Know Your Opponent

Saturday's matchup with Notre Dame marks the sixth consecutive season these two teams will play. The previous five meetings have been decided by six points or less, which also includes a four-overtime game and a three-overtime game.

Has anyone from Notre Dame reacted to Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz' comments earlier this week, where he said the Notre Dame coaches seemed 'cocky?'

"I think Brian Kelly nipped that in the bud when he referenced Pittsburgh with the following: "tough, blue collar, physical, they don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame."

Notre Dame is used to the occasional foe speaking in such terms. Stanford's Ben Gardner mentioned he didn't like them prior to a 2011 Cardinal win (Andrew Luck's senior day), while over time future pros such as Michigan's Steve Everett, Tennessee's Dale Carter, and USC's Scott Ross have all talked about Notre Dame's special treatment -- this dates back prior to the NBC contract."

"I think the staff and players expect it at times but the fan base will always take offense. Most assume Holtz was rankled a bit by an ND coach -- or lack of scholarship offer -- during the recruiting process. The reality is, Holtz played great vs. the Irish last season though few remember that, they only remember a 3OT win in which Ray Graham starred early, the Panthers missed a 38-yarder, and Everett Golson won the game for the Irish with a great final 20 minutes."

At 7-2, it seems like Notre Dame is having another good season under Brian Kelly, yet nobody is rally talking about them. Why?

"The two-loss curse. You can't lose your second game in September and have modern college football pundits pay attention to your progression thereafter. Notre Dame's loss to Michigan gave detractors ammo and a home loss to Oklahoma, by 14 points, no less, relegated the Irish to third-tier status."

"They've beaten Michigan State, Arizona State, and USC this season. At present, those rank as a very good, good, and nice rivalry win. Any ranking between 17 and 25 seems justified, but after last season, a 3-2 start knocked the Irish from the national consciousness, and while they're not a top 10 quality team, they're a definitive top 20 unit with a chance to be better pending good health if they can escape Heinz Field at 8-2. (A bye follows, then a strong BYU team, then powerful Stanford.)"

"At 10-2, Notre Dame would deserve a BCS win. At 9-3, they'd have no shot, nor should they. To be blunt, they have the feel of a 9-3, not 10-2 BCS Team."

Aaron Donald, in talking about Notre Dame, said he thinks the one difference with Notre Dame this year, schematically, is there's a lot more pistol. Is that an accurate summary, and if so, how much more pistol is involved?

"They've been quite successful with it. The offense is multiple, so QB Tommy Rees is just as likely to have an empty backfield as he is a pistol set or offset running back in the shotgun (standard, modern spread formation), but the pistol has allowed for play-action and Rees has capitalized in the passing game when the down-and-distance has been manageable."

"If Notre Dame gets off 65 snaps Saturday, at least 1/3 will be from the pistol. The key to the formation though is the inclusion of two tight ends, Troy Niklas (a constant) and Ben Koyack, an Oil City, PA native who's scored three touchdowns over the last four games and has improved tremendously in-season as a blocker. The set gives the Irish their most physical look offensively."

What are the primary concerns Notre Dame has for this Pitt team? Aaron Donald is considered a challenge by every team. After Donald, who most concerns Notre Dame?

"Quality receivers have fared well vs. Notre Dame this season and Pittsburgh has them in Devin Street (well-known to Irish fans) and Tyler Boyd (less so). Notre Dame isn't close to full strength or its expected output along its front seven and that's left the defensive backfield vulnerable this season. But the biggest concern for Irish fans is the stark drop-off defensively from 2012 to today."

"For the sake of comparison, Pittsburgh scored more than 20 percent of the touchdowns produced vs. Notre Dame in last year's regular season matchup. (Two of nine total, including the regular season's longest rushing score by Ray Graham, a mere 14 yards.) The Irish defense was legitimately great last fall. This year, they're inconsistent, both fundamentally and in the mental toughness realm. Temple, Michigan, USC and Navy all scored in first-and-goal situations on their first snap -- that wasn't plausible vs. the Irish defense last fall."

"Irish fans don't have anything on which they can hang their hats. The running game was strong vs. Oklahoma and Navy. The passing game was potent vs. Arizona State and Air Force. The defense was stout vs. USC and MSU. Rees was very good vs. Michigan except for a killer, momentum-changing interception. Though they're capable of beating all but about 9-10 teams in college football, inconsistency reigns."

The two teams have now met every year since 2008, Notre Dame going 3-2, with the last five meetings all being decided by six points or less with two overtimes. Is this a rivalry game?

"No one, from the staff, to the players, to the football intelligent faction of the Irish fan base, expects anything but a close game Saturday night. I even projected Pittsburgh or BYU as Notre Dame's second regular season loss in the pre-season (rather than Oklahoma). But in the week leading up to kickoff, it's not yet a game the team or fan base gets worked up for on par with USC or Michigan. Most would consider Pittsburgh at the old Boston College level: thorn-in-the-side status (though BC used to upset Notre Dame regularly)."

"What the Panthers must do to make this an official modern rivalry is beat a Kelly-led Irish team. Their last two wins came against Charlie Weis in 2008 and 2009. They also beat Tyrone Willingham in 2004. These are not great accomplishments considering the heights to which Kelly has taken the program since. (Both Weis and Willingham likewise won at Pittsburgh.)"

"An aggregate score of 122-118 with seven overtimes over the last five meetings is the reality, but the last three decisions have gone to Kelly's Irish. If the Panthers win this season, and thus derail Notre Dame's BCS dreams in the process, they'll go from potential pitfall to actual rival, regardless of their record vs. the rest of the nation."

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