Hey youuuuu guyyysssss!!!!!
Yeah, that was a The Goonies reference — I’m pretty pumped up after another double-digit shellacking of a ranked opponent by our Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and damnit if Pete Sampson finally answering my Goonies-themed mailbag question didn’t call for me referencing that movie in my opener here.
With all that said and with the Irish sitting at 6-0 and #5 in the country, it’s time we looked ahead to the last opponent before ND’s bye week: the Pittsburgh Panthers. Pitt will come to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon sporting a 3-3 record and hot off a 44-37 overtime victory over another 2018 ND opponent, the Syracuse Orange.
Considering the only things I really know about Pitt are the above facts and that they got absolutely crushed by Penn State earlier this year, I spoke to Anson Whaley over at Cardiac Hill (SB Nation’s Pitt Panthers site) to get the lowdown on Pat Narduzzi’s squad and how they match up with the Irish. I also asked some pointed, hard-hitting questions of my Pittsburgh-alum friend Kristine, and of course sought the usual wisdom from my Personal Panel of College Football Fans.
Below is what I was able to find out, so feast your eyes on the below responses and arm yourselves with knowledge about a Panthers program that gave us all quite the scare the last time they played an undefeated, top-5 Notre Dame team in South Bend the week after a big road victory...
1. How are Pitt fans feeling about the 3-3 start? Is Narduzzi a coach who Panthers fans believe can get the program turned around, or is it time to start calling for a change?
Anson Whaley: Record-wise, I think a lot of folks thought this is where Pitt might be at this point. Figure two out of three against GT, Syracuse, and North Carolina, win against Albany, and two likely losses against Penn State and UCF. 4-2 would be better, obviously, but with such a difficult non-conference schedule (ESPN actually rated it the toughest in the nation), .500 at this point was very possible.
Where I think most fans have an issue is how some of the losses occurred. Pitt hung with Penn State for about 2 1/2 quarters and then folded for a really ugly loss. Then the team was never even competitive against UCF in another blowout. It’s not necessarily that Pitt should defeat those teams. But I think the hope was that they’d be more competitive. And the loss against what is a pretty weak North Carolina team didn’t help matters.
To the coaching point, I’ve said for a while that Pitt really needs to ride this thing out a little. Fans want to fire every coach that doesn’t immediately meet expectations, but the reality is that right now, Narduzzi’s had two pretty good years, one bad year, and they’re in the middle of his fourth, which is to date, about what most predicted. Pitt is not Alabama and can’t just pluck a great coach out of thin air. It’s not that easy.
I do think his seat is warmer than it had been last year and to be fair, it probably should be. But we’ve got to see how this year plays out along with next year. He just got an extension in December so barring something completely off the wall, I think he’s getting at the very least one more year.
2. Tell me about QB Kenny Pickett -- what are his strengths and weaknesses, and is he ready for this ND pass rush?
Anson Whaley: Pickett is a guy with little playing experience. He’s a true sophomore and didn’t take the job until the last couple of games last season. Fans had high expectations for him but he’s still very much learning his way around.
His strength had been his mobility but we hardly ever see him using that to his advantage these days. Early in the year and last year, he would be less hesitant to run. There was a play this year where he took off in the middle of the field and looked like he got shaken up a little. He ended up being fine, but Pitt’s had a brace on him since then and Narduzzi said he actually was supposed to be wearing it at the time the play happened.
He looked less mobile to me these last few games and I don’t know if that’s him consciously making the decision to stay in the pocket more or if the brace makes it harder for him to take off. Whatever the reason, that’s something he has to get back. The desire to protect him is understandable with the depth a question behind him. But if he’s not out there being a dual-threat guy, I don’t know how valuable that is.
I don’t know if Pitt’s going to be effective because he’s not a great passer and has struggled a little with timing and accuracy. I don’t place it all at his feet, though. He’s also working with a pretty unproven receiving corps as Pitt lost two starting receivers last year to the NFL Draft. But the best medicine for him is going to just be more playing time.
3. Who are Pitt’s biggest offensive weapons at the skill positions, and which of them does the ND defense need to be most worried about?
Anson Whaley: At the moment, Pitt’s strength is in the running game. The Panthers mostly play a pair of seniors in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Both looked great and racked up about 300 yards against Syracuse combined last weekend.
Ollison had 192 yards in that game and is, right now, the leader. But Hall can be just as effective and on some days surpasses what Ollison can produce. Neither’s really a burner, per se, but Hall is probably a little bit shiftier. They’ve done a great job in taking the load off of Pickett’s shoulders.
