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Notre Dame Football: Pittsburgh Panthers Preview

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Notre Dame plays Pitt tomorrow! AaaaAAAaaaahhhh!!!!!

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

Tomorrow afternoon, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team — ranked #5 in the country and sporting a 6-0 record — will host the 3-3 Pittsburgh Panthers in a sporting event known as “football.”

The Panthers defeated the Syracuse Orange last week in overtime 44-37, attaining a .500 record and a little momentum as they try to pull off a massive top-5 upset for the third consecutive season. The Panthers are a middling team statistically (73rd in S&P+ overall rankings, 68th in ESPN.com’s overall efficiency ratings), but have a history of playing upsetter against heavily favored, top-ranked teams, having beaten the Clemson Tigers and the Miami Hurricanes in similar games in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Irish come home from Blacksburg rated as the 8th-best team in the overall S&P+ rankings and 13th in ESPN.com’s overall efficiency metric, having been ON FIRE since QB Ian Book took over three weeks ago. ND has won back-to-back games against ranked opponents, beating the then-number-7 Stanford Cardinal at home and the then-24th-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies on the road by a combined score of 83 to 40.

Now, the two common foes meet in Notre Dame Stadium for a game that shouldn’t be close, but that could very well be if the Irish get caught looking ahead to a well-deserved bye week while the Panthers bring their A-game.

How will the two teams match up, and who will prevail? Let’s discuss.

Pittsburgh Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

The Pittsburgh offense will likely be overmatched tomorrow. The Panthers sit at 107th in the country in total offense, 90th in scoring offense, 67th in offensive efficiency, and 55th in offensive S&P+ rating. Meanwhile, the Irish are 5th in defensive S&P+, 16th in efficiency, and 27th in the country in scoring defense. ND clearly should dominate this matchup.

What could be interesting, though, is if Pitt is able to successfully run the ball at all. The one aspect of their offense that has been pretty strong in 2018 is their running game, led by Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ollison is a great story, having overcome a lot and stuck it out for four years on the Panthers in order to start in 2018 and lead the team in rushing with 596 yards and 5 TD on 6.5 yards per carry. He will combine with Darrin Hall (314 yards, 4 TD, 6.5 yards per carry) tomorrow to form a formidable rushing duo that, although not necessarily fast in the same vein as Dexter Williams and his home run speed, has shown the ability to pick up big chunks of yardage at a time and really gash defenses.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Irish’s front seven has been a strength all year, and the 39th-ranked rushing defense is anchored by DT Jerry Tillery in the middle and by senior linebackers Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, and Asmar Bilal at linebacker.

Tillery has had a monster season so far, compiling 19 tackles (7.5 TFL), 7 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and countless QB hurries from his spot on the interior of the defensive line. Coney, Tranquill, and Bilal, meanwhile, have combined for 122 tackles (13.5 TFL), 2 sacks, a few turnovers, and numerous QB hurries. The strength and athleticism of all four guys will be key for ND in corralling and shutting down the Pitt running game, and the Panthers will have to really get physical and be disciplined in their assignments in order to give Ollison and Hall room to run.

The passing game, on the contrary, looks like it could be a struggle for Pitt in this one. QB Kenny Pickett has 880 yards on the season, but has completed just 61% of his passes and has thrown 5 interceptions to go along with his 6 TD. The Irish’s pass defense hasn’t necessarily been elite, but with Julian Love at corner, Alohi Gilman at safety, and Troy Pride Jr. apparently starting despite an injury, expect Pickett to really have to work to move the ball through the air.

On top of the talent in the secondary that will make that difficult, the junior trio of Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, and Daelin Hayes will all be back and playing in this one, meaning that the pass rush on Pickett should be hectic, fast, and powerful. Those three have managed to rack up more than 30 QB hurries, 48 total tackles, 14.5 TFL, and 5 sacks in 2018, and so it is unlikely the Pitt offensive line will be able to completely stymie them (at least without holding them constantly).

Add in Tillery and the linebackers, as well as junior Adetokunbo Ogundeji (who has flashed some really nice potential in some of his performances), and it seems damn near impossible for the Panthers to manage to give Pickett enough time to find his receivers on Saturday.

