#3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Pittsburgh Panthers Game Preview

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Coaches are notorious for lying about a player’s size on the depth chart, making them seem larger or smaller. In some instances, they’ll even change their jersey number mid-game. In the words of George Oscar Bluth Jr., “It’s called ‘taking advantage.’ It’s what gets you ahead in life.”

If Brian Kelly is looking to take advantage of other team’s reliance on depth charts, he won’t be able to get ahead of Pat Narduzzi. The Pitt coach commented on the Notre Dame depth chart in his press conference this week.

Game Information

Location: Heinz Field | Pittsburgh, PA 

Date: Saturday, October 24, 2020

Time: 3:30 PM EST 

TV: ABC

Roc Pitt Panther

Historical Information: Notre Dame leads the series 49-21-1, Last Meeting (2018)- Notre Dame 19, Pittsburgh 14

“I looked at some of the depth charts; I think they [Notre Dame] have all their freshman year in high school heights and weights. That guy ain’t 6’2; he’s 6’4. See if [Brian] Kelly will give us some exact heights and weights on these guys because sometimes they look bigger than the numbers will tell you.” 

At this point, the sleight of hand on the depth chart is unnecessary (if true). After 129 career starts together, the Notre Dame offensive linemen have a reputation that precedes them. 

But the talented Irish offensive line will be tested by a 3-3 Pitt team on Saturday. The Panthers are sporting the best defensive line in the country despite missing its star defensive tackle.

Pitt will keep the safeties about 10 yards from the scrimmage line to create a 9-man box to stop the run. Cover 4 can create problems for inexperienced quarterbacks because while it is zone coverage, it allows for defensive backs to pattern match, meaning part of the defense is in zone coverage and part of the defense is in man coverage.

There will be opportunities for one-on-one matchups with corners on “islands.” Ian Book will have to take advantage of this without allowing the Pitt defense to add to their eight interceptions. 

pittsburgh panthers

Pitt Defense 

There aren’t many defensive minds in college football better than Pat Narduzzi. From 2011-2014, his Michigan State defenses ranked in the top ten in total defense and rushing defense. In 2019, his Pitt Panthers defense led the nation in sacks. 

This year not much has changed for Narduzzi. Pitt has the number one rushing defense coming into Saturday’s game, only allowing 61.5 yards per game. The Panthers also have the number one pass rush with 29 team sacks; they’re first in tackles for loss – averaging 11.2 per game, and have allowed two rushing touchdowns all year. 

They’re doing all of this without their star defensive tackle, Jaylen Twyman, who opted out to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. Twyman is rated as the no. 5 defensive tackle on Mel Kiper Jr.’s big board, but the team hasn’t missed a beat without him. 

Defensive ends Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver have set the tone and continued to get after the quarterback. The duo has a combined 11.5 sacks. 

Add in underclassmen Dayon Hayes (2.5 sacks) and John Morgan (2.0 sacks), and this quartet accounts for 55% of the team’s total sacks.

For my classical music fans out there, as far as quartets go, they’re the Takács string quartet of college football. 

The Pitt defensive line embodies Newton’s third law. For every tremendous offensive line, there is an equally talented defensive line. Last week heading into Louisville, Brian Kelly said that the Cardinals could’ve been a 4-0 team but were self saboteurs at critical moments in games. *crickets* 

Anyways, Pitt might be a 3-3 team, but this is a championship-caliber defense. They will make it hard to run the ball; they will get after the quarterback, and they will take the ball away. 

The Panthers are tied for third-best in the NCAA with eight total interceptions. Add in three forced fumbles and Pittsburgh is fourth-best in the NCAA in takeaways with 11. 

For comparison, the Irish defense is tied for 60th in the NCAA with one interception and two fumble recoveries. 

Pitt Offense 

Pitt is 3-3 after starting 3-0 and sporting a world-beater of a defense. How is that possible? What about the tired mantra of “defense wins championships?” Well, there’s a lesser-known saying in football circles that applies to this year’s Pittsburgh Panthers team. 

