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OFD Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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Previewing the 69th meeting between the Fighting Irish and Panthers.

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame (-4.5) at Pittsburgh

Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Kickoff: 8:00 PM ET

Television: ABC

Series: 47-20-1 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview of this weekend's game against the University of Pittsburgh.

5 Factoids

  • 5th

Pitt currently stands in fifth place all-time in games played against Notre Dame and this will be the 69th meeting between the Irish and Panthers. Navy (87), USC (85), Purdue (85), and Michigan State (77) all stand ahead of Pitt in games played but with the switch to the ACC and games against the Boilermakers and Spartans becoming less frequent the Panthers should inch closer to 4th place over the next decade or two.

  • 4

This will be the fourth straight season that an unranked Pitt team faces off against Notre Dame. The Panthers last victory came back in 2009 when the No. 8 Wanndstedt-led Panthers beat Jimmy Clausen & Co. at night. Pitt was ranked in the Top 20 in 6 out of 7 games with Notre Dame between 1973-82 but the Panthers have been unranked coming into this tilt in 17 out of the last 22 meetings.

  • 44.1%

That is the percentage of total yards this season from Pitt's leading rusher Isaac Bennett in their win over Old Dominion. He also scored 3 of his 5 touchdowns this season against the Monarchs. Against the 7 other FBS opponents in 2013 Bennett has carried the ball 75 times for 303 yards (4.0 average).

  • 27.5

This is the career sacks for Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, good for the active leader in all of college football. He's currently fourth all-time in sacks for a Panther defender. More on him below.

  • 11-28-08

That date is the last time Pitt defeated a team that ended up finishing the season ranked. That day the Panthers defeated West Virginia (who finished at No. 23) 19-15 in their second to last regular season game. Since then, Pittsburgh has gone 0-8 against teams who finished the season ranked---including the loss to Florida State this season. Amazingly, Pitt didn't even play a single team in 2010 that finished the season ranked.

4 Players to Watch

  • WR Tyler Boyd

The true freshman from Clarion, Pennsylvania was a target for Notre Dame last cycle but Boyd ultimately stayed close to home and signed with Pitt. So far this season he's having a freshman All-American season leading the Panthers in receptions with 45 and receiving touchdowns with 6. The offense has also given the ball to him on the ground a little bit as Boyd has totaled 106 yards and a touchdown on 9 carries. What's more he also has 250 yards on kick returns to give him a flat 1,000 yards in all-purpose running coming into this weekend.

  • QB Tom Savage

The fifth-year senior began his career at Rutgers in 2009 opening that season against a Brian Kelly-led Cincinnati team that was on their way to an undefeated regular season. Savage lost that game 47-15 but was named a freshman All-American by year's end. Savage ended up losing his job the next season, transferring to Arizona State where he sat out 2011, and then transferring back east to Pitt where he sat out 2012. He's having a nice season so far in the Steel City and seems to have shaken off some rust after the first couple games. Over his last 6 games Savage has 1,342 yards at 60.3% accuracy with 11 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions.

  • DT Aaron Donald

As mentioned above no one in college football has more career sacks than Donald. He's been relatively held in check by Notre Dame over his career with 7 out of his 8 career tackles and a tackle for loss coming last year in South Bend, but he's been on an absolute tear this season. His stat line reads: 36 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 1 pass broken up, 8 quarterback hurries, and 3 forced fumbles.

  • LB Todd Thomas

Thomas has had an interesting career so far. He took a redshirt in 2010 after suffering a knee injury, started six games in 2011 before suffering another knee injury, missed the first four games of 2012 recovering from the knee injury the previous year, and then started seven more games to finish up 2012. Leading up to this season he had some sort of disagreement with the coaching staff, left the team for a short period, but then came back shortly before the season. Now, Thomas has started 6 games this season at weak side linebacker and currently leads the team in tackles with 53.

3 Concerns

  • Run Defense without Nix

As of this writing it is expected that Louis Nix will make his return to the lineup after missing the past two games with a slightly torn meniscus and knee tendinitis. What's more this might be the first time that all 3 starting defensive linemen play together in quite some time if DE Sheldon Day can stay healthy.

I'm still a little concerned that Kelly might try to 'get by' without Nix and if you remember the Irish didn't do so well with that gameplan last year against the Panthers as Pitt ripped off runs of 55, 16, 48, and 11 and Lou wasn't on the field for some of those plays. Yes, Notre Dame should probably corral a Pitt running game that ranks 105th nationally and 82nd in S&P rushing even without Nix but remember backup nose guard Kona Schwenke is out for this game too.

  • Turnovers

The past two games between Notre Dame and Pitt have been decided by 3 points a piece. In those games the Irish combined for 5 turnovers while the Panthers didn't lose a single turnover.

