Big thanks to Anson (@AnsonWhaley) for answering our questions this week. You can find my answers to his questions HERE. Without further ado, lets see how Pitt is going to attempt to ruin a pleasant Saturday evening by playing the Irish far too well:
1. Obviously one of the largest issues in Pitt's season thus far has been the struggle of the running game, especially against upper level opponents. Where is the issue in the running game, or is it simply a lack of emphasis on pounding the ball?
Two big issues here. First, the offensive line isn't real good and none of the starters were starters last year or played the same position. Pitt has a redshirt sophomore at center, a redshirt freshman at tackle, and a converted defensive linemen at the other tackle spot - all are first-time starters on the line. The Panthers returned two starters, but both were the tackles last year and moved inside to guard this season. With that much movement, it's really been a bit of a disaster at times.
The other factor is that the backs just aren't really big time guys. Pitt had a potential star in the backfield in Rushel Shell who was expected to start this year as a true sophomore before he transferred out of the program. The guys left, junior Isaac Bennett and freshman James Conner, are really more like middle-of-the-road guys. Each has had some big games against weaker teams and Conner could get better by the time he's an upperclassman, but neither is what you'd consider a star at this point. Pitt has tried to run the ball and Chryst hasn't abandoned it, but those two things are reasons why the running game has struggled.
2. Notre Dame's defense has struggled this season against teams who are able to get the ball out quickly, especially over the middle of the field. How do you see the Panthers attacking Notre Dame this weekend?
Chryst is a run-first guy, so even though the run game has struggled, they'll definitely start there. One of the problems the coaching staff has had this year is failing to adjust to what teams are doing. Against teams like Florida State and Virginia Tech that blitzed the crap out of Pitt, the Panthers never tried to do anything to offset that such as quicker passes or a shotgun snap. Chryst even talked earlier this year about short passes being 'tricky' and it was pretty clear to me that he seemed too afraid of things going wrong there. I fear that if Notre Dame's line gets through, we'll see more of the same lack of changes.
One thing I do expect is for Pitt to try to get the ball to freshman phenom Tyler Boyd. Boyd started fast with three 100-yard receiving games in the team's first four and then kind of fell off the radar. The staff made a point of it to get him the ball last week and he responded with 11 catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown. I expect to see them go to him in some form.
I don't know that we'll see Pitt really air it out like they did against some weaker teams earlier on. The line really hasn't held up enough to give Savage the kind of time he needs to do that.
3. Who is one Pittsburgh player that we may not know who is going to have a big coming out party against the Irish this weekend?
Irish fans may not be familiar with Boyd, but another guy that could surprise is Todd Thomas on defense. He's really played well this year and is Pitt's best linebacker. He's not the middle linebacker, but has had a few games where he's put up numbers like one. And he really just makes plays all over the field. He snuffed out a fake punt earlier this season, has blocked punts before, and is one of the Panthers' most athletic defenders.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't point out the tight ends. Last year, freshman JP Holtz had his biggest game of the year against Notre Dame with three catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. Along with Manasseh Garner and true freshmen Scott Orndoff and Jaymar Parrish, Pitt has four guys that see time there. Garner's the one guy I'd keep an eye on in that group.
4. Tom Savage looked great in the opening drives of the season against Florida State, but has struggled of late. How would you grade his performance so far this season, and what are his strengths/weaknesses?
Savage probably gets a C in my book as I'd rate him pretty average at this point. The offensive struggles certainly aren't all on him with the weak offensive line, but he's also had his own faults. He sometimes holds the ball too long, has missed open wide receivers, and has had games with just some very bad interceptions.
He's had his bright spots, of course, including a school record six touchdown passes against Duke earlier. He also has really cut back on the picks lately with only one in the past four games. Savage has a strong arm and when given time to throw, hasn't been bad at all. But like the rest of the team, he's played better against some very average (or flat out bad) teams. The Panthers' flaws have been exposed against the better teams and he's no exception there.
5. Give us your prediction for the game this weekend, and bonus points for GIF usage.
We have our picks post on Friday and as of now (Wednesday), I still haven't made up my mind. In any event, I expect it to be a close game (Ed Note: HERE are Cardiac Hill's picks). Notre Dame just hasn't run away from Pitt in the past five years and those have included some pretty mediocre Panthers teams the past two seasons. At home, I just don't see a blowout in here.
I've got a hard time picking this game because Pitt always steps up and knocks off a team they're not supposed to (just as they lose to one they shouldn't) and a win on Saturday would be standard fare for the Panthers. Last year, Pitt practically beat Notre Dame and destroyed a 9-1 Rutgers team, but lost to Youngstown State. The year before, they crushed a ranked South Florida team and was beaten just as bad by SMU. And of course, we know about the 2007 team that beat No. 1/2 West Virginia on the road while going 4-7 on the season. It's just what Pitt does and we don't try to explain it anymore. I won't officially predict a Pitt win right now, but I will say that I expect a 3-6 point game either way for what it's worth.