Pitt has a few other guys that can make plays, but any success they have on offense Saturday is going to start with those two guys. Without a running game Saturday, things could get ugly in a hurry.
4. The Panthers defense has given up at least 37 points in each of the last three games. Do you think Ian Book and the ND offense can continue their hot play and similarly carve them up? Who are the key guys he needs to be aware of?
Anson Whaley: The secondary has really struggled for Pitt, but last week they did a nice job against Syracuse, holding the Orange to under 200 passing yards. That’s another somewhat unproven group where Pitt is working some new guys in after losing their top corner and safety to the NFL Draft.
That’s not to say those guys have figured it out by any means. North Carolina carved them up with a pretty mediocre quarterback a few weeks ago and, like most teams, they had no answer for UCF’s McKenzie Milton. Containing Book is going to be a tough test for them. The coverage was better last week but Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey isn’t a standout passer, either.
Safety Damar Hamlin is probably the top guy in the secondary and the one to watch here. He’d contributed very little as an underclassman but was once a coveted recruit and is now a junior. He’s been a key cog in both run and pass coverage and led the team in tackles last weekend.
5. Who are the X-factors on offense, defense, and special teams for Pitt -- the guys whose performances are absolutely crucial to Pitt having a chance to pull off the upset?
Anson Whaley: X-factor might not be the right term, but receiver Taysir Mack is a big question for the Panthers. He sat out last week’s game with some sort of injury and if Pitt doesn’t have him again, the offense could struggle.
Pitt was able to get around that against Syracuse and still find a way to score points just because the running game was so effective. But I have to believe that the Irish are going to be a little tougher against the run and contain the backs better than Syracuse did. Mack might be the top receiver on the team and is definitely the Panthers’ best downfield guy. Without him, Pickett becomes even more limited.
Defensively, it’s going to be the front four. Pitt had hoped to get more pressure this season and, at times, they have. But those guys as a whole haven’t been as great as anticipated. They really need to get after Book to take some pressure off the secondary.
Also, watch to see if Pitt gets creative with them. Last week, they actually occasionally dropped a guy back in pass coverage. Defensive tackle Amir Watts was one of those guys and made a freakishly athletic interception. In his weekly press conference, Narduzzi said some wrinkles like that had been planned for a while, so I’m interested to see how much of that is done this weekend.
WE INTERRUPT THIS VERY GOOD Q&A FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID: TIME FOR A WORD FROM PAT’S PERSONAL PANEL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, AKA SOME BUDDIES OF HIS IN A GROUPME CHAT, PLUS AN HONEST-TO-GOD PITTSBURGH ALUMNA, KRISTINE!!!!
First, let’s check out Kristine’s responses to some very pointed questions Pat asked her:
Pat Rick: Pitt plays its home games at Heinz Field. How much Heinz ketchup do you think it would take to fill the entire stadium? How many Dip & Squeeze packets is that? Please show your work.
Kristine: 89,262,000 Dip & Squeeze ketchup packets would be needed to fill Heinz Field.
The average human mass is 74 kg, which is 2,610 ounces. Divided by 2-oz Dip and Squeeze packets, you get 1,305 Dip & Squeezes per human.
With 68,400 seats in Heinz Field, we will need over 89,262,000 packets… but heck, let’s round it to 90,000,000 for fun :)
After all, Heinz Field is home of the ketchup, where all competitors need to CATCH UP.*
*Pat Rick Editor’s Note: This pun is stupendous.
Pat Rick: Who would win in a fight, a Panther or a Leprechaun?
Pat Rick: What about a Panther-sized Leprechaun fighting a Leprechaun-sized Panther?
Kristine: In that case, Panther-sized Leprechaun all the way… the Leprechaun-sized Panther would be out of LUCK am I right?!**
**Pat Rick Editor’s Note: This pun is also stupendous.
Pat Rick: If the Leprechaun and Panther joined forces, is there anything that could defeat a Leprechaun riding a Panther?
Kristine: Luck riding fierce strength? Nothing beats that.
Pat Rick: If you’re putting together a crew of 11 to pull off the heist of the century, which Pittsburgh players, coaches, or alumni (if you just want to choose your friends) will you select for your Ocean’s Eleven-esque team? Be sure to give your reasoning.
Kristine: Definitely can’t come up with 11 (LOL sorry Pitt) but we’d definitely need Dan Marino because he’s Dan Marino, James Conner because he beat cancer so he can beat you, and Roc the Panther because he makes the Nittany Lion look like a kitten.
