Notre Dame vs. Pitt Preview

A look at the opening game of the 2005 Notre Dame football season

Notre Dame vs. #23 Pittsburgh
Fighting Irish   Panthers
Saturday, September 3rd
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA.
7:00 EST

Last 5: ND leads 3-2   Last 5 at Pitt
2004 Pitt 38-41 South Bend     2003 Notre Dame 20-14
2003 ND 20-14 Pittsburgh     1999 Pitt 27-37
2002 ND 14-6 South Bend     1997 Notre Dame 45-21
2001 ND 24-7 South Bend     1992 Notre Dame 52-21
1999 Pitt 27-37 Pittsburgh     1990 Notre Dame 31-22

Quick Hitters:
University of Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh, PA.
Heinz Field Capacity: 65,000
Heinz Filed Turf: Grass
Conference: Big East
Founded: 1787: Full-time Enrollment: 15,080
Head Coach: Dave Wannstedt, First Season
NFL Record: 84-89 (.486): Play-off: 2-3 (.400)
Pittsburgh 2004 record: 8-4
Returning Offensive Starters: 9
Returning Defensive Starters: 9
Last year's common opponents: (W) Boston College 20 -17 OT
Notre Dame leads the series: 43-18-1
Last 10 games: Notre Dame leads 8-2
First game played between Pittsburgh and Notre Dame: 1909
Pittsburgh ranks as Notre Dame's fifth-most common opponent with 62 contests played

"You throw the ball to score points and run the ball to win,"
– Dave Wannstedt

Saturday, September 3, the Dave Wannstedt era officially begins and the will behind the quote above will be challenged. Wannstedt takes the controls of a program that went 8-3 during the 2004 regular season that included a late victory against Notre Dame in South Bend. The Panthers reached a BCS bowl for the first time in the program's history, where they were throttled by a good Utah team 35-7. Most football fans know Wannstedt from his coaching stints in the NFL with the Chicago Bears and most recently with the Miami Dolphins. While he hasn't had a great deal of success as a head coach (84-89), Wannstedt is considered by many to be an outstanding coach and a great choice to follow former Panther head coach Walt Harris.

While Harris was fairly successful at Pitt (52-44), his personality and his football philosophy never seemed to jive with the Panther faithful. It's Pitt football after all. The folks in Western Pennsylvania don't want to see the Panthers throw the football 35-40 times per game. They don't want to see four wide receivers more than they see the fullback. Notre Dame fans can certainly identify and understand these basic needs. To assist in transforming the Pitt offense into a more palatable power running offense, Wannstedt went out and hired former Panther quarterback and NFL offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh worked as Wannstedt's offensive coordinator in Chicago ('97-'98), where the Bears went a combined 8-24 in two seasons. If you don't recall the Bear offenses during those years, you can use the Baltimore Ravens offense as a reference point, as Cavanaugh served as their offensive coordinator for the past six seasons.

Pitt On Offense:

Category '04 Rank Per Game
Rushing Offense #105 97.75 yards
Passing Offense #24 260.08 yards
Total Offense #72 357.83 yards
Scoring Offense #48 27.08 points
Pass Eff. Offense #32 135.07 yards

The Panther offense returns nine starters from a group that was ranked No. 72 in total offense nationally and averaged 357.83 yards per game last season. Returning for Pitt under center is Tyler Palko. In his first season as the starting quarterback, Palko helped the Pitt passing offense finish No. 24 in the nation by averaging 260 yards per contest, and he ended the season ranked No. 33 in passing efficiency with a rating of 135.02.

Pitt fans are excited about Palko, but I'd guess they are delighted by the run-first mindset of the new staff. Pittsburgh relied on the passing game far too much as their running game was ranked No. 105 in the nation. While the final stat sheet for the 2004 season shows that Pittsburgh ran the ball 448 times last season, a deeper look into those numbers tell you that Palko had 129 of the of those rushing attempts. I assume the vast majority of those carries came on scrambles and sacks (40). The expectations are that Cavanaugh will have success establishing an effective rushing offense as he did in Baltimore. This will force defenses to respect the run, which will open things up for Palko. All this should create a balanced and dangerous offensive machine.

