Well folks, the restful bye week is in the rearview mirror, and now we’re just two days away from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team kicking off the final third of their regular season by hosting the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday afternoon.
The Panthers enjoyed a nice two-year stretch under the guidance of head coach Pat Narduzzi in 2021 and 2022 (20-7 with an ACC title, a Sun Bowl victory, and a Peach Bowl appearance), but are now looking pretty rough at 2-5 in the Nard Dog’s 9th season at the helm of the program. With that said, this Pitt team has shown the ability to do some damage, upsetting the undefeated Louisville Cardinals just two weeks ago to bring Jeff Brohm’s squad back to earth after they routed the Irish early in the month.
So, what exactly should we make of this opponent who beat an undefeated top-25 team one week but then fell to a bad Wake Forest team playing their 3rd string QB the next? How do they match up with our Irish and what should we be looking out for on their end?
These are questions In certainly can’t answer super well, and thus I reached out to Mike Vukovcan, Co-Founder and Editor over at Pittsburgh Sports Now, a site that covers everything Pitt, Duquesne, Robert Morris, and WPIAL (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League).
We peppered Mike with questions about Narduzzi, the Pitt QB carousel, skill position talent, and that ever-dangerous Panthers defense, and Mike delivered with some great insight and info with which we can prepare ourselves for the first game of the final stretch of the season for our 6-2 Fighting Irish.
So, let’s not waste any more time — here we go, y’all!
1. Pat Narduzzi is a guy whom a lot of opposing fan bases do not particularly like (ND definitely included there). How do Pitt fans feel about their head coach after almost 9 seasons with him at the helm? Are the fans believers, especially after two very good seasons in 2021 and 2022, or has anything soured with this 2-5 start in ‘23 or with fans’ feelings toward Narduzzi in general over the near-decade of his Panthers era?
Mike Vukovcan (Pittsburgh Sports Now): This is an answer that seems to change yearly or even monthly. Even during those two outstanding seasons, Pat Narduzzi wasn’t loved by the majority of the fan base. I’ve always felt it’s been a 50/50 split.
Me personally, I’m not his biggest fan and haven’t been afraid to air that opinion. My biggest problem with Narduzzi isn’t necessarily his coaching or his accomplishments at Pitt, it’s always been his personality and the way he treats people. I don’t think he’s always upfront when talking with the media and that’s something that Pitt fans can see right through.
That being said, he’s had a solid, not great, 8-year career at Pitt, which hasn’t always been the easiest program to coach. When he arrived, the program was going through plenty of turmoil and Narduzzi has solidified everything and turned Pitt into one of the top programs in the ACC, regardless of what’s going on this year. Narduzzi and his offensive staff are under a lot of heat right now for what’s going on and especially for the way the offense has performed the last two years under offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Jr. The fans are pissed and want changes. We’ll see what happens at the end of the season.
So right now, Pitt fans aren’t fans of Narduzzi and probably wouldn’t mind a coaching change.
2. Former Notre Dame QB Phil Jurkovec — who’s publicly knocked ND multiple times since leaving and thus earned a lot of...distaste from the Irish faithful — began the season as starter for the Panthers, but it appears now he’s been permanently benched in favor of Christian Veilleux.
What went wrong with Jurkovec under center, and what does Veilleux bring to the table as a young starter?
Mike Vukovcan (Pittsburgh Sports Now): Phil Jurkovec was a disaster for Pitt and one of the biggest reasons for the team’s poor start. I’ll admit, I thought he was going to be a great addition and solidify the Pitt passing game, which struggled last season as well under Kedon Slovis, who’s now at BYU. The offensive struggles weren’t all because of Jurkovec but it was very clear early on, probably in Game 2 vs. West Virginia, that Jurkovec didn’t have it. I have no idea how or why he’s regressed so much over the last couple of seasons, but he has, and watching him play quarterback was painful.
It’s a shame too because it would’ve been a great way for him to end his college career. Coming home, leading Pitt to a solid season and possibly rebuilding his NFL Draft stock. Unfortunately, none of that happened. Jurkovec was a victim of a poor offensive line, which gave him no time to throw, along with a very bad offensive coordinator. But the bottom line is that when he did have time to throw and had open receivers, he couldn’t connect with them. Jurkovec is now 3rd on the depth chart and won’t throw another pass at Pitt, barring unforeseen circumstances.