Pat Rick: What scares you most about Notre Dame’s football team? About life in general?
Kristine: Their mascot is a leprechaun…it’s basically Chuckie rooting them on, just dressed in green.
Pat Rick: Pitt stinks (out loud). This isn’t a question, I just wanted to say it.
Pat Rick: Word on the street is that you’ll be going down to South Bend for the game. What are you most excited for in visiting such a wonderful place?
Kristine: Seeing how far south the bend is… and checking out the campus & stadium of course, I’ve heard awesome things.
Pat Rick: Give me a prediction for the game — preferably at least who wins and what the score is, but if there are any other predictions you want to make, even if not about the game at all, please be my guest.
Kristine: Pitt is going to win! (I’m an optimist) but it’s going to be a close game. I’m thinking… 24-21 Pitt.
Okay, thank you to Kristine for some very well-thought-out answers and a very poor (I hope) prediction.
Now, let’s hear a word from the regulars in this section — Hux and Serglock Holmes:
Pat Rick: I had a Pitt alum friend answer some of my stupid questions this week, but do you guys have any thoughts to add on Pitt?
Hux: Fun fact: this creepy Mr. Rogers statue that looks like it may be made of feces sits outside their/the Steelers’ stadium
Serglock Holmes: This is not “fun.”
Serglock Holmes: I no longer want to participate in this assignment. I’ve seen enough.
Hux: Goes to Pittsburgh once...
Well folks, that was talking Pitt with Pat’s friend Kristine and Pat’s Panel of College Football Fans!
Now, back to the Q&A with Cardiac Hill...
6. Notre Dame has a freshman RB named C’Borius Flemister on the team this year. What are the best names on the Pitt roster, and do any of them top my boy C’Bo?
Anson Whaley: Best name by a long shot is probably freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis. As if that’s not enough, he has a twin brother named Rocky. He’s a true freshman speedster receiver who is seeing time this year. He actually started last weekend in place of Taysir Mack and is just a really athletic kid. His impact has been limited so far but he should be a big part of the offense in the future.
7. Karaoke battle between Brian Kelly and Pat Narduzzi -- what song(s) does each coach sing, who has the better stage presence/charisma, and who ultimately wins?
Anson Whaley: Nothing on Kelly, but Narduzzi screams 70s/80s bands to me. I have no idea what his musical preferences are but if he wasn’t trying to impress a recruit with a rap, I’d say we’d probably see something from the Journey/Foreigner/Styx/Boston/Take your Pick playlist.
8. If you had to choose five current Pitt players to compete on Family Feud, who would you choose?
Anson Whaley: Sorry, I’ve got nothing here, which probably speaks to my lack of creativity. Really I was just hoping you’d ask for another GIF.
9. Anything else Irish fans should know about the Pitt program, fans, traditions, etc.?
Anson Whaley: Pitt’s biggest tradition these days is probably the singing of “Sweet Caroline” at home games. Fortunately you won’t have to suffer through that since this is a road contest for us, but it’s popular and it’s dumb.
To the fans, you’ll certainly see a few of them around. Pitt, like any school, has a group of diehards that like taking big road trips and this one will certainly qualify. I know of a few folks making the trek and a number will be there with retro jerseys, jorts, yinzer accents, and such.
10. Prediction time — what’s the score, who wins, and why?
Anson Whaley: I can’t see Pitt winning this one. The Panthers have pulled off some big upsets against No. 2 ranked Clemson and Miami teams the last two years under Pat Narduzzi, so I suppose anything is possible.
But the 2016 team that beat Clemson had a lot more talent on it, and last year’s Miami team wasn’t quite as good as their gaudy ranking. That’s not dismissing those victories or the Pitt teams that won them. I just think this group of kids would have a very hard time duplicating that feat. Pitt has had some past success against the Irish but I don’t even know how many guys are left on both teams that played the last time out.
I’ll say something like Notre Dame 41-20.
I wanna give a monster shout-out to Anson for answering my questions, and encourage you all to head on over to Cardiac Hill for any and all Pitt Panthers-related updates. Furthermore, be sure to follow them on Twitter and toss my guy Anson some Twitter love as well.
Furthermore, a huge thank you needs to be extended to Kristine for putting up with some SUPER dumb questions I had for her, and to my Personal Panel of College Football Fans — Hux and Serglock Holmes — for their continued excellence in the field of providing me with practical, pithy opponent takes in our GroupMe chat.
See y’all in my Game Preview on Friday!