Cavanaugh might be the perfect offensive coordinator for a Dave Wannstedt team because he is a guy that has proven he has the patience to establish a power running game. Until Wannstedt and this staff gets the players to fit the offensive identity, Cavanaugh will obviously work to the strength of the existing personnel, which is at quarterback and wide receiver. In a recent press conference Dave Wannstedt talked about play calling tendencies and how people are predictable because tendencies are part of their personality. That is something I do agree with, and in the end I think Pitt will struggle on offense in Wannstedt's inaugural season, because I don't think either coach can change who they are. Their philosophy and style, the way they call a game is part of their personality and I don't think that Pitt has the personnel to be effective relying on running the football – especially against quality competition.

Anticipated Depth Chart. Returning starter = +.

  + Tyler Palko - Jr.* 230-409-3,067 24/7 56.2 ('04)
  Bill Stull - Fr. N/A -/- - -

Tyler Palko's (6-2, 220) numbers look good on the surface, but I wasn't all that impressed with him as I watch several games throughout the year. Did he torch Notre Dame for five touchdowns? Sure, but when you look deeper into his stats, you don't come away as impressed, or at least I don't.

In four games against Division II Furman, Notre Dame, Syracuse and South Florida (4-7), Palko padded his stats with 1,536 of his 3,080 passing yards (50%) and 16 of his 24 touchdowns (67%). In the remaining eight games, Palko averaged 192 yards passing with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. In five of Pitt's games in 2004 Palko's completion percentage was under 50 percent. The national media seems to be enamored with Palko, but I'll have to see another solid season from him before I heap a ton of the praise on the kid. I'd also like to see him do something against a quality opponent.

If Palko goes down the Panthers will put in Pittsburgh native and true freshman Bill Stull (6-3, 200). Irish fans will remember Stull as a kid the Irish recruited. While the old staff liked Stull, they never offered him a scholarship.

  RB Hgt/Wgt Rushes-Yards
  Rashad Jennings; Fr. 6-1/235 - -
  Brandon Mason; So. 6-1/215 17-40,0 TDs(career)
  LaRod Stephens; Fr. 5-7/165 - -
  +Ray Kirkly; 5th 5-10/225 354-1,357, 10TDs(career)
  FB Hgt/Wgt  
  +Tim Murphy; 5th 5-10/235 Experienced 26 Games - 5 Starts
  +K. Campbell; 5th 6-0/235 7 Starts - Former Walk-on

Pittsburgh fans are excited about the talent at running back with the emergence of true freshman (early enroll) Rashad Jennings. Ray Kirkly had started 23 games for Pitt, but started to lose his grip on the starting spot to Jennings in the spring. When the Pitt depth chart was published Kirkly's name was not present. I'm not certain what that means, except that Wannstedt is casting his lot with inexperienced running backs to run behind a marginal offensive line. It's nice that Pitt has a young player like Jennings, but 23 starts would help ease some of the pressure the freshman will feel. Jennings is a bigger back and is supposed to have good speed. Behind Jennings are Mason and Stephens, also young backs with little experience. Mason received some playing time last season but very limited. Stephens spent part of fall camp on defense, and at a padded 5-6, 165 pounds, I would be surprised to see him get many looks.

Pitt does return two experienced fifth-year fullbacks, Tim Murphy and Kellen Campbell. Murphy, who has struggled to stay healthy his entire career, is similar to Notre Dame's Rashon Powers-Neal in that he can also be used as a big back in the one back set. He is solid but not spectacular.

  WR Hgt/Wgt Stats
  +Greg Lee; Jr. 6-2/200  68 rcpt/1,297 yds/10 TDs (04')
  +Joe DelSardo; Jr. 5-8/195  49 rcpts/573 yds/4 TDs(04')
  Derek Kinder; So. 6-1/200  1 rcpts/3 yds/1 TD(04')
  Marcel Pestano; Fr* 6-1/190 - -

The receiving corps isn't deep and they aren't spectacular, although they certainly were good enough to get the job done last season. The top guy is 6-2, 200-pound junior Greg Lee -- he is spectacular. Lee has received several preseason All-American nominations as he finished the 2004 season sixth in the nation in receiving yards with 108 yards per game. Even at 6-2, he plays bigger than he is. Lee has been slowed by a shoulder injury most of fall camp, but he is back at practice and should be close to 100 percent by Saturday. Last year against the Irish he caught five passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Joe DelSardo gets all the benefits of playing opposite a great receiver. He had a big year last season, and his 49 receptions were second on the team. He's smallish and doesn't catch your eye, but gets the job done and that is all that counts. Pitt has been looking for a couple other wide receivers to step up but thus far no one really has. Former running back Marcus Furman was moved to wide receiver to see if he could help. If no one emerges, it shouldn't be an issue. Nine of Palko's top targets return to the team and the top two, Lee and DelSardo, were very effective last season.

