Notre Dame (-8) at Pittsburgh
Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Kickoff: 12:00 PM ET
Date: Saturday, November 7, 2015
Series: 47-21-1 Notre Dame
Here is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's
late morning afternoon game against the Pitt Panthers.
Too Close for Comfort
Since 2002, the Irish and Panthers have met 10 times with those games being decided by 8, 6, 3, 21, 3, 5, 6, 3, 3, and 7 points. The only outlier in that group was Charlie Weis' first game with Notre Dame when the new-look offense completely overwhelmed a shocked Pitt defense. Notre Dame is 6-4-0 in their last 10 games against Pitt but it's been since 1976 since the Panthers beat the Irish by more than 10 points.
The Narduzzi Touch
Pitt needed to improve on defense this season and hired just the right man for the job. Last season, the Panthers finished at a shocking 99th in FEI defense and really struggled mightily making plays in the backfield with just 19 sacks (103rd nationally) and 54 tackles for loss (118th nationally). Coming into Saturday's game Pitt has already eclipsed last year's sack mark with 22 and are just one shy of the TFL mark with 53 in 8 games.
One of the more interesting schedules this season saw Pitt open the season on the road in 5 out of their first 7 games. Last Thursday's game against North Carolina was just the 3rd home game for the Panthers.
Fallen out of the Ranks
Pitt hasn't been a power since the 1970's and early 80's when they faced Notre Dame as a ranked team in 6 out of 7 meetings. This will be the 5th meeting in a row where the Panthers face the Irish unranked. Notre Dame is ranked for the third meeting in a row.
Life Without Conner
Last year Pitt's offense relied heavily upon a rushing attack that averaged just under 250 yards per game largely thanks to ACC Player of the Year James Conner and his 135 yards per game--that was the 6th best average in the country in 2014. In the 2nd quarter of the season opener Conner went down with a MCL injury and now Pitt has averaged 169 rushing yards per game--69th nationally.
4 Players to Watch
QB Nathan Peterman
Redshirt junior Chad Voytik was supposed to be the future at QB for Pitt and played pretty well last year in his first year starting. However, he got a really quick hook this season in just the third series of the second game as Narduzzi has turned to graduate transfer Nathan Peterman. The Jacksonville native was a 2012 recruit for Tennessee, started 2 games for the Vols, before graduating and leaving for Pitt this off-season. Peterman has solid numbers (1,373 yards, 67.4% accuracy, 7.7 YPA, 10 TD) and hasn't thrown an interception since week 3.
WR Tyler Boyd
Boyd was suspended for the season opener following an off-season DUI but has returned to his place as one of the country's top wideouts. There's no other way to put it then to say Pitt is force-feeding him the ball. Through 7 games Boyd has 63 receptions, 17 rushing attempts, 2 passes attempted, 8 punt returns, and 11 kickoff returns. He's caught 45.3% of all Panther receptions and while he's averaging exactly 3 more catches per game from last year his receiving average has plummeted by 43% likely due to Pitt's running game not being as strong and allowing opponents to key on him.
DE Ejuan Price
Once a promising recruit, Price played as a true freshman in 2011 and had 4 sacks before injuries took over. He missed all of 2012 with a pectoral injury, played in only 6 games in 2013 before going out with a back injury, and sat out all of last year with another pectoral injury. For 2015, Price has blossomed at defensive end with 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and 8 quarterback hurries.
LB Matt Galambos
Pitt had to replace a pair of linebackers this season but returned true junior Matt Galambos who made 10 starts at the Mike position. So far in 2015 he's building off a nice campaign from last fall. Through week 9 he's second on the team with 46 tackles and has added 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 2 interceptions.
Noon Start Time
It's almost unbelievable but this will be the first noon eastern start for the Irish during the regular season* in a span of 56 games. The time slot most well known for sleepy Big Ten games, slow starts, half-filled stadiums, low ratings, etc. etc. has been largely a thing of the past for the Irish. Below are all noon eastern starts since 2000:
- Pitt 2011 (W)
- Navy 2010 (L)
- Navy 2008 (W)
- Purdue 2007 (L)
- Navy 2006 (W)
- Michigan 2005 (W)
- Navy 2004 (W)
- BC 2003 (L)
- Purdue 2002 (W)
- FSU 2002 (W)
- Navy 2002 (W)
- A&M 2000 (W)
- Navy 2000 (W)
- West Virginia 2000 (W)
Some yuck in the recent past but overall not too bad of a record for Notre Dame. Hard to believe we lived in a world in 2002 where that game with Florida State kicked off at noon.
