I don’t like Notre Dame. I try to be professional and I won’t use some of the insults I’ve seen my fellow Pitt fans post on twitter and Facebook, but trust me, they’re in my head. I’d love to say a few things about that
videographer murderer smug jerk Brian Kelly, but I won’t. The one thing to keep in mind is that the football team has to beat Notre Dame and the zebras. Last season, they beat the Irish but they didn’t beat the Irish and the zebras. Let’s look at the filth Notre Dame will put on the field.
On offense, they’re led by mistake-prone senior QB Tommy Rees. Rees is a pure pocket passer. His season long rush? 1 yard. Rees, like Tom Savage, has put up good stats against bad opponents and awful stats against good opponents. Against Temple, Purdue, and Air Force, he has 10 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. The rest of the opponents? 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Rees will frequently make decisions that will cause Irish fans everywhere to facepalm. Like Logan Thomas and the VT game, a lot of this game will depend on whether or not he makes stupid decision. Pitt was unlucky and got good Logan Thomas. Unfortunately bad Logan Thomas showed up the following week.
When he’s making the right decisions, he has options. Senior WR TJ Jones already has career highs in yards and touchdowns and 100+ yards and a touchdown in three of his past four games. Across from him is a talented but inconsistent DaVaris Daniels. Daniels was on fire at the start of the season (17 receptions, 299 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 3 games) but has cooled since (15 receptions, 197 yards in 6 games).
The Irish have had a good tradition of talented TEs recently (see jagoff Tyler Eifert last season, who “earned” a bogus 4th down pass interference call that proved to be a game changer) and Troy Niklas is next in line. The 6’7″ Niklas is a big play threat (touchdowns of 66 and 30 yards) and a nightmare in scoring range (3 touchdowns from inside the 25 yard line). He’s one player Pitt has absolutely no answer for. Niklas has at least a 4″ height advantage on any back seven player Pitt has (Anthony Gonzalez, 6’3″). The problem with a guy his size is that even if coverage is good (which it hasn’t been for Pitt lately), Niklas is still open.
When they run the ball, the Irish will use a three back rotation. Early in the season it was Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson, but Tarean Folson has earned carries the past two games and responded well (29 carries for 187 yards and 1 touchdown) while Carlisle has had no more than three carries the past six games. Notre Dame isn’t lighting the world on fire on the ground (88th in the country) but they’re very consistent (100+ rushing yards in every game but one).
They run the ball more than they pass (52:48 ratio), so expect the Irish to try and pound the ball to set up the pass. If they can’t move the ball on the ground, expect the offense to struggle. Their worst rushing game of the season (Michigan State: 29 carries 84 yards) led to an awful offensive game where they needed four pass interference calls and a turnover on a trick play to score 17.
A huge advantage for Pitt will be on the interior. Donald and Ezell could have a field day. Notre Dame’s interior OL looks like this: first-year starter at C, true freshman at RG, and a LG coming back from an injury. Hopefully Aaron Donald continues to wreak havoc inside because interior pressure is very difficult to scheme around. Darryl Render has played a lot as of late too and looked good.
The offense’s success comes down to two things: can they consistently move the ball on the ground for 3-6 yard chunks to make life easy on Tommy Rees and will Rees not suck. If the Irish can grind it out on the ground and Rees avoid boneheaded mistakes, expect their offense to put some points up.
I’m actually relatively confident the defense can slow Notre Dame down. The run defense has been pretty good this season and Notre Dame can’t do anything unless the run game is doing well. They don’t have to break huge gains to score (as evidenced by only 8 of their 30 offensive touchdowns coming on the ground) but Rees is not good enough to win with just his arm and no running help. Pitt’s defense has been pretty good the past five games, especially on the ground.
On defense, Notre Dame runs a 3-4 with some big bodies up front. It’s all based around NT Louis Nix, who is not having the season many expected, probably due to health. Even still, the big bodies up front will be difficult to move in the run game and it’ll be one of few times the OL faces guys who are just as big as they are. The player I’m worried about is OLB Prince Shembo. Shembo is a good pass rusher and the type of player the OL has struggled with (think Attaochu from GT). The offense absolutely has to account for him on every pass or else we could see another pass rusher tee off on Savage all game long.
They have two very good CBs fully capable of handling Street and Boyd. Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell will match up one-on-one quite frequently with Pitt’s dynamic duo and it wouldn’t be unthinkable for the WRs to be held in check. Their safeties are nothing special and they’ve moved some guys in and out of the lineup there.
Notre Dame’s defense has struggled against smart, efficient offenses. You won’t beat them one way, it has to be varied. They only have 10 forced turnovers (1.1 per game) and 13 sacks (1.4 per game) on the season, which shows you they aren’t big playmakers. Even without the big plays, they’re only allowing 23 points per game, good for 40th in the nation. They play solid defense, limit big plays, but don’t do anything particularly well. If the offense wants to score (without short fields caused by turnovers or special teams) they’ll have to be methodical, something they have not done all season.
Either the offense has to step up or the defense has to play lights out and force some turnovers. Pitt could easily beat Notre Dame and I expect it to be close, since the last five games between them have been decided by six or fewer points. In the end, here’s how the game will look. The offense will start slow and the defense will play a good game then collapse in the 4th quarter. It’ll look like the past several games and Pitt will lose 24-13.