  TE Hgt/Wgt Stats
  +Erik Gill; 5th 6-5/275 25 rcpts/433 yds/4 TDs(04')
  Steve Buches; Jr.* 6-4/250 7 rcpts/94 yds/4 TDs(04')
  Darrell Strong; So. 6-5/260 4 rcpts/58 yds(04')

Notre Dame will likely see all three tight ends throughout the game, but returning starter and the teams fourth-leadng receiver, Erik Gill, will likley recceive most of the playing time. In last year's game it was Gill's reception in the flat that he turned into a 36-yard gain that set up the game-winning field goal against the Irish. On the season, Gill caught 25 passes for 433 yards and four touchdowns. Buches will be trusted as much, and Strong moves over from wide receiver.

  Offensive Line Hgt/Wgt Experience
  +LT Charles Spencer;5th 6-5/330 12 starts at LG
  LG Dominic Williams;Fr* 6-4/300 No Experience
  C Joe Villani;Jr* 6-3/300 No Experience, 1st year at center
  +RG John Simonitis;Jr.* 6-4/325 22 games, 19 starts
  +RT Mike McGlynn; So* 6-5/325 12 games, 8 starts

97.8 rushing yards per game and 40 sacks says it all. If Wannstedt and Cavanaugh are going to implement their plan of establishing a power running offense, it's going to have to start up front. I believe the offensive line will take the most time for the new staff to develop. They won't get much help with inexperienced backs running behind. Much like the Irish, the last several years the Pitt offensive line just hasn't been dominating. In fact they have been very poor running the ball. They have lacked the mentality to effectively run the ball even though defenses expect them to pass. Their yards per carry average has was 3.4 (2002), 3.2 (2003) and 2.6 last season.

Pitt lost their best offensive lineman Rob Petitti, but returns three starters. Charles Spencer is the best of the bunch, but two years ago he was a defensive tackle, last season he was a left guard and he has now been switched to left tackle. While he does have God-given ability, the transition has to be difficult. His first start at tackle will come against Notre Dame's Chris Frome.

John Simonitis is the Panther's most experienced player and he should help stabilize the line somewhat. Unfortunately he has struggle in the past with the aspect of the game that Wannstedt and Cavanaugh want to make the team's strength – run blocking. He doesn't move people off the ball and I can't see him having more success against an athletic Irish front.

Mike McGlynn, a red-shirt sophomore returns at right tackle where he started eight games last season. He was thrust into duty last season and he struggled at times. Like Simonitis, his strength isn't as a run blocker. He was named the teams most improved player two consecutive springs. He's been dinged up a little this fall but he should be ready to go for the first game His assignment on September 3, will be Victor Abiamiri.

The two new guys are red-shirt freshman Dominic Williams at left guard and Joe Villani. Williams has been dinged up as well this fall, but like McGlynn, he'll be set for the Notre Dame game. Villani has moved up and down the offensive line since joining the team as a walk-on in 2003. This is his first season at center. Dale Williams, a fifth-year senior, is the only backup with experience and he lost his right tackle spot to McGlynn last season.

I know Wannstedt and Cavanaugh will try to establish the run, but I'm not sure the current Pitt roster has the people to achieve that now, especially against quality competition. They lost their best offensive lineman and there really are far more questions than answers. They are young, fairly inexperienced and they do not have a successful track record of doing what their offensive coordinator is going to ask them to do -- run the football and control the clock. If a Pitt fan answered you honestly, I think they'd say this group is a huge concern.

Pitt On Defense:

Category '04 Rank Per Game
Rushing Defense #48 140.17 yards
Pass Eff. Defense #58 121.86 yards
Total Defense #73 395.42 yards
Scoring Defense #44 24.00 points
Pass Defense #100 255.25 yards

I would stop short of calling Wannstedt a defensive genius, but he is an outstanding defensive coach. Wherever he has coached the defenses have generally been good to outstanding regardless of the talent on hand. His trademark is solid aggressive defenses. He is a hands-on type of head coach that spends a great deal of his time on the defensive side of the ball, and that is where he'll make his impact with the Panthers in 2005.