How about we see what the game looks like if Notre Dame doesn't lose the ball, or heck, maybe even forces a couple turnovers!

  • Lack of Pressure on Savage

The Irish struggled somewhat early in the season to get sacks (4 in the first 5 games) and tackles for loss (20 in the first 5 games) but they've looked much stronger lately even while playing two academy teams. They only got 1 sack in the Air Force and Navy games but Notre Dame still has 9 sacks in their last 4 games and a very healthy 34 tackles for loss over the past 4 games.

This can't be a game where the Irish struggle getting pressure and making plays in the backfield. Pitt has given up 29 sacks this season (119th nationally) and 56 tackles for loss (90th nationally).

2 Sides of the Ball

Pitt's offensive line was healthy into their fifth game this season until the injury bug hit. At left guard fifth-year senior Cory King (6-6, 325) moved inside after starting all 13 games last year at left tackle. King has missed the last three games with injury and fellow fifth-year senior Ryan Schlieper (6-5, 310) has filled after making 8 starts in 2012 at right guard.

At left tackle redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty (6-6, 300) has made the first 7 starts this season but missed the recent Georgia Tech game with injury. The five-star recruit and true freshman Dorian Johnson (6-5, 290) made his first career start last week but head coach Paul Chryst is hopeful both King and Bisnowaty will return on the left side this weekend.

Rounding out Pitt's line is returning starter redshirt junior Matt Rotheram (6-6, 340) at right guard who moves in from tackle, redshirt sophomore Artie Rowell (6-2, 305) at center, and redshirt sophomore T.J. Clemmings (6-6, 305) at right tackle who moved over from defense this off-season.

On the other side of the ball Pitt has 3 returning starters back in their 4-3 scheme. The aforementioned senior Aaron Donald (6-0, 285) is the anchor at tackle, fifth-year senior Tyrone Ezell (6-4, 305) holds down the nose tackle spot, and redshirt junior Bryan Murphy (6-3, 255) starts at the other end position. Ezell is a typical block eater in the middle with 25 tackles and 1 tackle for loss. Murphy, despite missing a couple games still has 14 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks.

Redshirt sophomore Devin Cook (6-4, 255) started the season at defensive end but has been out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in their second game. Ohio State transfer and redshirt junior David Durham has filled in on the end. Redshirt sophomore Ejuan Price (6-0, 230), sophomore Darryl Render (6-2, 285) and true freshman Shakir Soto (6-3, 255) offer some depth along the line.

1 Prediction

My impression is that this Pitt team is a little better than they're perceived, especially defensively. They did give up 41 points and 8.46 YPP to Florida State to open the season and even 55 points in week 3 to Duke but in their last 5 games they've only given up 18.2 points per game. There's plenty of experience and their stats are pretty solid across the board---even S&P defense favors Pitt in this game.

They particularly look stout enough on their defensive line, led by Donald, and their secondary is solid led by a couple nice corners in K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for Week 11

F/+ 26 57
FEI 27 51
FEI Off. 14 79
FEI Def. 31 38
S&P 35 43
S&P Off. 20 60
S&P Def. 47 35

Pitt appear far less threatening offensively and I think this is the biggest weakness for either team. As already mentioned their offensive line has done a terrible job protecting Savage and preventing defenders from slicing into the backfield for big plays. What's more, running the ball is supposed to be Pitt's bread and butter but they're really struggling this season to get yards on the ground.

If you take out the Old Dominion & New Mexico games (an FCS team & the 120th ranked S&P rush defense) the Panthers have only rushed for 431 yards at 2.23 yards per carry in 2013. Those two games against the Monarchs and Lobos account for 56 percent of Pitt's season rushing!

Yes, the Panthers have played some good run defenses in Virginia Tech (10th in S&P rush defense), Florida State (16th), Virginia (36th), and Georgia Tech (43th), but they've gained an insanely poor 122 yards on 109 carries in those four games. Of course sacks are a part of that stat but even without the sacks they ran for just 3.5 yards per carry. Isaac Bennett is a decent back but isn't a big playmaker and the backup is a true freshman (James Conner) who is more fullback than tailback.

Savage is a competent quarterback with a pair of really good playmakers at receiver in Devin Street and Tyler Boyd but I don't know how effective this offense will be without much of a running game or a line able to give the quarterback time to throw. As such, I think Pitt's ceiling for scoring points in this game is around 25.

In order to win this game Notre Dame just needs a nice steady day on offense---nothing too crazy. Pitt's defense is solid, they always get up for this game, Rees' lack of mobility might pose some problems, so I don't think this will be the type of game where the Irish run away by scoring 40 or more points.

I do expect a fairly close game---maybe one where the Irish sit on a 10-14 point lead most of the contest---and I think Notre Dame's ability on offense (or Pitt's lack thereof) will be the difference.

Notre Dame 27

Pittsburgh 19