The early reviews on transfer quarterback Christian Veilleux have been good, frankly, just completing a medium range or deep pass is progress after what we saw from Jurkovec. Veilleux has good presence in the pocket and looked outstanding on Pitt’s first and final drives, both of which resulted in TD passes. Pitt’s offensive play calling was somewhat conservative last week against Wake Forest, despite Veilleux looking sharp. Hopefully that will change this week.
3. Who are the skill position players for the Panthers that the Irish should be worried about, and how much success do you expect the Pitt offense to have against what’s shown to be a very strong ND defense under Al Golden’s coordination?
Mike Vukovcan (Pittsburgh Sports Now): In my opinion, Pitt’s three best skilled position players are TE Gavin Barthlomew, RB Rodney Hammond and freshman WR Kenny Johnson. However, as I wrote on Pittsburgh Sports Now earlier this week, it’s been stunning how Cignetti’s play calling has ignored his two best offensive players.
Hammond split time last year with current NY Jets rookie running back Israel Abanikanda. Everyone thought this was going to be his year to shine after producing really well the last 2 years, averaging over 4 yards a carry. But for whatever reason, Hammond isn’t getting the ball and the last couple of weeks, it’s gone to former Notre Dame running back C’Bo Flemister. He’s a good player but not a better running back than Hammond. But Narduzzi loves him and has made him the feature back.
In terms of Barthlomew, when used on offense, he’s a huge weapon and a mismatch for opposing defenses. After having a great freshman year, Barthlomew has been ignored in this offense since the arrival of Cignetti last year. He has NFL type talent and will play on Sundays. Pitt fans have been screaming about this situation for two years.
Johnson is a true freshman and is a playmaker. Last week, he had four catches on Pitt’s opening drive, including his first receiving touchdown. I like him a lot. The other player to watch is wide receiver Bub Means, who seems to have developed a good chemistry the last two weeks with Veilleux since he took over.
I’m not going to predict that this offense will have success because they haven’t been able to do it for four quarters in a game all season. Plus, this will be the best defense they’ve played all year and the toughest environment.
4. Pitt has for a while under Narduzzi earned a strong reputation as a defensive program — how does this year’s Panther defense live up to that reputation? What do they do well/not well, and who are the key guys that could give ND’s offense some issues?
Mike Vukovcan (Pittsburgh Sports Now): Pitt still has a strong defense and it’s getting better every week. They lost a number of players to the NFL Draft last offseason, including former All-American DT Calijah Kancey, the 1st round pick of Tampa Bay. They also lost their two starting defensive ends, two linebackers and two members of their starting secondary.
However, Pitt has recruited strong on the defensive side of the ball — unfortunately, they have a lot of players getting a lot of snaps for the first time in their career. They have a solid defense but it’s not dominant as it’s been in the past. The one area that they’ve struggled in for the first time in a while is with their run defense. That’s normally rock solid under Narduzzi but they’ve allowed a few backs to have big games against them, which isn’t common.
They’re also not getting to the opposing quarterback as much. A big reason for a lot of this however could go back to the offense not being able to dominate time of possession, which is putting the defense on the field a lot more.
5. Alright let’s get down to it: who wins this game, what’s the final score, and how do you think it happens?
Mike Vukovcan (Pittsburgh Sports Now): The point spread currently is Notre Dame being favored by 19 points and I think Notre Dame will cover. Although I think he has a bright future ahead of him at Pitt, Chrisitan Veilleux is going to be facing a really good defense and Pitt just has too many issues right now on offense. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him under pressure all game long.
If Pitt was able to run the ball and eat some clock and move the chains that way, they might be able to keep it close for a few quarters. However, their line is very young right now, after losing 2 or 3 starters for the year.
Having faced them multiple times, Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman isn’t going to be overwhelmed by facing Pitt’s sometimes complex defense and blitz schemes. Although Pitt dominated him the last time they met in the ACC Championship Game, Hartman will get his revenge on Saturday in a big way.
Final Score Notre Dame 38 Pitt 14.
Alright folks, I want to give a shout-out to Mike for his time and talent and knowledge that he shared with us this week in order to really give us everything we needed to know about this Pitt team and this matchup.
I encourage you all to head over to the Pittsburgh Sports Now site to check out the work they’re doing over there, and also suggest you all give Mike a follow on Twitter, as well as the Pittsburgh Sports Now site account — both will be excellent resources to check-in on leading up to, during, and after the game for insight, analysis, commentary, etc.
That’s it for this week, you guys — as always, GO IRISH, BEAT PANTHERS!