5 Questions: Pittsburgh

Panther Digest publisher Tony Greco stops by to answer five questions regarding Pittsburgh's 2013 season to date.

1. Irish fans have become accustomed to dealing with a great Pittsburgh running back over the last five matchups. First LeSean McCoy, then Dion Lewis, then Ray Graham, who last year almost derailed Notre Dame's championship hopes single-handedly. What's going on with the Panthers running game this season, especially considering head coach Paul Chryst was supposed to bring his Wisconsin offensive attack, east?

Greco: It's a combination of inexperience and inconsistent play by the offensive line, both of which figured to be question marks/concerns this season. Isaac Bennett has developed as a veteran, not to the level of those three names you mentioned earlier. James Conner has some abilities, but between his inexperience and a nagging shoulder injury, he hasn't developed since the Duke game. It's a matter of getting both the offensive line and running backs on the same page. Bennett seems to have a better understanding of where and when to hit the hole. He doesn't have that yards after the play ability of a McCoy, Graham or Lewis yet. Conner is good when he hits the hole. He hasn't done it since Week Three against Duke.

2. Is it true Aaron Donald actually played fullback for Notre Dame in last year's matchup? It's the only way to explain how often he was in the middle of the offensive backfield so quickly after the snap. Can Notre Dame contain Donald and if so, who on the Panthers front seven will benefit?

Greco: The only team to cut down Donald so far this year has been Florida State. Even in that game, he got to quarterback Jameis Winston twice, but couldn't bring him down. Most opponents have stopped with the double-team, knowing Donald is still going to make plays. Take Georgia Tech for example, where Donald led Pitt with 11 solo stops, including six tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. Donald was still a force, yet Pitt lost 21-10. He's one of the most disruptive defenders in the country, yet his team is 4-4. He may still make his plays, but no one else has on the defense has that gamebreaking ability. In this last game, however, sophomore defensive tackle Darryl Render started at defensive tackle, and finished with seven tackles. If there's one player who might take advantage of Donald being double-teamed, it would be him.

3. With the exception of Alabama's A.J. McCarron, it's been more than two years since Notre Dame lost to a pro-style quarterback. Can Tom Savage get hot and beat Notre Dame from the pocket?

Greco: Savage is due for a return to his Week Three numbers, where he threw for 424 yards and six touchdowns at Duke. In the five games since then, Savage has thrown a total of five touchdowns. Savage is at his best when Pitt's running game is in order. If the Panthers are able to run the ball efficiently, it will help open Savage's ability to get to the ball downfield--where he thrives.

4. After the last five close matchups, few Irish fans are overlooking Pittsburgh (they did in 2008, 2011, and 2012). What makes this Panthers team capable of beating the Irish? The point spread is only 5 in favor of Notre Dame so worried Irish fans aren't the only entity that find it plausible. 

Greco: Last year's game was the perfect example. Notre Dame entered the contest unbeaten at 8-0, while the Panthers entered with the same 4-4 record. The last five meetings have all been decided by six points are less, so it's natural--despite the difference in records--to be apprehensive if you're an Irish fan. However, last year's Pitt team (close loss at Notre Dame, loss at home to Youngstown State) was less predictable than this year's team. Pitt is 1-3 after starting the season 3-1, while the Irish appear to be gaining more confidence each week.

5. 2013 hasn't included many highlights for Chryst's Panthers, especially compared to last year when he won as a rookie head coach over ranked teams in Virginia Tech and Rutgers, a near miss vs. Top 10 Louisville, and the suprising "Game of the Year" candidate in a triple OT loss to Notre Dame. He can't be on the hot seat considering Pittsburgh's coaching carousel, but did fans expect more in 2013? Should they have?

Greco: Most fans would have been okay with a 6-6 record this season, given the team's youth. With this stretch of games over the last month, this young team doesn't appear any older, or in a state of development. That's where the concerns lie. This team still could get to 6-6, but this last stretch of games looks tougher than it did earlier in the season. Chryst's job is safe. However, the team has to do better than 6-6 a year from now, year three of the Paul Chryst era. That's when the seat could get hotter, just based off of previous coaching tenures.

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