If he is able to find time and the receivers are able to get separation from Love, Pride Jr., etc. (some big ifs), then he will certainly be tossing the ball to his leading receivers, Taysir Mack (12 rec, 265 yards) and Maurice Ffrench (16 rec, 204 yards, 2 TD). Those two have been the go-to targets through the air along with WR Rafael Araujo-Lopes (13 rec, 167 yards, 3 TD).

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Other names to watch include WR Shocky Jacques-Louis and TE Will Gragg, but don’t expect a ton out of the Pitt passing game overall. They might be able to make a couple decent plays through the air against some suspect ND safety play, but overall the Panthers will likely need to set up any success for the offense via the rushing attack of Ollison and Hall.

Offensive Panther to Watch

RB Qadree Ollison

Pitt has relied on its rushing game all season, and against the best defense they’ve seen, the Panthers will absolutely need to perform well running the ball. So, that burden falls mainly on Ollison’s shoulders as the senior leader and starting running back. His play will be crucial in keeping the chains moving and in keeping the ball out of Ian Book’s hands.

Defensive Irish to Watch

LB Te’von Coney

Coney has gotta be the guy who shuts down Ollison and Hall in the early going, forcing the Panthers to try passing the ball with their 119th-ranked passing offense. His ability to run down ball carriers and fight through blocks will be much-needed to allow ND to build an early lead and run away with this one.

Halftime Fun Facts!!!!!

Best Names in the Game

  1. WR Shocky Jacques-Louis
  2. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
  3. Pitt DB Jazzee Stocker
  4. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
  5. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
  6. Pitt RB Qadree Ollison
  7. Pitt WR Kellen McAlone
  8. Pitt TE Kaymar Mimes
  9. Notre Dame LB Asmar Bilal
  10. Pitt RB Mychale Salahuddin

Quick Power Ranking: Panthers*

*Pat Rick note: had to rush this list late at night, so please let me know which ones I missed in the comments!!!

  1. St. Pius X Panthers (my grade school)
  2. Dillon Panthers from Friday Night Lights, the TV show (Texas forever)
  3. Sex Panther (thank you to @RoscoRoberts1 for pointing out I missed this obvious choice for the list...60% of the time, it works every time)
  4. Black Panther (pretty sweet 2018 film where I ended up almost rooting for Michael B. Jordan’s character, who was a villain)
  5. Bagheera from Jungle Book (seemed like a nice guy in his interactions with Mowgli)
  6. Permian Panthers from Friday Night Lights, the movie (IF YOU WANNA WIN, PUT BOOBIE IN)
  7. Florida International Golden Panthers (THIS.)
  8. Panthro from Thundercats (the description of this tribute video says it all: “This video is a tribute made by my about The Thundercats Panthro which is probably the most stronger character of The Thundercats. Their skills in martial arts and the nunchakus a very capable fighter and also on the construction of battle vehicles makes it one of the most prominent characters of The Thundercats. Enjoy It!!!”)
  9. Carolina Panthers (JAKE DELHOMME!!!!)
  10. Northern Iowa Panthers (mmhmm)
  11. Georgia State Panthers (mmmhmmmmm)
  12. Pittsburgh Panthers (Tyler Goddamn Palko, everybody)
  13. Pink Panther (actually never seen this)
  14. Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers (sure)
  15. Florida Panthers (not a big hockey guy, to be honest)

LOL

Notre Dame Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense

On the other side of the ball, the Notre Dame offense also appears to have a significant advantage over the Pittsburgh defense.

The Irish offense comes into the game averaging 518 yards and 44 points per game (subtracting out Julian Love’s fumble return TD last weekend) since Ian Book took over as starting QB, and the dude has just been on fire passing the ball and managing the offense.

Book has thrown for 887 yards at a 73% clip, tossing 9 TD and just 1 INT while also rushing for 3 TD. With his sparkling play has come improved receiver performances as well, as guys like WR Miles Boykin have really taken off in terms of showing their true potential.

