Baer makes no bones about his respect for the Pittsburgh offense. "I've got great respect for Pittsburgh and what they've done offensively," said Baer. "They're well-balanced--this is the most balanced team we've played. Every game they play with more confidence. Maybe one of the best things that happened to them was probably losing to Toledo. They've been really good offensively since that game. Toledo did a nice job against them."
Rod Rutherford has set the field on fire with his arm but Baer says you have to watch out of his legs too. "Rutherford is as big a threat running the ball as he is throwing it. He had about 70 yards rushing against A&M; I think he was the leading rusher. That's something we're very aware of and working on. It's our biggest challenge I think."
The dual-threat of Rutherford will challenge the Irish defense more than any other team they've faced according to Bear. "He's the kind of kid you want in that kind of offense. He can beat you two ways, running the football and throwing the football. It's not like playing against a guy who's just going to stand in the pocket because he's not. It changes some of the things you can do up front."
Rutherford didn't have his best game against the Irish last year in Notre Dame stadium. He finished the game 19-43 for 313 yards and one interception. The Irish defense also sacked him eight times. Make no mistake; this is a different Rod Rutherford according to Baer.
"He's playing with more confidence," said Baer. "It's another year in the system, another year that it's his football team. I think he's playing with a lot more confidence. He's throwing the ball where it needs to be thrown; it looks like to me he's seeing the field better."
The other cog to the Pittsburgh offensive system in Larry Fitzgerald. Baer says Fitzgerald is a complete player and exactly why he's so hard to defend. "He adjusts to the football as well as any guy I've seen. It seems to me he's playing with a great deal of confidence. He feels like any time that ball is in the air; he's going to go catch it. He makes the great catch and he makes the simple catch which I think kind of separates him from the other big-time receivers."
Fitzgerald has caught 32 passes so far this year for 583 yards and nine touchdowns so far this year. Baer feels that some teams have made the common mistake of playing the man instead of the ball. "I think where people have made the mistake is they play him instead of the football at times. You've got to play the football when the ball is in the air. He'll (Rutherford) throw it up, some of his best catches are just throwing the ball deep and letting him run under it. We're very aware of that and we've studied him a lot."
The Irish were able to register eight sacks against Rutherford last year and Baer says it will take a total team effort to come out of Pittsburgh with a win. "I think everybody has got to have a great game. They max-protect but I still feel like that we can pass rush and we did a year ago. It think that's a real key so it's not just the secondary or the linebackers, it's everybody. When they're in two backs, they do max-protect but they don't always max-protect. We need to take advantage of any situation we get."
Field corner Vontez Duff will likely be following Fitzgerald around the field every play. Baer says he has confidence in his senior cornerback and team leader. "He's had a good year," said Baer of Duff. "He played another receiver pretty similar to this kid, the kid from Michigan, we locked him up on him quite a bit and he made some nice plays on the kid, especially when we were playing man. I think he's met every challenge we've asked him and I think he's had a good year. I'm excited to watch those two play against each other Saturday."
The Irish defense hasn't been able to come up with the defensive scores they had last year. The Irish defense scored nine times on defense and special teams last year but Baer says his defense hasn't had the interceptions they had last year. He says they stress making big plays in every meeting and every game.
"We expect that in every game," said Baer. "We're disappointed when we don't get it. We don't have as many interceptions as we had a year ago. People have fumbled the ball nine times this year and we've recovered all nine. I don't like at it just because we didn't score we're not doing our part. We made a real point two weeks ago to improve in some areas and I think we did it.'
Baer is correct, this defense has improved. Their 2-for-15 effort on third down conversions against Purdue was very impressive and a step in the right direction. His defense will need a similar effort to get the win against Pittsburgh.