Scouting Report

The Pittsburgh Panthers invade South Bend this weekend to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish lead the all time series 44-18-1. The last game these institutions played was in 2005, at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, in Charlie Weis's debut game as the head coach of Notre Dame.

The Irish jump started Weis's tenure with a 42-21 victory over twenty-third ranked Pittsburgh.The Irish are 19-9 against the Panthers at home.

Many an Irish fan, and I bet a lot of Pittsburgh fans, jumped on the premature burial of Dave Wannstedt and Big East title hopes after the Panthers home loss to Bowling Green in Pittsburgh's 2008 opener. The loss to the Falcons certainly hurt all Pantherdom, but the Panther mentor and his team righted the ship and had sailed on to five consecutive victories until this past Saturday's debacle at home against Rutgers in a 54-34 loss.

The key for Pittsburgh winning Saturday may be found in which Panther team shows up. Will it be the team that fell on their face against Rutgers and Bowling Green, or will it be the team that beat Southern Florida, the tenth ranked team in the nation? The Panthers beat the Bulls on the road, and they held the ball in that game for nearly 37 minutes despite two lost fumbles.

This is a big game for both teams. It obviously is a game that will show the strides made by two teams who had losing records last year. It also has national ranking and bowl implications for both teams. Pitt will test the Irish resolve in maintaining the edge in "their house" against a team that is unbeaten on the road.

On a personal note, I was born in Pittsburgh. I love the city of my birth, its diversity, its heritage, and its professional sports teams, but I hate Pitt. My father correctly passed on to me to the history and the lore of Notre Dame. That's not why I hate Pitt though. My mother babysat Mike Ditka (she went to high school in Aliquippa, PA, and she swears that Ditka was really a cute baby). That's not why I hate Pitt. The Panthers share practice facilities and Heinz Field with my beloved Steelers and are partially responsible for Heinz Field becoming a quagmire as the season winds down for both teams. That's not why I hat Pitt. I had a great uncle who worked for the Pittsburgh Press who never got my dad and I Pitt tickets when Notre Dame came to town and he loved Pitt. That's not why I hate Pitt either.

I hate Pitt because back in the day…you older folks remember those days, the days when a dotted line appeared in photos showing the ball's flight of a particular pass play or kick, and the names of the players in the photo were in a small box beneath their images within those photos…anyway, back in the day, my father would get the major Pittsburgh Sunday papers and he thoroughly indoctrinated me into the belief that if the Irish won it would be buried on the back pages of the sports section. Conversely, if the Irish lost it would be front page news in the sport sections. That was pretty much the case too.That's how I came to hate Pitt.

Pittsburgh Offense

Pittsburgh is scoring an average of 29 points per game. The Panther red zone offense is among the best in the nation. In 25 trips into the red zone the Panthers have scored 23 times. They have scored 12 rushing touchdowns, 2 passing touchdowns, and 5 field goals. Pitt averages 163 yards rushing per game and 233 yards passing per game. They are eleventh in the nation in controlling the time of possession at 32:41 per game. They have allowed 16 sacks on the season.

The Panthers had been fortunate on the offensive line in that all five starters had started all seven of Pitt's games. That's not going to happen for their eighth game because Panther center, Robb Houser, broke his ankle against Rutgers. Houser was an All-American JUCO center who transferred to Pittsburgh this season.

It's obvious that Davis will take Houser's place at center as he did in the Rutgers game. The most experienced and logical replacement for Davis at guard would be Dom Williams who had been beaten out by Davis during the 2005 season. Williams played in Davis's position against Rutgers after Houser's injury. Coincidentally, Williams, a fifth year senior, started at left guard against the Irish in 2005. Freshman Lucas Nix may also be in the mix to replace Davis at left guard.

Coach Tony Wise, Pitt's new offensive line coach, has coached big guys for thirty plus years and has done a fine job molding the Panther offensive line. The right guard, John Malecki, lettered at defensive tackle the past two years before switching to offense this year. The right tackle, Joe Thomas, was last year's right guard. Left tackle, Jason Pinkston, had shoulder surgery last September and missed the rest of 2007. Only the left guard, C. J. Davis, has been there consistently by starting since his freshman year.

Though not very large by today's standards the Panther offensive line has been the main cog in the panther's ball control, balanced offense. As a unit they make holes for McCoy, they pull well when necessary, and they are excellent on Pitt's screen series. This line has allowed 16 sacks, but some that I saw were because Stull held the ball too long.

In watching tape of the Panthers I was impressed with John Malecki, the right guard. After two years on the defensive line he caught my eye in the games I saw. If I were a line coach I would show tape of this kid to my linemen. He won't be an All-American, he's been banged up, as all linemen are at this juncture of a season, but he hustles, slides off combo blocks very well, and stays on his man until the whistle blows. Defensive linemen who deal with him know they have a challenge on their hands on his motor alone.

Against Rutgers Panther's quarterback, Bill Stull was carried off on a stretcher and taken to a hospital with a head and neck injury. He received a concussion and a stinger and was released from the hospital this past Sunday. As of this writing he will be undergoing further evaluation during the week. Wannstedt has been quoted with, "We are incredibly relieved and grateful that Billy is okay and out of the hospital." Based on Wannstedt's quote and since many coaches leave the play status of injured players in doubt I think Stull starts.

