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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

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Another new coach for Pitt this fall.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH PANTHERS

2014 Record: 6-7

F/+ Record: 43

Wins: Delaware, Boston College, FIU, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Miami

Losses: Iowa, Akron, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Houston

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Season Recap

Pitt got off to a 3-0 start by toppling Boston College in between easy wins over Delaware and Florida International. However, they quickly fell to 3-3 after coughing up a 10-point second half lead in a loss to Iowa, then dropping a home game to Akron, and lost to Virginia by 5 points.

Following a win over Virginia Tech, the Panthers dropped 3 straight again including close losses to Duke and North Carolina. They were able to get back on track and play well in wins against Syracuse and Miami to close out the regular season. Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin soon after and Pitt coughed up a 31-6 lead in the 4th quarter to lose to Houston in their bowl game.

Series: 47-21-1 Notre Dame

It's the 70th meeting between the schools--the only teams Notre Dame has played more are Navy, USC, Purdue, and Michigan State. The Irish lost the last meeting back in 2013 but won the previous 3 before that.

Notre Dame is 3-2-0 against Pitt on the road since the Panthers moved into Heinz Field.

Coach Resume: Pat Narduzzi (0-0, 1st Year)

After 25 years as an assistant and 8 years as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Pat Narduzzi has finally taken his first head coaching job.

He turned 49 years old this spring and has spent the majority of his time since his early 20's playing and working in the Midwest, so he should be a quality fit for Pittsburgh.

Returning Starters: 16 Total (8 Offense, 7 Defense)

Right tackle T.J. Clemmings and linebackers Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez are the big losses but the bulk of last year's squad is back this fall.

Linemen Situation: Very Good

Six offensive linemen are back who started at least one game in 2014. The big loss mentioned above is right tackle T.J. Clemmings (110th overall to the Vikings) who started every game over the last two seasons. Right guard Matt Rotheram is also gone as well after starting all 13 games last season and 38 overall in his career.

Redshirt junior Adam Bisnowaty made all but 3 starts last year at left tackle. Redshirt sophomore Jaryd Jones-Smith got the nod in Bisnowaty's absence last year and is moving to right tackle. At left guard, the highly touted junior Dorian Johnson is back after making all 13 starts in 2014.

The battle for center looks to be between redshirt sophomore Alex Officer (10 starts) and 5th-year senior Artie Rowell (2 starts) with the younger Officer having the lead after spring. Redshirt junior Gabe Roberts also started a game at center last year and offers depth. Redshirt freshman Alex Bookser looks to be the lone new player without starting experience and is expected to hold down the right guard position.

All major contributors are back on the defensive line. Senior Darryl Render (11 starts, 6 TFL, 2 sacks) and 5th-year senior Khaynin Mosley-Smith (12 starts, 2 TFL) are the mainstays at tackle. A pair of redshirt sophomores in Justin Moody (2 starts, 1 sack) and Jeremiah Taleni (1 start, 1 TFL) were in the mix last year, too. A few more bodies could see the rotation including Michigan State graduate transfer Mark Scarpinato.

Defensive end is going through some changes with new bosses in town. Junior Shakir Soto (13 starts, 1 TFL) played a lot last year but was not very effective. David Durham (10 starts, 3 sacks) has moved on which opens up a spot on the edge.

Coming out of spring, sophomore Rory Blair (2 starts, 5.5 TFL, 5 sacks) was atop the depth chart with 5th-year senior Ejuan Price, the latter coming off a missed 2014 due to a pectoral injury.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Chad Voytik was one of the top high school players in Tennessee and finished at 209th nationally in the Composite recruiting rankings for 2012. When he arrived in Pittsburgh he was immediately dubbed as the future quarterback for the Panther program. Following a redshirt year, Voytik may have gotten the nod if it were not for the transfer of Tom Savage as the Rutgers import won the job going into 2013.

Last year, Voytik finally got his shot and played reasonably well. He wasn't asked to do a whole lot (22 attempts per game) but found a groove with receiver Tyler Boyd while completing 61.3% of his passes to 16 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Voytik is on the smaller side (6-1) but is a good athlete who ran for 466 yards and 3 scores last year.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Replacing Linebackers

Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas led the team in tackles last year and both are gone. Inside linebacker Matt Galambos (72 tackles, 4.5 TFL) finished 3rd on the team and does return. Finding a couple new starters has to be a major priority for Narduzzi.

Biggest Strength for 2015: Running the Ball

Led by James Conner (1,765 yards, 26 touchdowns) the Panthers finished 7th in S&P rushing and were 1 of 12 non-triple option teams from the Power 5 conferences to gain at least 3,000 yards on the ground.

Offensive Scheme: Pro-Style Multiple

Jim Chaney was hired this off-season after being the OC at Arkansas for the past 2 seasons. Before that he was the OC at Tennessee from 2009-12 and also spent 9 years running the offense under Joe Tiller at Purdue.

Chaney was very pass-happy at Purdue but hasn't approached anything close to that in stops in Knoxville and Fayetteville. It's still expected that Pitt will be a pro-style run-heavy team with some spread concepts thrown in at times.

