Tomorrow the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will travel to take on the 3-3 Pittsburgh Panthers to defend their undefeated record and #3 ranking in the AP Poll (which will probably disappear as soon as Ohio State takes the field). Despite the perfect start the Irish are just ten point favorites against the Panthers, who have a point differential of exactly zero through five games against FBS competition. Notre Dame has played two somewhat sloppy games in a row with very different results and are yet to cover a spread against a power five opponent this season. They need to begin their ramp up to Clemson right now, and we have the analytics to provide a roadmap to get there. For an explanation of the stats and gain some context please follow this link to our analytics primer.
Pittsburgh brings an average passing offense that generates exactly 0.00 EPA/play. Starting quarterback Kenny Pickett is slightly better at 0.07 EPA/passing play, but he did not play last weekend and may not be healthy for this game either. If he can’t play the reigns will be handed to Joey Yellen who struggled in his first start last weekend and has averaged -0.22 EPA and 5.1 yards per play this year. Despite the downgrade at quarterback Pitt could still pose a threat in the passing game with its pair of extremely efficient wide receivers. Jordan Addison and Taysir Mack are both heavily involved in the offense and points get consistently get created when the ball goes their way. Mack is averaging 0.58 EPA and 8.1 Yards per Target. Mack gains 15.4 yards per reception so watch for him to try to take advantage of the recent Irish struggles defending the deep ball. Addison has averaged 0.67 EPA and 9.1 Yards per Target on the season, numbers that Irish fans wish their receivers had. If the Irish can contain Addison on the intermediate routes, and keep safeties over the top of Mack going deep, they should be able to grind the Pitt offense to a halt no matter who is under center.
Pittsburgh’s rushing offense is abysmal. Israel Abikanda is expected to return to the Pitt lineup after missing last weekend’s game against Miami, where Pitt’s running backs combined for 44 yards rushing. Their three leading rushers are Vincent Davis, A.J. Davis, and Abikanda, and all three have generated negative EPA carrying the football. Whoever is carrying the ball for Pitt, expect the Irish to slam the door and break off the hinges. The Irish defense has been elite against opposing rushers, giving up the sixth lowest success rate of any team, while Pittsburgh has the 66th ranked rushing success rate in the country out of 76 teams. This is about as big of a mismatch as you could design in a phase of a game. Despite all of this, Pittsburgh has chosen to deploy a misguided offense and run the ball on 48.5% of its plays this season. Irish fans should hope Pittsburgh tries to establish the run in this one, because almost every run play they call is going to be leaving points on the field, regardless who is playing quarterback.
This is an opportunity for the Irish to prove that quarterback running and deep passing aren’t going to be problems all season. Neither Pickett nor Yellen should be able to run on this defense. While Pitt has dangerous receivers it’s time for the Irish to make a statement with good over the top coverage, especially if Pitt is without its starting quarterback. Improvement in these areas makes this a special defense and substantially helps Notre Dame’s chances against the two best teams on their schedule in Clemson and North Carolina.
Defense has carried this Pittsburgh squad in 2020, being strong against both the run and the pass. Pitt is giving up the second lowest EPA/rush figure of any power five school. This is the best matchup in this game, as the Irish run game has been spectacular thus far. With that being said, Tommy Rees cannot be content to run the ball into stacked boxes against one of the best defenses he will face this year. Given their run stopping prowess and Notre Dame’s general unwillingness to throw the ball (38.6% Pass Rate, 68th out of 77), Pittsburgh will likely send additional defenders towards the line of scrimmage and dare Ian Book to beat them.
The Irish need to trust Book now more than ever to open up the ground game. Pittsburgh’s secondary is strong, allowing negative EPA/Play through the air and the eleventh smallest first down rate in the country. The Irish can put Book in a position to succeed by giving him more opportunities to throw. By giving him more chances to throw on early downs, it protects him from situations where the offense needs to convert on third and longs and allows him not to have to push the ball downfield on all of his drop backs. It will also free up space in the second level for the running backs as Pittsburgh would need to move defenders around to mitigate the threat through the air. Notre Dame needs to be ready to run passing plays that get the ball out of Ian Book’s hands quickly and lets him read and react to the defense.
Finally, Notre Dame needs to do a better job of getting the ball in the hands of their best players. Tommy Tremble received one target last weekend. Braden Lenzy played two snaps. Tremble may be the best athlete on the Irish offense while Lenzy is definitely the fastest offensive weapon. Louisville reminded me of a three game stretch last season where former tight end Cole Kmet only caught eight passes. The best offenses find ways to get their best players the ball no matter who they’re playing, and Tremble is unequivocally one of Notre Dame’s best players. Even if Rees is going to insist on making McKinley the number one wide receiver, these two need to be more involved in the offense for the Irish to reach their full offensive potential.
Gambling markets project the total of points scored in this game to be 42.5, an incredibly low number for a college game. This makes sense as two excellent defenses are matching up with offenses that are struggling to find their way. The Irish are certainly favored in this one, but this Pittsburgh team has lost two games by a point and the other with its backup quarterback in. This is by far the best defense the Irish have matched up with to date and if Kenny Pickett is able to play this could get dicey quickly for Notre Dame. Even if Pickett does play we have confidence the Irish can keep Pittsburgh off the scoreboard, but there will be no gifts for the Irish offense as there were against Florida State. If Tommy Rees continues to insist on establishing the run against Pittsburgh’s elite run defense, prepare to sweat this one out as points will be hard to come by and the score will likely be close the whole way. If he increases the early down passing, adds in more quick game and shorter routes, and Ian Book shows up to play the Irish offense could turn the corner tomorrow.