Trouble Spot #7: Pittsburgh

A viable road underdog travels to South Bend one week after Notre Dame's monumental trip to Norman, Oklahoma...and on the heels of six potentially down-to-the-wire matchups for the Irish over a seven-week span. Add it up and you have the definition of a "trouble spot" for Brian Kelly's squad.

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the series, as well as the foe ranked as Trouble Spot #12 for 2012.

Click here for Trouble Spot #11 (Wake Forest) and here for Notre Dame's 10th toughest game situation, Boston College and for the contest that finished 9th, a neutral site battle vs. Miami in Chicago.

?The most recent ranking, Purdue at #8, examines Notre Dame's hectic, potentially taxing cross-Atlantic schedule preceding the contest.

Pittsburgh Game Slotting/Situation

Spots like these are the impetus behind this annual series.

In wagering parlance, they're referred to as "a tough spot," or "trap games" while casual fans tend to overlook such foes altogether. That'll likely be the case for Notre Dame's faithful in 2012 as the home date with the Panthers immediately follows a classic college football matchup between the Irish and Oklahoma Sooners in Norman. October's Notre Dame schedule includes Miami in Chicago, home games vs. Stanford and BYU, and a trip to Oklahoma while Pittsburgh kicks off November.

That's quite a stretch for Brian Kelly's squad and the toll of six contests over seven weeks preceding (at Michigan State, Michigan, Bye, Miami, Stanford, BYU, at Oklahoma) could play a major role in Notre Dame's performance in this, the supposed breather vs. Pitt after a hellacious stretch.

Pittsburgh entertains Temple before taking on the Irish. Before that, Buffalo and Louisville.

The likely toll of the 2012 schedule bumps this seemingly innocuous contest for the Irish near the top half of our Trouble Spots list.

Inside the Panthers

First-year head coach and former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst brings a power-oriented attack that averaged 44.1 points per game and 470 yards last season in Madison. Of course, there's no Russell Wilson as a triggerman in the Steel City, instead under center is third-year starter Tino Sunseri who's been painfully average in two years at the helm. Sunseri was sacked 60 times, worst in the nation (for reference, that's three times more than Notre Dame's quarterbacks were sacked in the lost season of 2007).

Though he's coming off ACL surgery, senior tailback Ray Graham will likely be the offense's bell cow. He was second nationally in rushing yards prior to last October's injury. Graham might receive immediate help from true freshman Rushell Shell. Shell would be the fourth RB in the last five years to play a major role as a freshman for the Panthers. Receivers Mike Shanahan and Devin Street return as well.

The offense's prospects ultimately fall to an offensive line with three new starters and a quarterback who's proven average, though under two head coaches with disparate systems, previously.

There's been a bit of a talent drain in the Steel City's defense with household names Mick Williams, Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, and Max Gruder all departing. Nearly the entire front seven will be first-time starters though sophomore 'backer Todd Thomas returns. He played well in last year's 15-12 defeat to the Irish, registering 6 stops, 1.5 for loss, a pass break-up and a key QB hurry. Junior defensive lineman Aaron Donald is purportedly ready for prime time as well. Mainstay Jarred Holley returns at free safety as dose two-year starter K'Waun Williams on the corner.

Outside Looking In: Lindy's Sports has Pittsburgh ranked 44th nationally and third in the Big East. Athlon Sports has the Panthers ranked similarly, 45th and 3rd in conference as well. Phil Steele put the Panthers on his "Most Improved" list, predicting a winning record after a 6-7 finish last fall.

Final Thoughts

They're not the 7th best opponent, but this particular game week for Notre Dame: following a trip to Norman (win or lose), following six potentially taxing games in seven weeks, and removed from any major hype on the horizon (USC is four weeks away)…it just screams "LETDOWN" to me as a long-time Notre Dame observer.

The best home crowd of the season will be Week Four vs. Michigan. Next is likely Stanford or the opener vs. Purdue. Far down the list, after (dangerous) BYU in late-October and even after Senior Day vs. Wake Forest, is this nondescript game vs. a likely middling, but still-talented Pittsburgh team. The best team the Panthers play in 2012, potentially, is Notre Dame.

Conversely, Pitt is somewhere between #7 and #10 on the Irish list of concerns.

If the Panthers are able to establish a two-headed monster at running back, and thus go to a true power attack under Chryst, Notre Dame's defense will be in for an unexpected test following its trip to Top 5 quality Oklahoma.

Next in the Series: Trouble Spot #6 will be published Thursday.


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