Boykin has amassed 20 catches, 267 yards, and 3 TD in these three games with Book throwing him the ball, which is pretty impressive considering through the first three games of the season Boykin had just 8 catches for 161 yards.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Similar upticks in play have been seen from other receivers as well, especially TE Alizé Mack (19 rec, 209 yards, 1 TD in 2018). WRs Chris Finke and Chase Claypool have been very good as well (37 catches, 443 yards, 3 TD), and reserve tight ends Cole Kmet, Brock Wright, and Nic Weishar have all chipped in with excellent blocking and serving as huge, reliable targets for Book both in the red zone and on third down.

Meanwhile, the Pitt defense has NOT been good in 2018. Ranked 90th in defensive S&P+, 74th in defensive efficiency, and 99th in scoring defense, the Panthers just have not been able to slow many teams down. They rank in the bottom 5 of Power 5 teams in points per drive allowed against FBS teams in garbage time.

On top of all that, one of Pitt’s best and most important defenders is officially done for the season, as LB and captain Quintin Wirginis sustained a knee injury in practice. Wirginis, as you can see below, was PREEEEEETTTTYYYY important to the Panthers defense:

And in terms of stopping the pass — besides talented junior DB Damar Hamlin and maybe the occasional play made by Dennis Briggs or Dane Jackson, the Panther secondary has been fairly porous all season, so expect a few big plays and defensive breakdowns when Book decides to air it out.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So, with all that said about the passing game, how will the Ian Book-led offense that’s 32nd in offensive S&P+ and 30th in offensive efficiency fare tomorrow on the ground?

The answer, almost certainly, is very, very well. The Irish’s running game, like its passing offense, will likely carve up the Pitt defense. RB Dexter Williams is averaging 169 yards per game (8.9 per carry) and has 4 TD already. He’s shown an incredible game-breaking ability out of the backfield that HAS to have the Pitt defense scared shitless:

Add in Tony Jones Jr.’s more powerful but still very effective running (302 yards and 3 TD on 5.2 yards per carry) and the ND rushing attack is as dangerous as ever, even with Jafar Armstrong still out with a knee infection.

The Panthers front seven will have to try to shut down those running lanes without Wirginis, instead relying on guys like LB Oluwaseun Idowu, DL Rashad Weaver, and LB Elijah Zeise to step up and make more plays. Don’t expect that to work out very often for Pitt, though, as the Notre Dame offensive line has not yet been unable to create some big lanes for their running backs through the first half of the season.

Defensive Panther to Watch

All of the Pitt LBs

With Wirginis out, the rest of that unit will need to step up BIG TIME in order for the Panthers to have any shot at slowing down the ND offense and giving themselves a chance at an upset. Without strong play from these guys, Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr. will run all over Pitt and make it even easier for Ian Book to put the nail in the coffin with some timely TD passes.

Offensive Irish to Watch

RB Dexter Williams

The dude has been spectacular since returning for the Stanford game a couple weeks ago, and in a game that should be a blowout, look for him to rack up some early big-time yardage — maybe with a home run TD or two — before getting some rest in the second half as true freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister get much-needed reps.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams???

There isn’t much to say here. Pitt is 52nd in the country in special teams S&P+, and ND is 58th. Both have kickers who are nearly automatic on extra points and who can knock down big kicks if needed.

Pitt K Alex Kessman has only attempted 5 field goals this season, but he’s made 4 of them and is 2/2 from 50+ yards out. ND’s Justin Yoon, meanwhile, has hit 7 of 10 field goals this season.

Besides that, don’t expect much fireworks on special teams, aside from maybe a nice Tyler Newsome punt or two.

Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One

Notre Dame 43, Pittsburgh 17

Why: I just don’t think Pittsburgh has the talent or coaching to keep up with an ND team that is, for the most part, firing on all cylinders. With so much balance and so many weapons, I think Book and co. will score early and often, and I think Clark Lea’s defense will make sure to force a couple turnovers and force a lot of three-and-outs on their way to another great performance that sends ND into the bye week with a 7-0 record and top-5 ranking intact.

Agree? Disagree? Chime in below in the comments to tell us your own predictions for the game and its happenings!!!!