A first look at the themes surrounding Saturday's Steel City showdown.
I have no problem with Irish Co-Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown's passionate defense of his players and resulting phone call to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo earlier this week. As well, Brown certainly has the right to be angered with what he perceived as an opposing, victorious coach calling out Brown's Irish staff and their defensive game plan.
But the fact that Brown was still bothered by, and chose to air those concerns in a Wednesday session with the media was a bit disconcerting. The team's head coach preaches 100 percent forward thinking. Charlie Weis has continually stressed that preparation for the following week (after a loss) begins as the clock strikes 0:00 the previous Saturday.
For Brown to express his viewpoint, unsolicited, suggests he's dwelling on the shocking loss to Navy…four days later. Three practices later. (Though Wednesday, it should be noted, is Brown's only chance to speak with the media).
That doesn't bode well for the supposed focus of his defensive backs, his defense, or the team as a whole.
On a positive note, Weis pointed out that the Irish were mentally sharp Thursday, and if that translates to the field Saturday, this writer's angst detailed above will be irrelevant.
But the needless preamble by Brown, a coach as patient and amiable with the press as any, does not suggest focused or forward thinking.
The Irish running game looked downright 2008-ish last Saturday, a disturbing (and, in my opinion, avoidable) development after the Irish had run with anywhere from relative to resounding success vs. each of their first eight opponents.
The ankle-induced absences of junior half back Armando Allen and sophomore right guard Trevor Robinson played a key factor, as neither of the duo's backups have consistently approached a starter's level of execution.
The drop-off from a healthy Robinson to his understudies cannot be overstated, especially vs. a top tier front four as possessed by Pitt.
Weis defines any pass completion of 20 or more yards, or any run of 10-plus as an "explosive" offensive play. Through nine games, the Notre Dame attack has produced 44 explosives on the ground (only three of which resulted in touchdowns) and 36 through the air (with 12 scores).
The addition of Allen (17 rushing/receiving explosives in just six games) and presence of Tate (21 total) and Floyd (8 in less than 3.5 contests) ensures that Clausen and the Irish offense will find a way to move the football. It's the other side of the line of scrimmage and that 11-man group's ability to limit Pittsburgh's explosive RB/WR/TE trio (Dion Lewis/Jonathan Baldwin/Dorin Dickerson) in this same category that will have a greater impact on the contest.
Explosive, momentum-changing plays by the Panthers offense will serve as additional fuel for what will likely be a frenzied and sufficiently lubricated Heinz Field crowd while simultaneously instilling doubt in the maligned Irish defense.
Who is Keith Smith and Why is He Relevant Saturday?
In Notre Dame's previous prime time road contest, a 24-21 comeback win at Purdue, Boilermakers 6'2" 230 pound wide receiver Keith Smith tormented the Irish secondary and first-tackle responders to the tune of 11 receptions for 136 catch-and-run receiving yards and a touchdown.
Pittsburgh's hybrid tight end/slot receiver Dorin Dickerson is a faster, more athletic, and physically-gifted Smith. The Panthers senior has scored 10 touchdowns (39 grabs) and excels after the catch. He can riddle a defense with speed and power if given room to operate.
Likewise, 6'5" 230-pound sophomore wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin represents an athletic mismatch every time he takes the field. (Weis noted Baldwin's deceptive speed and true "go-up-and-get-it" ability.)
It was Baldwin who sent last year's contest into overtime with a one-on-one fade pattern touchdown on 4th and Goal vs. cornerback Raeshon McNeil (McNeil had stopped Baldwin on two plays previously).
Both Baldwin and Dickerson will catch their share of passes vs. the Irish secondary. The key for Notre Dame will be limiting the damage once the pair acquires the football.
Man Down: Ragone vs. Rust
The loss of tight end Kyle Rudolph (shoulder) will be felt Saturday night. His absence in the red zone, on third down, and as a detached wide receiver threat will allow Pittsburgh's defense to single-cover his replacements (Mike Ragone and Bobby Burger as tight ends and Robby Parris/Duval Kamara as inside slot options) with a linebacker or strong safety, respectively, allowing more help over the top against Golden Tate and Michael Floyd.
Ragone must play the game of his collegiate career, both as an extra blocker vs. the Panthers hard-charging front four and as a reliable target over the middle and down the seam.
The junior is one of the most dedicated and intense players on the roster, and despite his full-field sprint and tackle vs. Washington State two weeks previous, he still appears limited in his fluidity as a route-runner due to ACL surgery last August. Ragone would more able to fill this role a calendar year from today, but Saturdays in the fall aren't about feel good stories and certificates of participation.
Ragone must come through when called upon in the Steel City.
So…Just Throw it to Tate from the 21?
The Irish offense, famously on the heels of a head-scratching 0-fer performance in the red zone last week, enters Saturday's contest minus Rudolph but saddled with the baggage of opportunity lost.
Notre Dame has scored 21 touchdowns (11 field goals) in 40 appearances inside their opponents' 20-yard line this season but over the last five games, just 10 in their last 24 trips in close have resulted in six points.
Pittsburgh, with elusive bell cow tailback Dion Lewis running the power play behind a group of mashers up front, has 27 touchdowns (10 field goals) in its 41 red zone forays.
The physical prowess of Dickerson (10 TD) and Baldwin (4) only complicates the matter for opposing defensive signal-callers.
Both teams will move the football, likely throughout the contest. But the offense that can execute inside the 20s vs. red zone defenses ranked 11th (ND) and 14th (Pitt) nationally will control the tenor of the contest.
Distractions 'R Us
A sizeable contingent of Notre Dame nation expects the following 16-year trend to manifest Saturday night: after dropping an unjustifiable loss to an inferior team, and with coaching rumors swirling and national pundits laying waste to the lost Irish aura, Notre Dame's talent explodes all over an opponent looking to make a national splash. Spirits run high(er); hope is regained, and the week that follows elicits Bowl talk and visions of January in Jacksonville dancing in their heads.
I don't agree. If I had to guess (and I do), I think a national television audience will watch the wounded Irish take an early blow, respond poorly to the Panthers pressure up front, and fall into their now-familiar position vs. a ranked opponent: playing catch-up to the bitter end.
Weis mentioned Thursday that the Irish have a chance to "Go from really low to really high and do it by midnight Saturday night."
To do so, ND needs a fast start offensively and a determined defensive answer to Pittsburgh's initial threat. Both teams will move the ball and both teams are capable of lighting up the scoreboard vs. the other, but the Irish are 4-17 when their opponent scores 30 or more points under Weis. An understandable number to be sure, but I can't imagine this game played too far below that scoring threshold.
"It would be a big win for all of us: for the players, the coaches, for Notre Dame," Weis reiterated Thursday. "But most importantly I'm always big on what's best for the players, because they're still kids.
"I want this more for them than for anyone."
An admirable sentiment, but after 44 games of uneven football, the head man is the personna that needs a win most.
I look for a game total near the 60-point range with the Irish gaining plenty of yards, but losing the battles that win football games.
Pittsburgh 33 Notre Dame 25