Panther quarterback, Stull, earned the starting nod and a win in Pitt's first game in 2007. A thumb injury in that win ended his season. As a starter Stull, pronounced stall, is 6-2. The Panther signal caller has passed for an average of 223 yards per game with 5 touchdown passes, and 4 interceptions. Spreading the ball around Stull has completed passes to 11 different receivers with 7 receivers in double digit receptions. His pass completion percentage is 60 % and he averages 12.4 yards per completion. Stull's deep ball is best when thrown down the middle as he struggles on deep passes down the sidelines. Stull, or any Panther quarterback, needs to be watched near the goal line as Pitt seems to love the quarterback draw. Two of their three touchdowns against Iowa came on the quarterback draw.

No other Pitt quarterback besides Stull had completed a pass this season until the Rutgers game when the backup, Pat Bostick, went 6-11-1 in relief of the injured Stull. An interception by Bostick on a throw across his body was big in determining Pitt's fate against Rutgers. Bostick played in ten games last year and started in eight. His 2007 statistics are 252-155-13 with 8 touchdown passes.

No matter who starts at quarterback for Pitt JUCO transfer Gregg Cross may be in the game to run from the quarterback position. He hasn't thrown a pass so far this season but he is a threat as an elusive runner if in the game. Cross hasn't been used much, but if Stull can't go he may play more and he did have a 17 yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw against Iowa.

The main cog of the Panther offense is tailback, LeSean McCoy. McCoy's 2007 freshman rushing production was second only to Tony Dorsett's freshman year. In the process he broke Dorsett's freshman records for touchdowns and total points. This year McCoy has lugged the ball for 119 yards per game and 14 touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He is also tied for second among the Panthers pass receivers with 17 passes for an average of 12 yards per reception.

McCoy is dangerous any time he gets the ball. He has great speed, great moves, excellent vision, is a very good cut back runner, and is a much more physical back this year. McCoy's favorite modus operandi is taking the ball up the middle and bouncing to the outside. That bouncing outside is something he does this better than any back I've seen this year, including Javon Ringer of MSU. The Panthers get him the ball any way they can via their base running offense, draws, several different screens, and shovel passes. McCoy has also lined up in the shotgun quarterback slot taking a direct snap a la the Arkansas Wild Hog offense of 2007. He's also been part of a flea flicker this year as well.

The backup for McCoy is speedy LaRod Stephens-Howling. Although small, at 5'7", 180 pounds, Stephan-Howlings has a great burst when he sees daylight. He's averaging 4.5 yards per carry and has 4 touchdowns. He also averages 10 yards per reception and he's been thrown to after lining up as a wide receiver.

The Panthers generally use McCoy or Stephens-Howling in a one back set or with fullback Conredge Collins, but have teamed them both in the same backfield. I'd expect pass when they are in there together.

Fullback Collins chips in with a 5.1 average yards per carry on mostly short yardage carries, is a fine blocker for the Pitt tailbacks, and sneaks out of the backfield well for passes, particularly in short yardage third downs.

The wide receiving corps of Pittsburgh is highly skilled with decent speed. The Panthers regularly play a rotation of five wide receivers. They are led by veteran Derek Kinder who has 23 receptions at an average of 11 yards per reception. Cedric McGee has 17 receptions for an average of 8 yards per reception. Oderick Turner has 16 receptions for a 12 yard average and T.J. Porter has 14 receptions and a 16 yard average. Coming on of late is a player the Irish tried to land in 6'5" freshman Jonathan Baldwin who has 11 receptions for a 23 yard average. As a group these Panthers have three touchdowns, with Kinder having one and Baldwin two touchdowns.

The tight ends, Nate Byham, Dorin Dickerson, and John Pelusi have 19 pass receptions between them. The deepest threat of the three is Byham based on average per catch statistics, but Dickerson is a specimen with speed that is rare in a tight end and he's a load and a threat on reverses as well.

Pittsburgh Special Teams

Field goal kicker, Conor Lee is 11 for 13 on field goals. He is perfect under forty yards and 6-8 over forty yards with 44 yards being his longest. His two misses have been at 42 and 45 yards. Lee is a Groza Award finalist and it's easy to see why by his career statistics. Since taking over the place kicking duties in 2006 he is 41 of 49 on field goals and a perfect 97 of 97 on extra points.

Panther punter, Dave Brytus, has punted 24 times for a 42 yard average. His longest punt has been 60 yards, he's had one punt blocked, 4 fair caught, and he's dropped 5 punts inside the twenty. He's also thrown the worst pass I've seen since Garo Yepremium. I think it's a sure thing that any automatic call from punt formation with Brytus as the passer has been removed from the Pitt playbook. The Panther's punt coverage team, who has adopted the Florida spread punt formation, is allowing an average of 8 yards per return and it has allowed 1 touchdown.