“You can’t make the club in the tub.” 

After suffering three additional injuries in their first loss of the season, a 30-29 heartbreaker to North Carolina State on October 3, Pitt’s injury total climbed to 25 players. Through the first four games of the season, Pitt was without roughly 10% of its scholarship players – that’s not counting future pro, Jaylen Twyman. 

One of those members of the “walking wounded” is senior quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Panther’s signal-caller had thrown for 1,389 yards, accounted for 13 touchdowns (eight passing and five rushing), and three interceptions before suffering an ankle injury. 

It seems likely he won’t suit up against Notre Dame, so the Irish will face Joey Yellen, a transfer from Arizona State. In his first start against Miami, Yellen completed 49% of his passes for 296 yards and one touchdown and was sacked three times in a 31-19 loss to No. 13 Miami. 

Pittsburgh-Panthers

Apart from its quarterback woes, the Pitt offensive line has struggled to open up holes for its running backs. As a team, they’re averaging 2.9 yards per carry and 107 yards per game. While the team has rushed for 11 touchdowns, remember that five of those came from Kenny Pickett, who is unlikely to suit up. 

The Pitt running game ranks 70th out of 77 teams in the FBS this year. It’s a running back by committee. Expect to see Vincent Davis, Todd Sibley, and A.J. Davis. 

At wide receiver, look for star freshman Jordan Addison. Once a target of Notre Dame to play defensive back, the speedy freshman leads the ACC in catches with 38 and his 444 receiving yards place him third in the ACC. He’s become the go-to receiver for a Pittsburgh team lacking weapons outside of the now-hobbled Kenny Pickett. 

Addison is an explosive receiver who can win against man-to-man coverage with straight-line speed and has a high football IQ to find soft spots in zone coverage. Against Miami last week, Addison racked up 147 yards receiving, the most by a Pitt freshman since Tyler Boyd (Cincinnati Bengals) put up 173 yards in the 2013 Little Caesar’s Bowl against Bowling Green.

Irish Keys to the Game: 

Offense

The passing game has to get going this week. The Notre Dame passing offense ranks 64th out of 77 teams in FBS. The Irish have three passing touchdowns in four games. Javon McKinley, the team’s leading wide receiver, with 121 total yards, is not even in the top 200 of FBS players in receiving yards. 

Pitt will stack the box and force the Irish to throw the ball. Miami was able to find success against the Panthers with quick passes and a run-pass option pop pass to the tight end on a post route and then again down the seam. With Notre Dame running a two-tight end set as their base offense, expect to see a heavy dose of Tommy Tremble and Michael Mayer. 

Narduzzi typically runs a 4-3 “Over” base defense with the secondary in Cover 4. In layman’s terms, the four defensive backs each have a zone covering 25% of the field. Underneath, the linebackers will have zones covering 33% of the field with roughly five-yard drops. The middle linebacker will have a deeper drop to protect the middle of the field. 

Pitt will keep the safeties about 10 yards from the scrimmage line to create a 9-man box to stop the run. Cover 4 can create problems for inexperienced quarterbacks because while it is zone coverage, it allows for defensive backs to pattern match, meaning part of the defense is in zone coverage and part of the defense is in man coverage. 

There will be opportunities for one-on-one matchups with corners on “islands.” Ian Book will have to take advantage of this without allowing the Pitt defense to add to their eight interceptions. 

Defense: 

The Notre Dame defense runs a base 4-3, a defense built to stop the run. With Pittsburgh struggling to create running lanes or generate any push at the line of scrimmage, expect the Irish to force Pitt’s quarterback to throw the ball. 

The Irish defense will key Jordan Addison and look to take him away. They can’t forget about Taysir Mack and Jared Wayne, two receivers who, despite the fanfare, are big, strong, and capable of giving defensive backs trouble. Last week, in the postgame press conference, defensive end Daelin Hayes said, “We tell the offense all they need to do is give us three points, and we’ll go do the rest.” 

Can the Irish get their second shutout of the season?  

Prediction: ND wins, 27-19

 

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