Pittsburgh – Week Four in PittsburghThe Panthers have beaten the Irish in three of the teams' last five meetings (dating back to 2004) including a 27-22 victory at Heinz Field in November 2009.
2010 result: Notre Dame 23 Pittsburgh 17
Tenor of 2010 contest: The Irish were in control throughout, taking a 20-3 lead into the final 20 game minutes before three-season Irish killer Jonathan Baldwin struck again, reeling in a 56-yard stop-and-go touchdown to pull the Panthers to within six, 23-17 with 7:23 remaining.
Notre Dame's defense took control from there, limiting Pittsburgh without a first down on its final two possessions.
Turning Point: Clinging to a six-point edge in the final seven minutes, the Irish offense shot itself in the foot: twice. First, a 44-yard touchdown catch and run by Michael Floyd was wiped out by an off-the-ball pass interference call. One possession later, needing just one first down to run out the clock, tight end Mike Ragone dropped a chest-high pass on a flare route on 2nd and 4. The Irish punted two snaps later giving Pittsburgh a final chance with 1:37 remaining but as they did on their previous possession, the Panthers failed to earn a first down vs. the Irish pass defense, turning it over on downs inside their own 15-yard line.
Returning stars from last year's battle: The Panthers were hit hard by graduation/early entry with Baldwin and RB Dion Lewis moving on to the NFL along with defensive end Jabaal Sheard. QB Tino Sunseri returns (27-39-272-INT-TD vs. ND last year) as does standout junior runner Ray Graham.
Early Look: New name to know: Head coach Todd Graham takes over for the deposed Dave Wannestadt (2-2 in four games vs. the Irish). Graham led Tulsa to a 28-27 upset of the Irish in South Bend last October. His Golden Hurricanes averaged more than 41 points per game last season en route to a 10-3 finish. Graham led the squad to nearly 47 points per game in 2008 with a school-record 11 wins following a 10-win season in his debut at Tulsa in 2007.
Off-season questions facing the Panthers: Will the overhauled staff allow the Panthers to gel in time for a Week Four matchup vs. the Irish? Pittsburgh must transform from a true power offense (I-formation tailback pounding through the line behind bruising fullback Henry Hynoski) to Graham's wild, unpredictable spread attack over the course of the spring and off-season without the services of its two best players from 2009-10, Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis. Can previously solid WR Mike Shanahan (6'5" 220) blossom in Graham's high-octane attack?
2011 game storyline: It's a new era in Pittsburgh and though the Graham has won – and scored – everywhere (Texas high schools, Rice, Tulsa), the early portion of Year One will likely offer a rough transition for an offense that operated between the tackles during the Wannestadt era.
Pittsburgh encounters the Irish one week after a trip to Iowa – two far more talented and rugged defenses than the Panthers will face in opening home tilts with Buffalo and FCS-opponent, Maine. Should Graham emerge 3-1 from that opening quartet, the Panthers would be poised to make noise in a wide open Big East.
Stanford – Season Finale in Palo AltoThe Cardinal look to build off the best season in program history with the return of the nation's top NFL prospect – Quarterback Andrew Luck – but without the architect of the team's resurgence, former head coach Jim Harbaugh, who bolted for the NFL to take the same position with the San Francisco 49ers.
2010 result: Stanford 37 Notre Dame 14
Tenor of 2010 contest: Men vs. boys – at least on one side of scrimmage. Notre Dame's defense held Stanford to a season-low two offensive touchdowns but the Irish offense was humbled by the Cardinal front seven, limited to 44 rushing yards on 23 carries and just 156 passing yards before the team's final two cosmetic possessions produced 151 through the air for the host's only touchdown of the day.
Comparatively, the Irish defense played well enough to win, limiting Stanford to five field goals and two touchdown drives (the Cardinal defense added an interception touchdown) while holding Stanford's powerful attack to 3.8 yards per rush on 44 attempts, with no gains in excess of 11 yards. The Irish intercepted Luck twice, allowing just one touchdown toss.
Turning Point: Trailing 19-6 early in the fourth quarter, backup Irish running back Jonas Gray was stopped for a loss by unblocked Cardinal linebacker Chase Thomas. The 4th and 1 failure at the ND 49-yard line led to Stanford's second and final offensive score, an 11-play, 51-yard drive that included three separate third down conversions by the Cardinal during the decisive march. Fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic plunged in for a one-yard score to conclude the drive, then one (Notre Dame) snap later, Marecic intercepted a Dayne Crist pass for his first career defensive touchdown and a commanding 34-6 advantage.
Returning stars from last year's battle: Quarterback Andrew Luck (19-32-238-2 INT-TD vs. the Irish); RB Stepfan Taylor (108 rushing yards on 28 carries); LB Shayne Skov (8 tackles including 2 for lost yardage; a forced fumble, sack and pass break-up in a dominant effort); and OLB Chase Thomas (3 QB hurries and the decisive backfield tackle of Gray on 4th down) all return for new head coach David Shaw.
Early Look: New name to know: Shaw, who ascended from the team's offensive coordinator role to take the reigns from Harbaugh in January. A 1994 Stanford graduate, Shaw ran Harbaugh's offense at San Diego (2006) and for the last four seasons in Palo Alto. From the season opener of 2009 through the Orange Bowl evisceration of Virginia Tech last January, Stanford was held below 30 points in just three of 26 contests.
Off-season questions facing the Cardinal: The offense should continue to run smoothly under the Shaw/Luck tandem: will the team's highly underrated and physically tough defense lose its edge without the fiery Harbaugh at the helm? Stanford's defense (and offensive line) played through the echo of the whistle last fall – an approach that helped forge the 12-win season. Can they continue that approach under new leadership?
2011 Storyline: If the season plays out as expected, a win at Stanford could secure a berth in the Bowl Championship Series for the Irish – a first for the program since 2006. Stanford will be in a similar situation – a loss to the Irish in the final week likely dropping them from final contention with a win cementing their status. The contest will also likely serve as the final Heisman audition for the multi-talented Luck.