*The 2013 New Era Bowl started at noon.
Narduzzi's Style of Defense
Just absolutely suffocating the line of scrimmage. This, as you recall, was from 2013 when Notre Dame's offense basically turned into "run occasionally and chuck the ball down the sidelines to receivers in one-on-one situations and hope for the best."
Pitt's pass defense numbers are strong (both traditional and advanced) led by 5th-year senior corner Lafayette Pitts. However, the Panthers free safety Terrish Webb has been banged up with an ankle which has left a true sophomore and true freshman at safety, plus another true sophomore at corner with Pitts. It's a young group that was beat for 270 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 11.7 YPA last week by North Carolina's Marquise Williams.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PROTECT THE BALL IN THE RED ZONE. In what is usually a tight, close scoring game kicking field goals is a billion times more acceptable than throwing bad interceptions.
2 Sides of the Line
Starting at left tackle for Pitt is redshirt junior Adam Bisnowaty (6-6, 300) who has missed one game this year but will be making his 26th career start this weekend. Left guard is being manned by the highly recruited junior Dorian Johnson (6-5, 300) who has 24 career starts. Center is held down by 5th-year senior Artie Rowell (6-2, 310) who has 22 starts and took over for redshirt junior Gabe Roberts (6-5, 300) after the first game of the season.
At right guard the Panthers have redshirt sophomore Alex Officer (6-4, 335) who will be making his 19th career start on Saturday. Right tackle had redshirt freshman Alex Bookser (6-6, 310) start for the first 2 games but fellow redshirt freshman Brian O'Neill (6-6, 290) has taken over since then.
In addition to Price, the Panthers have junior Shakir Soto (6-3, 265) and sophomore Rory Blair (6-4, 240) as the main edge rushers at end. The former player has 2 sacks this season and the latter 1.5 sacks.
On the interior, Pitt will rely on junior Tyrique Jarrett (6-3, 335) who has 5.5 tackles for loss. Senior Darryl Render (6-2, 300) has 1.5 TFL while 5th-year senior Khaynin Mosley-Smith (6-0, 305) also has 1.5 tackles for loss. A fourth body to watch for is Michigan State graduate transfer Mark Scarpinato (6-3, 285) who has made 6 tackles.
I know many are worried about this game and with the recent history against Pitt that makes complete sense. Heck, we lost the last time we played them!
Defensive improvement was a big sticking point for Pitt and as mentioned above they were 99th in FEI defense last year but have moved up to 58th so far this season. Moving up 41 spots is a big deal, no doubt, and points to Pat Narduzzi making an instant impact on the current roster.
One thing that I talked about with Pitt's defense during our summer preview was the lack of recruiting talent on that side of the ball in recent years. They've really had to overachieve given the mold with which to work. For example, corner Lafayette Pitts (.928) and true freshman safety Jordan Whitehead (.949) are the only Pitt defenders with Composite ratings over .900--not just among the starters or two-deep, on the entire defense.
So while I'm not expecting a cake walk for the Irish offense I do think the Pitt defense is closer to average than to good. They started the season out well in many departments but over the last 3 games have only picked up 1 sack while surrendering 7.6 yards-per-play. A lack of turnovers and giving up big plays has been a problem for Notre Dame's defense but the same has been true for Pitt's defense, as well.
On offense I think the Panthers are struggling from a loss of identity (the injury to Conner will do that to most teams) and the quick benching of Voytik at quarterback in favor of Peterman makes me think Pitt is still searching for something that works at the QB position. I thought this game would be a little trickier with Voytik because he's a much bigger threat with his feet but that is no more.
In short, I think Notre Dame matches up really, really well with Pittsburgh. Losing Conner hurts and now Pitt has turned to redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison who is having a nice season (716 yards, 5.59 average, 8 TD) but at 6-2, 230 pounds isn't likely to create many explosive plays against the Irish. And while Tyler Boyd is dangerous Pitt has become so desperate to get him the ball that they're settling for a vast amount of short passes to their star player--which severely dampens their ability to take advantage of safety Elijah Shumate missing the first half. Put it all together and the Panthers are tied for 85th in 20+ yard play from scrimmage and 92nd in 30+ yard plays.
I think we'll be pleasantly surprised by Notre Dame's defensive effort in this game. The noon start and craptastic Heinz Field playing surface dial my enthusiasm back a little bit but overall I'm expecting a good game from the Fighting Irish.