Prister’s Preview: ND vs. Pittsburgh

Six straight Notre Dame-Pittsburgh games and nine of the last 10 have been decided by one score. For the 70th time, the Irish and Panthers square off in another physical battle.

Pittsburgh head coach

Pat Narduzzi (1st year at Pittsburgh) – Narduzzi, 49, is the former Michigan State defensive coordinator who helped lead Mark Dantonio’s Spartan squad to 53 victories from 2010-14. Narduzzi’s unit held opponents to less than 20 points per game three of the previous four seasons. Michigan State had the only defense in the country to rank among the nation’s top 10 in total and rushing defense from 2011-14.

Narduzzi – a linebacker at Youngstown State and Rhode Island – was Dantonio’s defensive coordinator at Cincinnati (2004-06) before joining him in East Lansing. He coached 19 first-team All-Big Ten players, including first-round cornerback draft choices Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. Dennard was named the winner of the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

Key personnel

• WR-Tyler Boyd (Jr.) – Tied for eighth nationally in receptions with 63. Also the only receiver among the nation’s top 20 in catches to average less than 10 yards per reception (9.2). Has caught at least 10 passes in four of last seven games. Has big-play ability, however, as evidenced by his 16.2-yard average per his 78 receptions (and eight TDs) a year ago.
• QB-Nate Peterman (Jr.) – Won the job over incumbent starter Chad Voytik heading into conference play. Protects the football well with just three interceptions on 178 passing attempts. Not a deep threat passer per se, although he has thrown 10 touchdown passes (one every 12 completions) while connecting on 67.4 percent of his throws. More of a game-manager than game-breaker.
• RB-Qadree Ollison (Fr.) – Burly running back (6-2, 230) who has filled in well for injured ACC offensive player of the year James Conner, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during pre-season. Has rushed for 716 yards (5.6-yard average) with eight scores. Rushed for 122 yards against Virginia Tech and 103 versus Syracuse. Has scored at least one touchdown in seven of eight games, including each of the last five.
• DE-Ejuan Price (Sr.) – Missed all of last season with an off-season chest injury. A huge addition to the unit with a team-leading 8.5 tackles for loss while No. 2 in sacks with 3.5. Also has a team-high six quarterback pressures and one of Pittsburgh’s four blocked kicks.
• LB-Matt Galambos (Jr.) – Top returning tackler (72) while finishing second on the team in tackles for loss with 4.5. An active, around-the-ball linebacker who is second on the team in tackles for loss (eight) while pacing the squad in sacks (four). Also tied for the team-lead in interceptions with two. 

What Pittsburgh does well

• Possess the football: The Panthers control the football in much the same manner a triple-option team does. They rank 14th nationally in time of possession at 33:08 per game. They had a 10-minute advantage over North Carolina, a 13-minute discrepancy over Syracuse, eight minutes over Virginia Tech and nearly 10 minutes on Georgia Tech.
• Red-zone defense: Only five teams in the country have allowed fewer red-zone penetrations than Pittsburgh (17) while only 22 teams have a better percentage of denying red-zone touchdowns than the Panthers (52.9 percent).
• Special teams play: The Panthers are good in just about everything. They’re among the nation’s top 22 in kick returns, punt coverage and kick coverage. Only two teams in the country (Temple and Illinois) have more than the Panthers’ four blocked kicks/punts. Pittsburgh also successfully converted fake punts against Syracuse and North Carolina, the former leading to the game-winning field goal.

Where Pittsburgh struggles

• Scoring: Pittsburgh put up 45 points on FCS Youngstown State in the season-opener. Since then, the Panthers have reached 30 points just once (31 vs. Georgia Tech). Pittsburgh is averaging just 23.2 points per game in five ACC tilts.
• Big-play capability: The Panthers try to get their yardage under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in bite-size increments. They are 114th in the nation in plays of 10 yards or more with 91 (tied with Boston College). Only 22 teams in the country have fewer than Pittsburgh’s three 50-yard plays.
• Allowing sacks: Pittsburgh quarterbacks have been dumped behind the line of scrimmage 21 times, which is 94th nationally.
• Consistency kicking field goals: Kicker Chris Blewitt connected on a 25-yard field goal with no time on the clock to give the Panthers a 23-20 victory. He also drilled a 56-yarder with 1:11 remaining against Georgia Tech for a 31-28 victory. But he’s missed five of his 16 field-goal attempts, although three of his misses came in the first four games and two of his misses have come from 50 and 53 yards. Blewitt badly missed a critical extra point in the loss to North Carolina. He was 16-of-21 on field goals in 2014.

Kelly’s Call

“We know what’s in store for us in playing Pitt at Pitt. They’re led by Pat Narduzzi, who we all know has done such a great job of building his career as a defensive coordinator. You can see the same kind of signature defense, physical offense and aggressive special teams. He’s gotten his football team off to a very good 6-2 start.

“Our guys know what’s in front of them. It’s another tough game on the road where we’re going to have to play for four quarters. It’s a noon start, which is a little bit different for us. But we certainly believe there won’t be any excuses for the kind of play that we’ll need to beat a very good Pitt team.”

