Even Steven

Notre Dame will even its mark at 3-3 after a still-too-close victory over the Panthers.

An individual matchup; a key unit matchup, and a host of observations relevant to Saturday's contest.

Baldwin vs. the other guy

"I never even heard of him before we played him last year. Everybody was telling me he played at North Hills, or Woodland Hills, I'm not even sure. I never even knew him before that time." – Pittsburgh junior wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin on Monday.

Baldwin torched the Irish for 142 yards and a touchdown on five receptions last season. To boot, he put the 2008 game into overtime with a one-on-one jump ball grab from 10 yards out vs. Raeshon McNeil (Walls did not play in 2008). In other words: yes he's spouting off; yes he's backed it up.

Walls did break up two passes headed for Baldwin last season and was matched up vs. the playmaker for most of the evening.

"He didn't really press that much, so I couldn't really determine if he was physical from a pressing standpoint. He didn't tackle me, so I wouldn't be able to tell you that," Baldwin added.

The Irish rarely employed press coverage last season (Baldwin apparently has a good memory in addition to speed and leaping ability), but you can bet Walls will receive a second chance to make a first impression vs. the downfield target as the Irish load up the box to stop the running back tandem of Ray Graham and Dion Lewis Saturday afternoon.

Round 1 went to Pittsburgh (2008) with an assist from Baldwin; Round 2 also to the Panthers, with Baldwin occupying the lead role; Round 3 went to Brian Kelly's Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Pittsburgh in the de facto 2009 Big East Championship game last November.

Saturday, Round 4 will be determined by the battle at the line of scrimmage…and the sometimes magic, sometimes invisible and indifferent Baldwin vs. the player head coach Brian Kelly called, "our best cover corner" earlier this week.

Whatever his name is.

Advantage: Baldwin ("It's not bragging if you can back it up.")

Perceived Strength vs. Perceived Weakness

Last season, Pittsburgh's veteran offensive line led by guard John Malecki controlled the Irish front seven to the tune of 6.0 yards per rush with two carries in excess of 50 yards (either resulting in or setting up a touchdown). Doing the bulk of the damage was freshman phenom Dion Lewis, whose 1,799 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns set Panthers freshman records previously owned by some kid named Tony Dorsett.

Entering Saturday, Lewis has, due partly to an injured shoulder, yielded a good number of carries to classmate Ray Graham, who produced the highlight reel run of the season vs. the Irish while spelling Lewis last November.

Neither will have as much room to roam as they had in the previous meeting. The Panthers front took a hit losing three starters to graduation. It's in a state of flux with right tackle Lucas Nix moving inside to guard. There's a walk-on at center. The end result of the shuffle: two starters are back, one of which plays a different position to shore up deficiencies; Lewis has zero 100-yard games; Ray Graham has averaged an eye-popping 9.5 yards per carry in three contests (two vs. tomato cans/one in a blowout loss to Miami) and a No. 52-ranked rush offense in an attack that must move the ball on the ground to be successful.

The Panthers mask sometimes less-than-stellar play up front with one of the nation's best lead-blocking fullbacks (who doubles as a move tight end), Henry Hynoski. But the 2009 group had Hynoski, plus two effective, angry tight ends to compliment the pounding attack, as well as a healthy Lewis.

The Irish rush defense hasn't allowed a gain of more than 11 yards in nine quarters. Outside of the Stanford contest (long gain of 11 yards, 3.8 yards per carry vs. the Irish, but a quality rushing day nonetheless) Notre Dame has limited opponents to three yards or fewer on 49.6 percent of their carries this season.

For the first time this season and for the first time in more than four years vs. (what should have been) a quality rushing attack, I present the following three pre-game words for Irish fans:

Advantage, Notre Dame

Off the top of my head…

If Kyle Rudolph is in the 1-2 catch range again tomorrow, head coach Brian Kelly should consider shutting him down for the upcoming week of practice and contest vs. Western Michigan. Notre Dame is building to be a better team at season's end: it needs a healthy Rudolph to accomplish that goal, and if the Irish can't defeat the Broncos without one starting tight end…feel free to interject your own thoughts here…

Prediction: if senior walk-on David Ruffer's first field goal attempt is from 39 yards or more, his streak of 13 straight will end one short of the program record (set by Nick Tausch last season). Removing Ruffer from the kickoff unit for a teammate that has never recorded a collegiate touchback can't help the walk-on's early psyche. Seems like the risk outweighs the reward of "better kick placement" don't you think?

RT Taylor Dever is a necessity against improved Panthers LDE Jabaal Sheard. A healthy Dever, that is. If the surprisingly solid senior can't go full speed, the Irish are better off spelling him often with Andrew Nuss and an additional shoulder to chip the hard-charging Sheard.

A balanced Irish offense can take advantage of the Panthers new look 4-2-5 scheme with safety Dom DeCicco in a hybrid nickel linebacker role…look for the Irish to attack the deep zones far more often than we've seen over the first five weeks…As with its offensive line, the formerly vaunted Panthers front four (that was actually five strong last season) is a shadow of its former self; the Irish offensive front can win this battle, too…

I questioned three judgment calls (prior to the snap) by new head coach Brian Kelly over the first three contests; is that close to a weekly number for Panthers fans? Pittsburgh certainly benefits from the presence of OL coach Tony Wise, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti...By the way, Panthers linebackers coach Bernard Clark was the chief foil in snapping Notre Dame's 23-game winning streak in 1989, playing the game of his life as a Miami Hurricane middle linebacker vs. Tony Rice and the Irish offense…

The comparison game: Denard Robinson, Andrew Luck, Tino Sunseri…I'll take my chances (Kirk Cousins and Robert Marve are somewhere in between – well, much closer to the latter, but still technically in between)…I can think of at least six 30-year-old (ex-college) flag football quarterbacks back in Atlanta that were as impressive as whatever BC through out there last week vs. the Irish (the same goes for the Eagles wide receivers, sheesh)…By the way, Panthers backup QB Pat Bostick, he of the 9-touchdown/17-interception career numbers, beat the Irish in South Bend in 2008 – the day I returned from my honeymoon – so maybe I should bite my tongue regarding opposing quarterbacks.

The biggest surprise of the season to date? The combined numbers of Dion Lewis (47 carries, 143 yards, long gain of 18 yards) and Jonathan Baldwin (15 receptions, 211 yards, 2 TD). To be fair, you could throw in Michael Floyd's underwhelming 28-408-2 effort…

For the record, I'd put Gary Gray on Baldwin in most one-on-one situations…can Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese win what should be a head-knocking battle vs. the Polish Hammer, Henry Hynoski? How much will Dayne Crist benefit from Brian Kelly's familiarity with the Pitt D?

In 2009, then-Cincinnati defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said that Dion Lewis possessed "uncommon contact balance" prior to last year's Pitt/Cincy matchup; that's par for the course for the new staff's most interesting weekly interviewee…Ian Williams is going to dominate Saturday: be certain to watch him on 10 random snaps…the cumulative loss of MLB Scott McKillop (2008), CB Aaron Berry and NG Gus Mustakas (2009), and starting MLB Dan Mason plus pass rushing DE Greg Romeus (earlier this season) will be evident when watching Pitt's defense Saturday…

I think the Irish are the better team and going in a positive direction, but it'll take more than one win against the worst offense in the free world to convince me this roster can properly handle prosperity.

Notre Dame 29 Pittsburgh 20

Season Predictions: 3-2 W/L; 3-2 against the spread.


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