Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt have been going at it since their days in the NFL. Weis has noticed three characteristics of a Wannstedt-coached team and all three are present on this year's Pittsburgh squad.
"First of all defense. They're going to play a 4-3 defense, they're going to play a lot of Cover 4 and they're going to make you have to nickel and dime them or throw over the top. Unfortunately for them, they got caught last week on some play-action shots in the Rutgers game," Weis said. "But most of the time you're going to have to be very patient when you're going against them because that's the way they play defense. Offensively, they like to run the ball and they like to run it with power. With this running back they have, it kind of fits right into the personality of what he'd like to do.
"And lastly, he's always been affiliated with teams that are sound on special teams and have pretty good specialists and I think he's accomplished both of those things with this team."
The running back that Weis spoke of was 5-foot-11, 210-pound sophomore LeSean McCoy. McCoy leads the nation with 14 touchdowns and is averaging just under 120 rushing yards per game and is only 165 yards shy of a 1,000. Through seven games, McCoy already has five more career touchdowns, 29, than Pitt legend Tony Dorsett had after his first two collegiate seasons.
"Their whole offense really centers around McCoy. I know he's a sophomore, but he's definitely one of the best backs in the country," Weis said. "There's very few running backs that can run inside and out, equally as impressively… This guy can run inside, he can run outside and they give them the opportunity to do both."
Weis made it clear that stopping McCoy will be a top priority for the Notre Dame defense this week.
"They want to feed 25 the ball and we're going to have to show that we can stop him or else it's going to be a long day, it's going to be a long day for the Irish," he said.
What is not so clear is the Pittsburgh quarterback situation. Junior starting quarterback Bill Stull was taken to the hospital with a concussion in the loss to Rutgers. Sophomore Pat Bostick replaced Stull against Rutgers and was six of 11 for 69 yards and an interception.
Stull was released from the hospital on Sunday, but his status for this weekend is unknown.
"I don't know what his status is going to be. I know Dave is not going to be in the business of telling anyone what his status is, so we have to be ready for both he and Pat Bostick to play," Weis said. "The big difference is obviously Stull's got more experience, but Bostick is a very similar quarterback and they're not going to change what they're doing."
Whoever is at quarterback will have plenty of options to throw to. Pitt will play three junior tight ends in Nate Byham, Dorin Dickerson and John Pelusi. Pelusi is the best blocker of the bunch, Dickerson is a converted wide receiver while Byham can do both.
The Panthers also have depth at wide receiver and will play five. Oderick Turner and Derek Kinder are listed as the starters, but Cedric McGee and T.J. Porter will also be involved as will freshman Jonathan Baldwin, who selected Pitt over Notre Dame in the recruiting process.
"Kinder is their smart, veteran receiver and Turner is a returning starter who led Pitt in touchdowns last season," Weis said. "Of course we all know about Jonathan Baldwin. He's obviously eeked his way up the depth chart and he's playing more and more. We were heavily involved with Jonathan. He's a tall kid that's got deceptive speed. He's a big guy that runs well, he's got good hands and he's a good hoops player. You can see a lot of those skills transferring onto the football field."
The Panthers lost their starting center Robb Houser for the year after an ankle injury against the Scarlet Knights. Houser's spot was filled by senior C.J. Davis, who had been starting at left guard. Senior Dominic Williams replaced Davis at left guard.
"It didn't seem to bother them too much," Weis said of the shifting along the offensive line. "I think that that's how they'll start."
The one offensive statistic that stood out to Weis was Pitt's red zone success rate. The Panthers have scored 23 of the 25 times that they have reached the red zone, with 18 touchdowns and when they don't get in the end zone, they have a reliable kicker in Connor Lee.
"He's never missed a PAT at Pitt and this year he's 11 of 13 on field goals. So I think they're pretty reliable when they're kicking field goals," Weis said.
Former Southern Methodist head coach Phil Bennett is in his first year as defensive coordinator with the Panthers. The Panther defense is allowing just 3.6 yards per rush and 309 total yards while registering 21 sacks, 12th in the country.
"The guy that really makes their defense tick I really think is their middle linebacker (Scott) McKillop. I think that he's a leader on defense. I think he's a good tackler," said Weis. "He's playing the Mike, which in their scheme, is the guy who gets to make a whole bunch of plays. He's physical, he's productive and when they go to Nickel they don't take him off the field."
McKillop is joined by redshirt freshman Greg Williams on the strong side and fifth-year senior Austin Ransom on the weak side. Ransom will be the other linebacker along with McKillop when Pitt goes to Nickel.
Juniors Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel are the starting corners and each bring good speed and physicality to the secondary. Sophomore Elijah Fields is listed as the backup strong safety, but will also come onto the field when Pitt goes to Nickel while sophomore cornerback Ricky Gary could see some time at cornerback too.
"DeCicco, who is a very good tackler, is their strong safety," said Weis. "Thatcher, who is also a good tackler and one of their leaders of the secondary, looks like a good athlete who can run well, he'll be their free safety."
"(Romeus) looks big and long on tape," Weis said. "He uses his hands well and he's got good quickness coming off the ball. I like their front four."
Pitt figures to be the most talented team that the Irish will face until their November 29 matchup in Los Angeles against Southern Cal.
"They're solid on offense and they're solid on defense and they're pretty good on special teams too," Weis said. "There's some teams that we'll play where we look at and say, ‘Hey, they're good on defense, but they're not very good on offense.' Or vice versa. You can't say that about this team."
Weis expects the loss to Rutgers to fire up the Panthers this week.
"It's usually a very good rallying cry especially when you're going on the road," he said. "They're going to go in saying, ‘We can't give up the big play and just play our game.' They like to run the ball with power and they have just the back to do it with. I think they'll take an us-against-the-world mentality. ‘Hey, we have to go show everyone. We're going to Notre Dame; it's on national TV. Let's go get our respect back.'"