1 – Tyler Boyd vs. the Irish Back Seven: Pittsburgh best player has dinged the Irish secondary in the past, collecting eight receptions for 85 yards as a true freshman in the Panthers 28-21 victory over Notre Dame in 2013. Saturday it’s incumbent upon cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke to contain him on the outside, but also that outside ‘backers James Onwualu and Jaylon Smith, plus the squad’s maligned safety unit keeps Boyd in check inside the numbers where he invariably finds a way to move the chains.
“We have everything in the plan for a guy like him,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Boyd. “He is dynamic. He can run the ball as well on offense. They're using him at the running back position, wide receiver. He's a game wrecker. We're aware of him in special teams as well as an offensive player.”
2 – DeShone Kizer vs. Himself: “Every play,” said the Irish redshirt-freshman quarterback, “is an opportunity for us to go deep, for us to make a big game-changing play.”
It wasn’t a boast as much as a nod to the reality that former Michigan State defensive coordinator and first-year Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi employs a style that challenges opposing quarterbacks and receivers to beat them with downfield throws. The theory? It’s a lower percentage play: you’ll make a mistake.
“I have to understand I have to execute what the coaches want,” said Kizer. “They'll strategically put those big game-changing plays into our play calls throughout the game. Whenever it's time to make that throw or try to go deep, I got to do it once the coach allows me to.
“Quite frankly it looks like you can throw it every play. There's going to come a time and place where we have to make that throw and that catch, but I'm going to allow the coaches on the sideline to make that decision rather than myself.”
3 – Justin Yoon vs. Everyone Else: Time for your weekly red zone hand-wringing moment.
“Understanding as a quarterback, it gets tighter out there, there's not much room down there,” said Kizer of recent red zone miscues. “To be able to fully go through a progression to a fourth, fifth read to try to get the ball out of my hands is something I need to work on, having a better cognitive understanding of where the ball should go at what point in time.
“It's unfortunate that we aren't as successful because we have really good game plans for what we have going.”
The worst-case scenario is, of course, a turnover. It’s an end result in which Notre Dame has fallen victim an NCAA-high 12 times over the last 17 games.
The Panthers haven’t forced a red zone turnover yet this season. In fact, Pittsburgh’s defense ranks last nationally in red zone scoring percentage, but the statistic, in this instance, is misleading. Narduzzi’s crew has been scored on in each of their opponents’ 17 trips inside the 20-yard line – but half of those are field goals.
Pittsburgh ranks among the Top 10 nationally in both touchdown percentage defense in the red zone (the chief goal of any defense once penetrated) and fewest red zone trips by opposing offenses – the chief goal of any defense, period.
In other words, they’ll welcome Irish freshman kicker Justin Yoon to the field in such situations. Notre Dame must cash in with seven rather than three if it’s to pull away from the Panthers in the Steel City.
4 – Notre Dame vs. Fourth Down: Pittsburgh’s offense has converted nine consecutive fourth down opportunities into first downs. Notre Dame’s defense has allowed its foes to move the sticks 12 times in 16 fourth down chances.
Combined, are these sample sizes too small to offer a telltale, or do they present a portent for Irish fans Saturday afternoon?
5 – Exceeding vs. Meeting: Winning at Virginia with seconds remaining. Winning at Temple with just over two minutes to play. Losing late at Clemson after getting punched in the mouth early and often.
Trailing 21-0 at USC and 34-3 at Arizona State, and to Florida State late, ultimately coming up short in each. Falling to Stanford late, and to Pittsburgh, somehow, in the end. Coming back in the fourth quarter to beat a one-win Purdue squad. Falling behind and scratching and clawing at Michigan in eventual defeat.
The above illustrates 10 of Notre Dame’s last 11 true road stories. Rarely are they the aggressor, nor do they generally author a clean contest, winning wire-to-wire – operating with impunity on an opponent’s home field.
This Saturday, can newly minted No. 5 Notre Dame be the team with a chip on its shoulder? Can it exceed its foe’s intensity and desire rather than eventually catch up? Can Brian Kelly’s Irish win on the road without the aid of a last-minute comeback or miracle finish?
Will we see their collective best?
“We all see little spurts in practice, in game film. We just know there's something that's very special that can be unleashed. We just got to put it together and make it consistently come out from drive to drive and from play to play,” said Kizer.
“We haven't even gotten close to a complete game yet. We have to continue to strive for it. Hopefully it will come in the perfect time of the year, which is November.”