekend.

Prediction

Pittsburgh is an odd team right now, and I think a lot of that has to do with the coaching change this offseason and all of the different schemes the team is trying to get used to.

In terms of talent on paper and returning starters, there was every right to believe this would be one of the top two teams to beat in the Big East. Yet, so far West Virginia and South Florida look a step or two above the Panthers, with Pitt struggling somewhat against a MAC and FCS teams---as well as losing to what may be a very average Iowa Hawkeyes team.

Nevertheless, it's a rivalry game, on the road, on a bad playing surface (hey, we should be used to that!), with rain a distinct possibility.

Is it possible that Pittsburgh has just struggled a little bit early this season with a new coach but could step up their game, shake off some rust, and make this a very competitive contest?

Is the talent disparity that wide in favor of Notre Dame?

Notre Dame is primed to have a turnover-free game and blow a team out and my initial gut reaction is that this could be that game.

How about some history?

Notre Dame Athletics

Four of the 10 biggest victory margins in history have come against : 1944 (58-0), 1945 (56-0), 1965 (69-13) and 1996 (60-6)

Alas, this Irish team has too many problems, mainly with turnovers, to expect a blowout of the above proportions. Even though Dion Lewis, Jonathan Baldwin, Jabaal Sheard, Greg Romeus, and Dom DeCicco are all gone, this is still a good Pittsburgh football team.

Before the season began, many of us were hoping that Notre Dame would lean on the running game a little more and through three games this season it appears Brian Kelly is more than willing to do so.

However, it's also clear that Rees limits the playbook to varying degrees, the offense isn't operating at the fast-pace Kelly is accustomed to, and as a result this has had a trickle-down effect where the offense has become a little less explosive---or at least less likely to put up a ton of points.

In other words, Kelly is more than happy to lean on the running game a little more and let the defense do some damage on the other side of the ball. I think it's clear he's happy with that trade-off at this point.

My only concern is that this approach might not take full advantage of Notre Dame's offensive talent in relation to its opponents, especially if it's clear early that Pitt is struggling to contain Floyd, Jones, Riddick and Co through the air.

If Maine can throw for 334 yards with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions against Pittsburgh, what kind of damage should we expect from Notre Dame?

Sign me up for Kelly playing coy before the game a little bit and eventually letting Rees throw the ball a lot more as this game progresses.

On the other side of the ball, I don't think Pitt has the playmakers outside of Graham to have an effective afternoon moving the ball, and I'm not a big believer in Sunseri being able to do much damage if the Irish can bottle up the Pitt running game.

Sunseri does well when he's allowed to play within his limitations, complete a lot of short passes and sprinkle in an occasional longer pass, but he might not have the luxury of being in much of a comfort zone this Saturday. Sunseri should feel a lot of pressure from the Notre Dame front seven, with the added disadvantage of having to smash into those big bodies on occasional running plays.

Eventually I like Todd Graham's spread offense to do a lot of damage for the Panthers, but this Pitt team isn't ready right now and doesn't have the right pieces in place. With three quality linemen the Panthers line should be the anchor that keeps them in this game, but then again, even if the line has opened holes in the running game, they've still given up 12 sacks (2nd worst in the country to Akron's 15) through three games this season too.

Pittsburgh has the potential to be a dangerous team, but I just don't see that potential translating to the field this year---or at least this weekend against Notre Dame. As I've already said, it is going to take time for Pitt to get used to the new spread offense and there's no one on their offense who will scare you besides Ray Graham.

Further, I'd be pretty concerned about the defense if I was a Panther fan. Head coach Todd Graham brings with him his defensive coordinator Keith Patterson from Tulsa, and together they have a pretty horrid track record on defense and in particular on passing defense.

While at Tulsa, Graham and Patterson had the 108th, 98th, 102nd, and 120th ranked passing defenses---and this first year at Pitt is not bucking that trend in the least bit.

Also, without playing a truly strong team through three games this season, the Panthers are sitting at a pretty dismal 96th in total defense.

These are not good numbers.

This is the kind of game that the Fighting Irish could potentially roll in if they bring their A game and play turnover-free, but we've yet to see that happen this year.

So, I like this game to stay close for a while, but Notre Dame will eventually wear down the Panthers and get back to .500 on the season. We should see some backups in the fourth quarter for the first time this season.

Notre Dame 38

Pittsburgh 20

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