Starting at quarterback for the Irish is Dayne Crist. Crist is in his first year as a starter, and even though some who follow the Irish wonder if he's still the right choice at quarterback, Crist has thrown 10 touchdown passes to just four interceptions in his first five starts. Though the Irish are only 2-3 to this point, its three losses were all to teams that are currently 5-0.
In addition, Crist was the first Notre Dame quarterback of the last four, to win in his debut as a starter. His 1,358 passing yards are the most by a Notre Dame quarterback, in his first five career starts.
However, it's not the numbers that make Crist the threat that he is. Once again, Pitt is facing an elusive quarterback. Crist is not a running quarterback, but he is good enough on his feet to avoid pressure, which Pitt will try to do. Pitt has had trouble with quarterback-types like this in the form of Cincinnati's Tony Pike (four total sacks versus Pike in 76 passing attempts), and earlier this year against Utah's Jordan Wynn (0 sacks in 36 passing attempts).
"I see that he can scramble, he's a great passer," Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "He likes to get the ball out quick. He's pretty tall, so knocking down passes or keeping him contained is a big job for our defensive line. Just keep him contained, apply pressure, and force some bad passes."
In two previous games against the Panthers, Allen has rushed 33 times for 150 yards, and no touchdowns. Despite no scores, he has averaged 4.5 yards a carry.
This season, in a new spread offense, even though Notre Dame is primarily a pass-first mentality, Allen is averaging 78 yards a game, and 4.9 yards on 80 carries this year. He's only scored two touchdowns, but Pitt must be ready for him. While Dayne Crist is making progress, Allen kicked off last week's game with a career-long 30-yard run against Boston College; a sign he too may be on his way.
"Me personally, it's just working out hard, watching a lot of film," Allen said. "I think I personally can get better, emphasizing film and trying to do all I can to get better."
The Irish have a three-headed monster at receiver in Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick. Floyd is a big target with speed, and tons of athleticism. Rudolph will look like a receiver, but in reality is the tight end. Both players take pressure off each other, opening room for themselves to make big plays.
The guy most folks might not know about is Riddick. Riddick was a running back last year, then converted to receiver this year, where he is leading Notre Dame with 30 receptions and three touchdowns. Floyd leads the team in receiving yards (408), while Rudolph is third on the team in receptions (23) and yards (290), but is tied for the team-lead in touchdown catches with Riddick.
As if Floyd and Rudolph didn't take enough pressure off each other in the passing game, Riddick has jumped in there as well to distract defenses. Pitt will definitely have its hands full trying to contain these three.
"We start talking about playing against some guys that are producing and making plays," Wannstedt said. "We're well aware of those guys. It's a good challenge for our guys too. Anytime you line up against the best, it should bring the best out of you."
The strength of Notre Dame's offensive line lies in the interior. Though the group lost three players a year ago that combined for 105 starts, this year's group has proven to be minimally effected by the losses to graduation.
Rounding out the starting five are first-year starters at the tackle positions. Sophomore Zack Martin starts at left tackle, while senior Taylor Dever has the right tackle spot locked up.
The most impressive thing about Notre Dame's offensive line is how athletic they are, and how well they protect quarterback Dayne Crist. The unit allows has allowed a sack once every 24 passing attempts.
"I feel like our defensive line has grown a lot since Utah," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "I think this week, we have another chance to step up and show that we can make big plays."
Notre Dame runs a 3-4 defense, one where they may occasionally bring a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage, and call it a 4-3. Even so, the linebacker remains in a two-point stance.
Despite only using three down linemen, the Irish have had a lot of success with the three they have. The heart of the defensive line rests with nose guard Ian Williams. Williams has started 23 games, and in two previous starts against Pitt, he has nine tackles including 2.5 for a loss. At 6-2, 305, he is going to be a challenge for center Alex Karabin.
The two ends line up over the tackles, which will be a challenge for Jason Pinkston and Jordan Gibbs, in the sense that ends in a 3-4 system, are similar in size to tackles in a 4-3 system. Ethan Johnson (6-4, 285) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (6-4, 283) provide a combination of speed and strength that is tough to defend. Lewis-Moore has 17 tackles and a sack on the season, while Johnson has 11 tackles and two sacks.
Personnel might not be the biggest concern for Pitt's offensive line, as they are looking for confirmation from last week's game where they paved the way for over 300 yards on the ground, as Lucas Nix moved over to right guard, and Jordan Gibbs debuted as a starter at right tackle.
"We looked at the film early Sunday morning, and it looked good," Nix said. "It's just a matter of trying to make practice more competitive, and try to make them more full speed so that when we get to the game, it's a lot easier. Everything does slow down a little bit for you."
While the defensive line doesn't produce the sacks the way Pitt's defensive line does, Notre Dame's linebackers more than make up for it. It's not the outside linebackers coming off the edge, either. The Irish are led by a pair of talented linebackers on the inside, in Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese. Te'o has registered 64 tackles in just five games--an average of over 10 tackles a game. Calabrese leads the team in tackles for loss (5) and sacks (2.5). While Pitt's guards won't have a man over them in the defensive alignment, both inside backers make up for the pressure they will see.
Dave Wannstedt says the improvement among the defensive players, is a credit of just getting adjusted to the system.
"I think it's players just getting more comfortable with what they're doing," Wannstedt said. "There's a lot of talent, and they run real well. I think it's become more and more familiar with the system."
Notre Dame returns an experienced secondary led by former Woodland Hills standout Darrin Walls, who possesses 26 career starts. Starting opposite of Walls is senior Gary Gray. At safety, the Irish have senior Harrison Smith and junior Jamoris Slaughter. Smith has proven to be pretty valuable in run support, ranking third on the team with 36 tackles.
The good news for Pitt is that all five Irish opponents have averaged over 248 yards passing a game. Pitt, for the season, is averaging just over 183 yards passing a game.
Walls has drawn much praise in recent weeks for his improvement so far this year, as he leads the Irish with two interceptions. Last year, Baldwin had a big game against Walls, catching five passes for 142 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown pass, and a long pass of 51.
Baldwin is due for a big game, but if Walls is able to shut Baldwin down, that will be the ultimate test of how far Walls has come.
"I never even heard of (Walls) before we played him last year," Baldwin said. "Everybody was telling me he played at North Hills, or Woodland Hills, I'm not even sure. I never even knew him before that time.
"He didn't really press that much, so I couldn't really determine if he was physical from a pressing standpoint. He didn't tackle me, so I wouldn't be able to tell you that."