Wannstedt will bring the aggressive, attacking 4-3 defense he learned from Jimmy Johnson to Pittsburgh. There isn't anything particularly complicated about Wannstedt's defense, he readily admits that it's fairly simple defense. What makes his defenses so good is that his guys just seem to play much faster than the offense. Wannstedt isn't concerned with size; it's speed that he covets. Wannstedt wants players that play downhill and he will sacrifice size to get speed on the field -- speed disrupts.

Assisting Wannstedt will be defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads who has held the position at Pitt since 2000. Rhoads has had some up and downs years, but he is generally considered to be a very solid coach and he is well liked by players. The Panther defenses have been outstanding at times under Rhoads, as they were ranked No. 29, 7, and 12 nationally in fewest yards allowed from 2000-02. In 2001 the Pittsburgh defense held the Irish offense to a paltry 185 total yards.

Over the last two years the Panther defense has been rather ordinary as they ranked 79th in 2003 and 73rd last year in yardage allowed. In the 2003 and 2004 games, the Notre Dame offense averaged 265 rushing yards per game, 5.9 yards per carry and 411.5 yards of total offense.

While many Notre Dame fans are licking their chops in anticipation of the Weis offense dominating a Wannstedt-coached team, a word of caution: Dave Wannstedt's defenses have been very successful against Charlie Weis. In head to head battles Weis holds a 7-4 edge since their initial meeting in 1999 when Weis was the offensive coordinator with the New York Jets and Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins.

Pitt fans like to point to the success that Palko and their offense had over the last five games in 2004, but they neglect to mention that the Pitt defense surrendered 35 points or more in three of its final five contests.

The defensive backfield is hyped as the strength of the defense, but it gave up 255 yards per game last season and was ranked No. 100 in yards yielded.

Anticipated Depth Chart. Returning starter = +

  Defensive Line Hgt/Wgt Experience
  SDE Joe Clermond; SO* 6-2/250 12/1 start Experinced
  +DT Thomas Smith,5th 6-4/300 Started 24 games at DE
  DT Corey Davis;FR* 6-1/300 No Experience
  +WDE Charles Sallet;JR* 6-0/235 12 games/9 starts

The last four games against Pitt Notre Dame has averaged 205 rushing yards per contest (4.6/attempt). The defense will replace both starting tackles from last year's squad. One spot will go to fifth-year senior Thomas Smith, who was a starter at defensive end in 2004. Smith was moved due to need more than anything. He was 275 last year and is now listed at 300 pounds. That's a lot of weight to add. To complicate matters, Smith tweaked his knee during fall camp and had his knee scoped. I've heard conflicting news about whether he'll be ready for Saturday. Even if he plays, I highly doubt that he'll be 100 percent. This is a huge problem for the Panthers because there isn't much experience or depth beyond Smith. Red-shirt freshman Corey Davis is being pushed into action as the other starter at defensive tackle--behind that you have walk-ons and more freshmen. Senior Phil Tillman is probably the third man in the rotation. He played some minutes last year but they were rather unproductive. The fact that a red-shirt freshman jumped him probably tells you what you need to know.

At defensive end Pitt does have more talent but they lack experience. Senior Charles Sallet, who has also been slowed by a groin injury this fall, retains his starting spot as the speed-rushing defensive end. Sallet will match up with Notre Dame's left tackle, Ryan Harris, a three-year starter. Joe Clermond, a converted linebacker, earned the starting strong-side defensive end position with a strong performance during spring practice that carried into fall camp. There are a couple of players that were converted from other positions, or some younger players that made some noise in the spring that could see action.

Like the offensive line, the defensive line, especially the interior, is a huge problem for the Panthers. Last I heard, Pitt was hoping to have Thomas Smith back in some capacity for Saturday. I am concerned that the Notre Dame offensive line has not learned how to consistently move the ball on the ground. They won't dominate every team this season, but this is a defensive line they should push around.

