Perimeter, Pressure, and Protecting the PigskinThree easily monitored, game-changing factors for tomorrow's Noon (ET) clash in the Steel City:
- Michael Floyd vs. the 119th-ranked pass defense: Floyd had his quietest statistical outing last week, catching six passes for 86 yards and was, for the second straight week, kept from the end zone.
Don't expect the latter to repeat Saturday. Floyd will add to his career total of 24 receptions (3 scores) early and often as the Irish change it up in Week Four, using the pass to set up their thus-far solid ground attack. The Panthers defensive front includes veteran holdovers from the program's best defense of the decade, 2009, and it's a unit capable of frustrating the Irish over the course of the contest.
Its backline – and more important, the scattered coverage schemes, similar to one that produced the nation's 120th ranked pass defense last season at Tulsa under current Panthers head coach Todd Graham – cannot contain Floyd and his pass-catching cohorts.
If not Floyd, T.J. Jones, Theo Riddick, and Tyler Eifert will have a field day Saturday afternoon; the Irish enjoying a rarity - a victory in which they throw more than pass.
- One-way harassment: Asked Thursday if Pittsburgh's confusing scheme, one that brings intermittent pressure from each member of the defense, created cause for pause during the week's preparations, Kelly offered, "We're in a spread offense, which usually brings a lot more pressure anyway. So it's part of our routine and we're pretty good at it…We don't give up many sacks. If we do, the quarterback has got to get rid of the ball. So we take great pride in that.
"They bring a lot of pressures, so we've had to look at them. But we feel pretty good as it relates to pressures, and when teams bring pressures, we think that's an advantage that we have because we see everything and we can pick them all up," he noted.
Conversely, last Saturday marked Notre Dame's best pass-rushing effort since last year's early November win over Utah (2 sacks/8 QB hurries), with two sacks, 10 QB hurries, consistent pocket pressure, and a turnover the result of a sack/forced fumble by freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch. The Irish are certain to again dial up pressure Saturday in Heinz Field – Pittsburgh has allowed more sacks than all but three of 120 FBS teams through three games this season.
The Panthers somehow yielded seven to FCS foe Maine in their Week Two, 35-29 win.
"Not to be down on Maine or anything, but Notre Dame's pass rush defense, with all the guys we have, is more dominant. It makes me happy to know another team got seven," said Lynch, he of the obscene six quarterback pressures last Saturday. "It builds us up that we're going to get 10 or 12. That's how I look at it."
If A plus B indeed equaled C, Lynch's logic would be sound, but recent pass-rush numbers don't back the projection. Prior to Saturday's QB-hurry frenzy, Bob Diaco's Irish defenses had totaled just four sacks and three official hurries over the last five games dating back to the 2010 pass-rushing tour de force vs. the Utes. Consistent pressure rather than QB take downs is of course the key, as a QB hurry and/or hit can result in myriad negatives for the offense.
(Of course, "10-12 sacks" would win a lot of games, too, I'm sure, but Notre Dame sacked Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne on five occasions last October – a game won by Todd Graham's Golden Hurricanes in South Bend.)
Schematically, Lynch's breakout game as both an interior and edge rusher last week could this week allow outside linebacker Prince Shembo his first chance to apply heat off the edge – the sophomore lined up as an interior pass-rusher in the team's four-down nickel defensive line over the first two contests. (Shembo missed last week's game due to a family emergency).
Lynch, Shembo, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, and Stephon Tuitt – with seven able bodies rotating along the team's nickel defensive front, it could be a long day for the Panthers if they fall in an early two-score hole, or are unable to establish a running game; a dual-fate that did in their predecessors last Saturday.
- The value of the football: Predictably, Notre Dame is 3-0 under Brian Kelly when it avoids turnovers. Alarmingly, the Irish have hit the field for 16 contests for the second-year head coach – which means a whopping 13 have included at least one, and as many as five turnovers (twice). On six other occasions, Kelly's offense has lost possession at least three times, losing three of those matchups (beating BC, USC, and most recently, Michigan State).
One of the team's turnover-free contests was against Pittsburgh in Week Six last fall – the first such outing of the Kelly era. On the other hand, one of its frustrating three-plus turnover days occurred against Tulsa and Graham – the on-field low point of Year One.
Key Saturday combatants Tommy Rees (16 turnovers), Floyd (2), Riddick (2), Cierre Wood (2), John Goodman (2), Jonas Gray (1), and Jones (1 turnover attributed to Rees), represent 25 of the team's whopping 36 turnovers in the staff's first 16 games on the job. (Dayne Crist 9; Armando Allen 1, and Austin Collinsworth one academic "fumble" to end the game at Michigan, account for the remainder.)
The Irish can continue to make mistakes if their defense continues to create them, but as with contests such as South Florida this year, and against Navy and Michigan in 2010, three games during which the Irish failed to register a single theft, a notch on the left side of the W-L ledger is likely to follow.
The long road backAt 2-2, the Irish will remain out of the national picture, but on the tenuous road back to contention, at least in their own minds. And through October, that's all that matters as the weeks tick down and untested and undefeated teams begin the challenging portions of their respective slates (at Notre Dame, that's known as "the schedule.")
But at 1-3, a season ending in El Paso becomes a goal rather than a "Wait ‘Til Next Year" battle cry.
Saturday's win vs. Michigan State was of absolute necessity for Brian Kelly's staff and the program. Few remaining games aren't; the result of a hole dug and unfortunate 2011 season reality.
Yet for all their sloppy, repetitive errors, their inexplicable mental meltdown in Ann Arbor, or their maddening propensity to find a way to lose (2-5 in close contests since 2010), I still believe Kelly's second Irish squad is among the nation's 20 best, with a ceiling higher than that standard.
But a top 20 caliber team can't lose in Pittsburgh, not to a team still trying to find itself under a new regime. A good team beats Pittsburgh in Week Four of the Todd Graham era. And despite its record, that's what Notre Dame is…