Odds and ends

It’s been four years since Notre Dame last played a game kicking off at noon. Like this week’s clash, that game was with Pittsburgh in 2011 when the Irish claimed a 15-12 victory over the Panthers…Only four programs have defeated Notre Dame more than Pittsburgh: USC (36), Michigan State (28), Purdue (26), and Michigan (24). The Irish hold a 47-21-1 advantage over the Panthers with the first game played in 1909. The last time Notre Dame and Pittsburgh played was 2013 when the Panthers defeated Notre Dame in Pittsburgh, 28-21. Notre Dame is 7-5 vs. Pittsburgh since 1999; 4-4 since 2004…The Irish lost a 36-33 four-overtime game at home against the Panthers in ’08 and defeated Pittsburgh, 29-26, in three overtimes in Notre Dame Stadium in 2012…Notre Dame’s all-time football roster shows 18 quarterbacks from the state of Pennsylvania, including Heisman Trophy winner John Lujack (1943, 1946-47), Terry Hanratty (1966-68), Tom Clements (1972-74), Joe Montana (1975, 1977-78), and Ron Powlus (1994-97)…In 2003, running back Julius Jones carried 24 times for 262 yards and two touchdowns in Notre Dame’s 20-14 victory over the Panthers…The most yards passing by a Notre Dame quarterback vs. Pittsburgh was recorded by George Izo in a 29-26 loss in 1958. Izo completed 18-of-26 for 322 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Bobby Brown caught 12 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown in a 37-27 loss at Pittsburgh in 1999.

Prister’s analysis

It would be inaccurate to portray the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh football series as a heated rivalry of neighbors with bad blood flowing between the two camps.

Maybe it’s more like crosstown combatants who relish the opportunity to square off against one another, but not one that necessarily is circled on the calendar.

It’s on the schedule, you know it, and you anticipate a physical battle when the time comes.

This Saturday’s noon clash at Heinz Field will be the 70th matchup between Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. Notre Dame’s affiliation with the ACC actually will decrease the number of times they play one another in the future as teams rotate through the Irish slate. Since 1943, there have been just 13 seasons in which the Irish and Panthers did not play one another.

Based upon the last decade-and-a-half, this is an even series. The Irish hold the edge, 7-5, with each of the previous six games determined by seven points or less, including the Panthers’ 28-21 victory over Notre Dame in 2013, which derailed a surging 7-2 Irish. Since 2004, the series is knotted at four wins apiece.

Football is riddled with clichés, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to depict Pittsburgh as the blue collar, physical, grind-it-out type program upon which it was built. That’s especially true now that first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi has installed a Michigan State-like program founded on interior line play, the ability to run the football, the ability to stop the run, and all that comes with a trench-focused philosophy.

The Panthers certainly have had difficulty in recent years living up to the “Iron Mike” Ditka image that Pittsburgh has forged. And yet there’s no doubt that Narduzzi has his team dialed back into the style of football that the Panthers have created through the years to become one of the bedrock football programs since the Tony Dorsett/Hugh Green-led Panthers of the mid-‘70s won a national title.

This one has the makings of a close, low-scoring tussle. Pittsburgh hasn’t scored more than 31 points since its season-opener against FCS Youngstown State while Notre Dame – although one of the top scoring teams in the country – continued a strong trend last week at Temple of struggling to put points on the board when playing at a road venue.

A focus this week for the Irish is to improve their red-zone offense, which has fallen on hard times the last two games with just four touchdowns on 10 penetrations. That plays into the hands of the Panthers, who not only don’t allow many opponents into the red zone (just 17 trips in eight games), but also prevent touchdowns more often than not. (Nine red-zone trips have resulted in field goals; eight have gone for touchdowns.)

Part of the reason the Panthers allow so few red-zone penetrations is because their offense – albeit one that has difficulty scoring – finds ways to stay ahead of the chains and keep the football out of the hands of the opposing offense. Pittsburgh averages 33:08 time of possession per game. The one time they lost it was at Iowa. In conference play, the Panthers have hammered the opposition in time of possession, which limits the number of touches a la a triple-option team.

They don’t throw it much unless they have to, so they don’t get “behind the chains” very often. That allows bruising running back Qadree Ollison (5.6 yards per carry) to do his thing and quarterback Nate Peterman – an efficient, resourceful player if not an explosive one – to stay within his comfort zone.

When it doubt, the Panthers get the football to wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who is averaging nine receptions per the seven games he’s played. His 63 catches are 47 more than the nearest Pittsburgh pass-catcher.

The new regime – under run-first offensive coordinator Jim Chaney – doesn’t throw the ball down the field to Boyd like the last crew. Instead, they put the football in his hands underneath and let him create. Boyd earned Brian Kelly’s seal of approval – he called him a game-wrecker – that he’s bestowed upon a few opponents this year.

Pittsburgh’s defense is vulnerable against the multi-pronged Notre Dame attack because they don’t put a ton of pressure on the quarterback (just one sack in the last three games), although they did have success earlier in the year. The problem for the Irish is they rarely score three touchdowns on the road, let alone four or five, which would be commensurate to Notre Dame’s scoring average on the season.

Notre Dame needs to reestablish the ground game that took a step back last week against Temple, although the Panthers likely will take a similar approach and challenge the offensive line/C.J. Prosise with a heavily stacked box and rely on a back seven with takeaway capabilities.

The Irish – averaging 494.9 yards total offense per game – has a chance to rack up some real estate, although it will have to come against a defense that has held five of eight opponents under 400 yards total offense. Notre Dame’s issue is not moving the football as much as it is scoring a fair number of points in line with the yardage they put up.

Is it as simple as saying if the Irish win the red zone, they’ll score in the 30s? Quite likely, although scoring in the 30s on the road against a solid defense isn’t exactly an established Notre Dame pattern.

Other than Pittsburgh’s penchant for blocking kicks, and thus, padding the scoreboard through special teams, this looks like another close, low-scoring game between the Irish and the Panthers.

Notre Dame wins because they’re the better team with a bit more winning muscle memory and focus on what’s at stake. To expect a double-digit victory – although certainly possible – flies in the face of the numbers/odds.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 8 1/2; over-under 53 1/2
Prediction: Notre Dame 26, Pittsburgh 20
2015 Season Record: 6-2 straight up; 1-7 vs. points; 4-4 over-under Top Stories