  Linebackers Hgt/Wgt Experience
  SLB Derron Thomas; SO* 6-1/235 Experienced 11 games/1 start(ND)
  +MLB H.B. Blades;JR 6-0/240 The star of the LBs
  +WLB Brian Bennett; JR* 6-0/235 12 games - Experienced

The linebacker corps is where the talent is on defense, but they have also been dinged up this fall. Unlike the defensive line, this should not present a problem as they go nearly six deep without much drop-off in playmaking ability. I fully expect Wannstedt to turn this group into one of the best units in the country, as they are well suited for his style of play. Pitt graduated three-year starter Malcolm Postell, but they return the defenses top two tacklers, junior H.B. Blades and senior Clint Sessions. Both players can move and hit. Sessions is one of the players that has been injured, and although Wannstedt has said he expects him to play, I doubt he's ready to go. As I mentioned above, there shouldn't be much drop in production as red-shirt sophomore Derron Thomas will fill at strong-sdie linebacker. Ironically Thomas received the lone start of his career against the Irish last year. Thomas has played extensively despite his youth.

Blades is a fantasic player. It's difficult to miss him when the Pitt defense is on the field. He has great instincts and flows to the ball. He's a football player. Brain Bennett will likely get the nod at the third linebacker spot (had 118 tackles in 2003). He was the starter in 2003. If he doesn't go, it will be another experienced playmaker J.J. Horne.

If the Pitt defensive line can keep the Irish offensive line occupied, this group of linebackers can shut an offense's running game down. They blitz exceptionally well.

  Defensive Backs Hgt/Wgt Experience
  +CB Darrelle Revis;So 6-0/190 11 starts
  +CB Josh Lay; Sr. 6-2/195 35 Gms/ 10 starts
  +SS Mike Phillips;So.* 5-11/195 12 Gms/7 starts - Experienced
  +FS Tez Morris;5th 5-10/190 4-year starter

People have been singing the praises of this group but they struggled last season, finishing No. 100 nationally by giving up 255 yards per game and 22 touchdowns on the season. Brady Quinn had one of his strongest performances of the year against Pitt and beat them deep a number of times. That being said, I do think they will be better. The best of the bunch is fifth-year senior Josh Lay, who picked off two of Brady Quinn's passes last season. At the other corner is returning starter sophomore Darrelle Revis. Revis had a solid year starting as a true freshman in 2004. Both corners play very good man defense, but will give up a big play from time to time.

At free safety is three-year starter Tez Morris. Morris was third on the team in tackles so he finds himself around the ball, but he only has three career interceptions. He'll need to be a force for the defensive backfield to improve on last year's performance.

Mike Phillips will start at the strong safety position vacated by three-year starter Tyrone Gilliard. Phillips started six games at corner last season so he is solid in coverage, but he's a bit undersize. This will not help Pitt if they are struggling to stop Notre Dame's running game. Phillips could slide down to the nickel back when Pitt goes to five defensive backs. I expect Weis to attack this spot.

These two figures are the key: 205 yards rushing per game (4.6/ carry) and 61 yards per game (1.9/carry). The first figure is what Notre Dame has averaged against Pitt the last four meetings. The second figure is the rushing yards Pitt has averaged against Notre Dame over that same period.

Now let's go back to Dave Wannstedt's quote from the beginning of this article.

"You throw the ball to score points and run the ball to win," – Dave Wannstedt

I happen to agree with coach Wannstedt, I believe the team that runs the ball best in this game will win.

Additional information

  2005 Pitt Schedule
  9/3 H Notre Dame -
  9/10 A Ohio -
  9/17 A Nebraska -
  9/24 H Ygstown St -
  9/30 A Rutgers -
  10/8 H Cincinnati -
  10/15 H South Fla. -
  10/22 H Syracuse -
  11/3 A Louisville -
  11/12 H Connecticut -
  11/24 A W Virginia -
  2004 Pitt Schedule
  W - H Ohio 24-3
  L - H Nebraska 17-24
  W - H Furman 41-38 OT
  L - A Connecticut 17-29
  W - A Temple 27-22
  W - H Boston College 20-17 OT
  W - H Rutgers 41-17
  L - A Syracuse 31-38 OT
  W - A Notre Dame 41-38
  W - H West Virginia 16-13
  W - A South Fla. 43-14
  L - Fiesta Utah 7-35 Top Stories