Entering this game undefeated, Notre Dame knows how to win following a big win. After beating Oklahoma on the road, how do they avoid a letdown against Pitt?
That's the major concern from fans. My No. 1 trap game in the pre-season for the Irish was Pittsburgh because Notre Dame would be A.) coming off a deflating nationally televised loss, or B.) Elated from a season-altering win.
It's the latter, but the team and staff seem genuinely focused on the one-game-at-a-time mantra to which so many espouse but few follow. Junior nose guard Louis Nix referenced Pittsburgh last week, stating it was a bigger game than Oklahoma because if they beat OU, and lost to Pitt, "Notre Dame would be irrelevant again."
Human nature suggests they'll be a touch flat, but its something the staff has fought against all year.
In the recent meetings, Notre Dame hasn't had to worry much about Pitt's quarterback play. With Tino Sunseri resurrecting his career this year, are the Irish more concerned about him or Ray Graham?
Likely Graham, because if a team becomes one dimensional vs Notre Dame's defense, they have no chance. Landry Jones found out the hard way last week, throwing 51 times and for an offense that didn't attempt a rushing play in the fourth quarter.
Graham and the Pittsburgh rushing attack are key to the contest. If Pittsburgh can simply churn out 25 rushes that keep the Irish defense honest -- if even for just 80-90 yards -- it would greatly enhance Sunseri's chances of success, not to mention survival vs. a front four that is light years better than what he saw from Notre Dame last season.
Notre Dame's defense is having a stellar year. Are there any weak spots at all that Pitt might be able to expose?
The red zone pass defense can be beaten -- its yielded four of the six total touchdowns allowed by the team to date.
Twice this season first-time starting S Matthias Farley has been out of position on scores: once slightly (Purdue), once blatantly (Brigham Young). On two other occasions defenses have targeted inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese (Purdue and Brigham Young). He's much better vs. the run than pass, and splits time with classmate Dan Fox at Will linebacker alongside Te'o.
Key to Notre Dame's red zone defense is it pressure -- teams don't have much success throwing from outside the 8 or 10-yard line against them as the defensive front gets a major push. Three of the four passing scores inside the 20 have been at or inside the 5-yard line. The Irish haven't given up a play over the top since The Opening drive of the second half vs. Navy -- they've, as a result, not played that defensive scheme since.
Obviously, Notre Dame has several rivalry games. Is Pitt considered one of them, and if so, what makes it a rivalry game?
When Brian Kelly came over from Cincinnati in 2010 it was certainly a rivalry affair, more so for the two staffs familiarity than anything else. Pitt has beaten ND three times 2004 and twice in South Bend, so fans are aware of their bite.
USC and Michigan stand above for most Irish fans. Michigan State is next. Boston College is despised, so that's a rivalry as well. Purdue is annual along with Navy -- both have had recent success. And Stanford has really ramped up in its intensity: the two programs don't seem that fond of each other of late. Miami is back on the schedule now...
I think the Panthers have to pull the upset this season or win next year for the rivalry to gain modern ground though. If Kelly is 3-0 or 4-0 vs. the Panthers, few will view the Charlie Weis era's 1-2 record vs. Pitt with any weight. It works out well that the Irish will play Pittsburgh at minimum once every three years as part of the five-game ACC slate beginning in 2014.
We've seen close games in each of the last four meetings, with each team winning two. Can we expect another?
Notre Dame has won by 3, 7, 7 (OT), and 3 at home this season. The offense has scored 17, 13, 20 (OT), and 17 in those outings, so Pittsburgh has a very good chance to play the Irish within a touchdown if the Panthers play their best football.
Key to an upset is playing even on the defensive side of scrimmage vs. Notre Dame's running game, and forcing a couple of turnovers from quarterback Everett Golson. Notre Dame has committed seven turnovers at home (six by Golson) and one in four games outside of South Bend. The Panthers are catching the Irish in the right place at absolutely the perfect time.
A road block to the upset, however, lies herein: Notre Dame's 2012 defense doesn't "allow points."
Something out of the ordinary would have to happen for the Panthers to score more than 17 Saturday in South Bend.