The kick off duties for the Panthers is manned by Luke Briggs. Briggs has 2 touchbacks and averages kicks down to the eight yard line. The Panther kick coverage team allows an average of twenty yards a return with one taken back 90 yards for a touchdown by Syracuse's Mike Holmes.

Pittsburgh punt returner, Aaron Barry, averages 5.4 yards per return with a long of 24 yards and no touchdowns. He may be replaced this week as he has struggled and had a critical fumble against Rutgers.

Panther kick off returns is primarily the duty of Stephens-Howling, the back up tailback, who, on 20 returns, averages 21 yards per return with a longest return of 34 yards. Aundre Wright has averaged 20 yards on 11 returns with a longest return of 29 yards.

Pittsburgh Defense

The Panthers had been ranked 20th in NCAA total defense statistics going into the Rutgers game, but plummeted to 32nd in the rankings after Rutgers piled up 54 points and 442 total yards in offense. Pitt had been ranked as 10th in pass defense but Rutger's 371 yard passing effort dropped the Panthers to 34th.

The Panthers play a traditional, 4-3, or even front. The best defensive lineman is nose tackle, Rashaad Duncan, who consistently pushes offensive linemen back into the quarterback's face and clogs it up well against the run. The defensive line of Pitt is two deep and new defensive coordinator, Phil Bennett and holdover defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, rotate them in and out keeping the front four fresh. This had led to Pittsburgh being twelfth in the NCAA in sacks with 21 sacks. The defensive line generates solid push on pass plays by themselves. Add in a well designed blitz package and it can be a long day for opposing offensive lines that play Pitt.

In the tapes I watched Pitt has blitzed about a fourth of the time preferring to get pressure from their front four. When Pitt does blitz those blitzes are effective in that seven of the team's twenty-one sacks comes from linebackers. Conversely, Notre Dame, with all the blitzing that the Irish do, has only six sacks coming from their linebackers.

The ringleader of the linebacking corps is Mike linebacker, Scott McKillop, who led the nation in tackles last year. He's already matched his sack total for last year and exceeded his tackles for a loss from last year. His best cohort is converted walk on wide receiver, converted safety, and now Will linebacker, Austin Ransom. His previous positions have stood him well in pass coverage and against the run Ransom is all over the field with speed and desire. His weakness is head to head in short yardage situations where his 215 pounds often has him being pushed back somewhat, but not because he's afraid of sticking his head in there, which he does fearlessly.

Panther Head Coach Dave Wannstedt, in talking about his secondary's defensive effort against Rutgers said, "This is the most disappointing effort since I have been here." He went on to say of Rutgers' receivers, "they ran by us, just ran by us."

The secondary of Pittsburgh may be in a state of flux after getting torched by Rutgers' Mike Teel for six touchdowns and 371 yards. Teel only had three touchdown passes going into the game with Pittsburgh. Wannestedt admitted as much in his Monday press conference that the secondary might see changes. Pittsburgh's giving up six touchdown passes to Rutgers by a unit that plays a lot of cover 4 is hard to comprehend. Pitt's best cover man is Aaron Berry who is often assigned the opposition's best receiver. Safety Dom DeCicco is a hitter and his safety blitzes often free up McKillop on his blitz.

The Game Keys

The Irish must protect Jimmy Clausen better than they did last week. Washington, in my opinion, placed more pressure on Clausen than their talent level indicated they could and Pitt is certainly better. The offensive line needs to step it up not only against the Pitt defensive line, but against as good a blitz package as they've seen all year.

The Irish need to continue running the ball. I think that Pitt is weak off tackle. They are not as weak as Washington was, but I would think that Notre Dame needs to exploit Pitt in that area. I would think that James Aldridge or Robert Hughes might be a big key in this game as big backs give Pitt problems.

Notre Dame should attack cornerback Jovani Chappel unmercifully. One, he's not as good in coverage as Berry, and two, he's only 5'9". Notre Dame should exploit this advantage to the hilt.

The Irish coaches need to put an idea in the officials head before and during the game. That idea centers on Pitt's Aaron Berry, a good corner, but a corner that gets away with using his hands and arms far too much. Notre Dame needs to make the officials aware of this constantly.

I'd like to see the Irish turn the tables on the Panthers and beat them at their own game, ball control, and therefore control of the clock. A solid running game complimented by a few more slants, outs, and hooks, as opposed to go routes and fades, might be more appropriate Saturday.

Defensively the Irish need to stay disciplined within their defensive assignment in order to slow down McCoy and his cutback running style. In short protect your gaps and don't over pursue. They also need to tackle well or McCoy will make it a long day. Screen recognition, as well as shovel pass recognition, by the Irish front will also be vital in stopping Pitt.

Corner substitutions for Notre Dame may have to occur due to Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh's approach of running fresh receivers in and going long back to back or twice in a series of downs. Cavanaugh tries to take the wind out of a corner to take advantage of a fresh receiver's legs.

Lastly, Irish special teams need to play well in punt and kick coverage, as they have all year. It would also be nice to see a return broken or a punt blocked. Hopefully, last week infused Brandon Walker with a lot of confidence, the precious, but oft fleeting opium of kickers.

Prediction: Notre Dame 34 Pittsburgh 17 Top Stories