4 Players to Remember

WR Tyler Boyd, Jr.- Earned 1st team All-ACC and various All-American honors after totaling 78 receptions, 1,261 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Also picked up 604 yards in the return game, too. Recently charged with DUI earlier this summer but should be back far before Pitt faces Notre Dame, if he's suspended. Listed by NFL.com as the No. 1 college receiver to watch for 2015.

TE J.P. Holtz, Sr.- Comes into his senior season with 36 career starts and 57 receptions to his name. Also isn't the biggest fan of Notre Dame.

LB Jameel Poteat, 5th Sr.- Originally a running back recruit from 2011 at Cincinnati, he spent a couple seasons with the Bearcats before transferring to Stony Brook in 2013. Poteat sat out last season and is now eligible at Pitt where he's moved up the depth chart.

CB Lafayette Pitts, 5th Sr.- A savvy veteran with 38 career starts. He's picked off 6 passes and broken up 19 other throws through last fall.

Special Teams: 4/4

As mentioned above, Tyler Boyd is back as the returner of kicks and punts. Additionally, rising junior kicker Chris Blewitt is back after hitting 16 of 21 field goals, and sophomore punter Ryan Winslow returns, as well.

Uniforms: 2/10

Pitt unform

Charles LeClaire, USA Today Sports

Pitt's has symbolized everything that is bad with the modern era of uniforms starting in the mid-1990's. Look back at Curtis Martin from the early 90's to see what I'm talking about. Look at the vibrancy and a uniform full of such life! Then, like many other organizations in the lead up to the new century Pitt decided to tone things down and throw a bucket of boring all over their uniforms switching to navy blue and Vegas gold. Making matters worse, they dropped their famous script logo too.

At least the Larry Fitzgerlad-era uniforms used a real metallic gold and the blob Panther helmet logo offered some character. Today, they've fallen victim to sandstorm gold with perhaps the country's worst helmet logo.

There's good news, though! Pitt randomly switched back to their script logo in the middle of last season and they will be using new uniforms this upcoming season. The design hasn't been unveiled yet, however, they'll be keeping the navy blue and gold and will only use the throwback royal blue and mustard once per year. ANYTHING should be an upgrade for them but a switch to the old colors would have been better.

What's To Like About the Matchup

The game is in a very favorable stretch for Notre Dame, nestled between Temple and Wake Forest. A new head coach for Pitt could mean rebuilding. The Panthers need to get a lot better on defense.

What's Not To Like About the Matchup

A nice core of players return for Pitt. Narduzzi could accelerate the turn around on defense. Conner and Boyd might be the best 1-2 combo of playmakers the Irish will face in 2015.

Opponent Power Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 7th Toughest

In the off-season preview of Navy I mentioned that the Middies, as the 6th toughest rated opponent, were the cut-off for potential losses next season. Well, you can probably add Pitt into the mix too because this has many of the markings of another tough game in this rivalry.

It was kind of weird to see a Pittsburgh team so efficient on offense and so poor on defense last year. The Panthers finished inside the Top 20 in both FEI and S&P offense, but finished 99th in FEI defense and 67th in S&P defense. Again, this goes against their modern tradition but Pitt really struggled being disruptive on defense with just 19 sacks (103rd nationally) and 54 tackles for loss (118th nationally).

You have to wonder if the program is missing the recruiting acumen and eye for talent from Dave Wannstedt because there are only 2 defensive players on the roster with over a .900 Composite score. The Panthers spent 2008 through 2012 inside the Top 34 in FEI defense, then slipped to 44 in 2013, before plummeting to nearly 100 last year.

The good news is that Pitt is in a good position schematically to get a boost from Pat Narduzzi. He should do pretty well utilizing that underdog/under-the-radar mentality that made him famous at Michigan State. But is it something that will immediately pay off or will it take some time?

Pitt could be pretty good next year. The one thing that might hold them back--even if it helps their defense--is Pat Narduzzi. He's been a fine defensive coordinator but Pitt fans have to be a little uneasy about what a first-year head coach means in the immediate future. Especially on offense where in terms of personnel there isn't a big reason to see any downturn except if the combination of Narduzzi + Chaney bungles things and/or are a big downgrade from Paul Chryst & staff.

A few weeks back an online betting site had Pitt with the 9th best odds to win the ACC. They haven't won 8 games since 2010 but I think they could surprise people on both fronts and lately they've been picking up steam as a darkhorse ACC favorite. They can easily start 5-0 with a very manageable schedule, although it's pretty quirky to see them start 3 out of their first 4 as well as 5 out of their first 7 games on the road. Plus, they miss Florida State AND Clemson in ACC play. That sets them up real nice.

Pitt sitting as the 7th toughest opponent for Notre Dame probably isn't super accurate. The Irish could potentially blowout Navy (6th toughest) and Texas (5th) could still be a mess from Charlie Strong's makeover. The Panthers usually play Notre Dame tough and there are a lot of starters coming back this fall.

The placement of this game might drop it down further though, whereas Texas is the opener and Navy is in between Clemson and USC. Plus, Pitt has a nice combo at the top of their roster with Conner-Boyd-Voytik but there really isn't much proven talent that is all that scary at this point.