Thursday, November 12, 2009

CFI Preview: Notre Dame @ Pittsburgh

Heinz Field, Saturday, 8:00PM ET, ABC


Charlie Weis returns to the site of his first college coaching victory when Notre Dame travels to Pittsburgh Saturday night to take on the Panthers at Heinz Field.

Much has changed for Notre Dame and Pittsburgh over the past five seasons. Weis and the Fighting Irish got off to a flying start, reaching a BCS game in each of his first two seasons at the helm.

The next three years have not been as kind. Notre Dame finished 3-9 in 2007 and 7-6 in 2008. The Irish had high hopes coming into this season but have fallen to 6-3 after last week’s 23-21 defeat to Navy. It was the first time Notre Dame has lost consecutive home games to the Midshipmen since 1961 and 1963.

Dave Wannstedt made his college head coaching career against Weis and Notre Dame in 2005. Unlike the Fighting Irish, Pittsburgh struggled initially under their new coach. After going 16-19 through Wannstedt’s first three years, the Panthers are 17-5 since.

The university’s patience with Wannstedt has paid off: The Panthers are ranked in the top ten of a national poll (#8 in the AP) for the first time since 1982, Dan Marino’s senior season.

This year’s game will feature plenty of offensive firepower for both teams. Pittsburgh is led by quarterback Bill Stull, freshman running back Dion Lewis, tight end Dorin Dickerson and receiver Jonathan Baldwin.

Notre Dame has quarterback Jimmy Clausen and two of the best receivers in college football: Golden Tate and Michael Floyd.

With so many offensive weapons for both teams, this primetime match-up could very well be a shoot-out.

Keys for a Pittsburgh Victory

1) Win the First Quarter:
Pittsburgh’s home crowd will be fired-up when the ball is finally kicked-off shortly after 8pm on Saturday night. The Panthers can put themselves in a great position to win the game if they can feed off the crowd’s energy and get off to a fast start.

The Panthers have done a great job in the first quarter this season, outscoring their opponents 71-38 in the opening period.

Pittsburgh will be able to dictate the game’s rhythm if they can get off to quick lead. Early points by the Panther offense will allow the Pitt coaching staff to give the Notre Dame defense a heavy dose of Lewis and the running attack. Defensively, Pittsburgh can speed rush Clausen because they know Notre Dame will abandon the run game once they fall behind.

Most importantly, an early lead for the Panthers will be a psychological challenge to the Irish. Under Weis, Notre Dame has struggled to recover after disappointing losses. In the wake of a four-overtime defeat to Pittsburgh a year ago, the Irish were never the same, limping through the rest of the regular season with losses to Boston College, Syracuse and USC.

Last week’s loss to Navy may be the toughest yet. Should Pittsburgh build an early first quarter lead, the Irish may not have the mental fortitude to stay in the game.

2) Maintain Efficiency: Pittsburgh has been an incredibly consistent team on both sides of the ball this season. Offensively, the Panthers are well-balanced, rushing for 18 touchdowns and passing for 19. Stull leads a much improved Panther passing attack and has surprised everyone this season with his play. The senior from Pittsburgh is fifth in the nation in passing efficiency.

The Panthers also maximize their scoring chances. Pittsburgh is 17th in the nation in red zone efficiency. The Panthers have scored 37 times in 41 red zone opportunities; 27 of those scores were touchdowns.

Leadership and consistency along the offensive and defensive lines have been vital to Pittsburgh’s success. Both lines are filled with juniors and seniors. Their starting offensive linemen have played well and stayed healthy—all five have started every game.

Defensively, the Panthers get after opposing quarterbacks and do not make a lot of mistakes. Pittsburgh is 19th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 17.1 points per game.

Pittsburgh’s efficiency is a great asset when matched-up against a Notre Dame team that is inconsistent and undisciplined.

Keys for a Notre Dame Victory

1) Protect Clausen:
The Notre Dame offensive line must do a better job of protecting Clausen. Against an undersized and less talented Navy defensive unit a week ago, the Irish gave up two sacks, one of which occurred in the end zone giving Navy a safety and two critical points with just over a minute remaining in the game.

This week the Irish face one of the most productive defensive lines in the country. Pittsburgh leads in the nation in sacks with 38. The Panthers are able to get consistent pressure up front without blitzing much. This allows their linebackers to fall back into pass coverage.

Up front, the Panthers are led by a group of experienced and highly productive players. Senior defensive tackle Mick Williams leads the team with 13 tackles for loss. Defensive end Greg Romeus has 7.5 sacks on the year. The junior from Coral Springs, Florida has made 22 consecutive starts.

Pittsburgh is not the first team that Notre Dame will face this season that gets a lot of pressure on the quarterback without blitzing its linebackers. USC is also highly disruptive without blitzing and the Notre Dame offensive line struggled mightily against the Trojans, allowing USC to sack Clausen five teams. Luckily the Irish were able to rely on their highly talented junior quarterback to lead them back into that game and almost pull out the victory.

Notre Dame needs a great game from one of its most experienced units if they’re going to steal one from the Panthers. Clausen’s effectiveness is directly related to the amount of protection he gets from his offensive line.

2) Slow Down Dion Lewis: The freshman running back has been a revelation for Pittsburgh this season. Not highly recruited out of prep school in New Jersey, Lewis has exploded on the scene, already rushing for 1,176 yards. Lewis has gone over 100 rushing yards in six of Pittsburgh’s nine games.

The Irish have struggled defending the rush this season, allowing the opposition to average 148.8 yards per game on the ground.

Notre Dame defensive tackles Ethan Johnson and Ian Williams will play the key roles in defending the run. At times this season, they and the Irish defense have been very good against the run. Notre Dame held two effective running teams, USC and Boston College, to more than 75 yards below their season averages.

However just last week, the Irish gave up 348 yards on the ground to Navy.

Notre Dame cannot allow Lewis to gash them for huge chunks of yards. Pittsburgh is very balanced on offense and once the Panthers establish Lewis, they will utilize Stull and the physical Pittsburgh receivers in play-action passes.

Notre Dame needs to implement a game plan similar to the one they used against Boston College: neutralize the Panther running attack and try to make Pittsburgh one-dimensional.


Pitt’s doubters say the Panthers haven’t beaten anybody. Ironically, their biggest victory to this point is probably over a Navy team that beat Notre Dame last week. The Panthers will be motivated, in primetime, to show the nation that they are for real.

Notre Dame seems to be at yet another crossroads. Will the Irish recover from a disappointing loss? Will Charlie Weis be the Notre Dame coach next season?

Regardless of Weis’ job security, Clausen is too good of a quarterback to allow the game to get beyond Notre Dame’s reach. Pittsburgh’s balance and consistency will win out, but Clausen will make the game close. The Panthers will score a touchdown in the final minutes to earn a dramatic victory.

Score: Pittsburgh 42, Notre Dame 41

Photos Courtesy of Notre Dame Sports Information, University of Pittsburgh