Does a road game in November against a long-time and modern rival present a bigger challenge than, for instance, a “sandwich game” at home, in October?
Does a mid-September test against an offense that’s often proved vexing to defend portent more problems than a lock down defense later in the season?
These are the questions asked and answered by our annual Trouble Spots series, our summer projection of the most difficult games and game situations for Notre Dame’s upcoming season.
Next up, a road game against a program Notre Dame has played to a near draw on the aggregate scoreboard over the teams’ last six meetings.
36-33 in 4 OT; 27-22; 23-17; 15-12; 29-26 in 3 OT; 28-21.
The above scores represent six successive seasons of matchups between Notre Dame and Pittsburgh from 2008-2013. The result was three victories apiece and a cumulative score of 146 to 143 in favor of the Panthers, with a combined seven overtimes played.
The series took a break last fall but resumes this season in its usual schedule slot, early November.
When and Where? Game 9, Week 10, Nov. 7 at Heinz Field
In Review: Involved among the sextet of scores listed above were a combined five coaches, including three at Pittsburgh: Dave Wannstedt (2008-10) Todd Graham (2011) and Paul Chryst (2012-13).
Now enter a fourth in first-year head man Pat Narduzzi, formerly the defensive coordinator at Michigan State and no stranger to a rivalry – both on and off the field -- with Brian Kelly, their familiarity dating back to the latter replacing head coach Mark Dantonio and Narduzzi, et al, at Cincinnati following the 2006 season.
Dantonio’s staff resurrected and rebuilt the Bearcats during a three-year stint; Kelly & Co. took them to new heights thereafter – and to the chagrin of their predecessors, received and basked in the vast majority of credit as a result.
If walls could talk…
Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: As high as No. 5 and as low as No. 9.
Game Situation (Keystone State, Part II): Aside from the reality of a second consecutive road game in November, Notre Dame’s situation with Pittsburgh sets up nicely for the Irish:
-- No rust factor, plus rest, as the Irish have a matchup with Temple at Lincoln Financial Field one week prior, and that outing against the Owls immediately follows Notre Dame’s bye week…
-- No look--ahead, as it’s Wake Forest that comes calling on Senior Day, not a notable foe…
-- No “sandwich” situation, unless you’re talking Pat’s King of Steaks on Oct. 31 and Primanti Bros. on Nov. 7, because that does present a tasty sandwich situation, but I digress…
-- Aside from two extra days of rest for the Panthers (Pittsburgh hosts North Carolina on Thursday, Oct. 29), there aren’t many ancillary factors to give cause for pause for the Irish entering this always-close encounter with the gang from the Steel City.
Why No. 6 could be too high: As noted above, there’s nothing tricky about the game, whereas our No. 7 Trouble Spot, Boston College, comes rife with tangential issues.
Pittsburgh though has an offense that promises to produce points aplenty this fall thanks to a host of returning skill position players led by bruising runner James Conner and All-America wideout Tyler Boyd.
The Panthers returning offensive firepower, plus the addition of Narduzzi on the defensive side of scrimmage serves among the undervalued off-season stories of 2015. In short, Pittsburgh could be much better than .500 this fall.
Previous No. 6s in the Trouble Spots series include: Pittsburgh 2009, Pittsburgh 2010, Pittsburgh 2011, BYU 2012, Pittsburgh 2013, Michigan 2014.
I sense a theme.
The Panthers have been ranked exactly in the middle of the pack in four of the last five Trouble Spots opportunities (they were #7 in 2012), a pre-season opinion that backs up a reality known well by Irish fans: Notre Dame’s schedule is neither top-heavy, nor populated by also-rans – it’s rather a collection of solid foes that make up a challenging middle.
The Irish lost to the sixth-ranked Trouble Spots foe in our countdown in 2009 and 2013; prevailed in a trio of duels to the end in 2010-11-12; and put a country beat down on Michigan last September.
Prediction: A fourth quarter finish for the seventh consecutive matchup. It’s hard to imagine Notre Dame going into Heinz Field and blowing the doors off the Panthers, and Pittsburgh isn’t going to take it to Notre Dame for 60 minutes, either.
-- Overall opponent’s strength: Between No. 6 and No. 9, pending your preference among the Panthers, Texas, Boston College, and resurgent Temple. (I’ll go with No. 7 behind Texas at first blush.)
-- Game situation: Relatively trouble-free for the Irish, though the Panthers have two extra days to prepare.
-- Determining factor: First-year head coach Pat Narduzzi will have the Panthers defense on the upswing this fall. Can they maintain that pace when depth becomes a concern in November?