NATIONAL ATTENTION GETS THE BEST OF PITT
This will be the fifth game of the season for Pitt, yet by the time it kicks off, it will already be Pitt's third nationally-televised game. Not to mention, it's another big game against a team that gets a lot of media attention--arguably the most of any school, in Notre Dame.
With games at Utah on a Thursday night to kickoff the season, its first Thursday night home game in four seasons, against Miami, and now this tough road game at Notre Dame--this is the chance Pitt has waited for to put itself on a national stage. Wins against all three would be defining for this era of the program. A 2-1 record would be nice too, but this is a national TV audience. Wins or losses on that kind of stage sway heavily in one direction or the other.
One of the storylines heading into this year's meeting will be Pitt looking for another three-game win streak in this series with the Irish. Three other times in this series, (1931-33; 1958-60; 1983, 86-87), have the Panthers won three in a row. A win in South Bend would also give the Panthers their third consecutive win in South Bend (2004, 2008), something that's even more rare for any opponent that Notre Dame has played.
The biggest story line for this game will be the coaching matchup between first-year head coach Brian Kelly and Dave Wannstedt--former Big East rivals. Kelly was 2-1 against Wannstedt, with both wins deciding the Big East champion in the last two years. The last win at Heinz Field was an epic 46-45 win for Cincinnati that locked Pitt out of a BCS bowl bid. Do the Panthers take it personal, looking to extract revenge against Kelly? Or, is it more of a motivational thing to get that third win in a row against Notre Dame? It's sure to be a good topic of debate heading into the game.
QUESTIONS SURROUNDING NOTRE DAME
Going back to Kelly, he employed a spread offense that was very successful at Cincinnati. Take a look at the last two Cincinnati wins over Pitt to prove it. In 2009, this style of offense scored three touchdowns in a span of 5:28 of the fourth quarter, to steal a win in Pittsburgh. The year before, against a vaunted Pittsburgh pass rush, the Bearcats allowed just two sacks.
On paper, it looks like Kelly has some more options to run his offense and some more depth than he had to work with at Cincinnati. He does have some questions to answer first, starting with the offensive line. Only starters--guards Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson--return. Sophomores Alex Bullard and Zack Martin, with seniors Taylor Dever and Matt Romine will compete for the two vacated tackle spots. Based on experience, Dever and Romine have the edge heading into the season. Dever has played in 18 career games, in a reserve role, while Romine has appeared in 15. Bullard and Martin have no previous playing experience.
Usually, with an experienced line, you can buy yourself some time in developing a quarterback. In fact, an experienced line providing solid pass protection boosts any quarterback's confidence level. Dayne Christ, who has a strong arm, lacks the starting experience in replacing Jimmy Clausen, but there's also a question of if he's the right type of quarterback for this system. Christ is more of a traditional pro-style quarterback-he's got a big-time arm, but with limited mobility. Time will tell. One thing for sure, is that Kelly knows how to coach up his quarterbacks. Tony Pike wasn't nearly as recruited coming out of high school, and because of what he did in this offense, he is in camp with the Carolina Panthers right now, ironically, competing with Jimmy Klausen.
Though the secondary is strong at cornerback, the Irish must replace two safeties. Darrin Walls, now in his fifth year, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray have all started at least seven games in their careers. Harrison Smith (69 tackles, 6.5 TFL) will probably lock up one of the safety spots. The other will be a battle between juniors Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy.
NOTRE DAME POSITIVES
There is good news when it comes to being an offensive line in this type of system. The rules and blocking schemes are a little more unconventional than it would be for a more traditional offense. The tackles don't have to hold their blocks as long, and if they are undersized tackles, a lot of it is about sliding and just filling spots. Look no further than the trouble Pitt had against Cincinnati two years ago, in getting to the quarterback. Two players that will help Christ and the offensive line, as well as being the beneficiaries of being in a pass-happy offense, are junior receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
In fact, Rudolph will be in less blocking situations as a tight end, and be treated more like a receiver. Last season, on his way to being a semifinalist for the Mackey Award, he caught 33 passes for 364 yards and three touchdowns. Floyd was second on the team in receiving behind Golden Tate, with 44 receptions for 795 yards and nine touchdowns.
Both players are being touted as preseason All-Americans by several publications, and will have the opportunity to put up big numbers in this offense.
At running back, Armando Allen may not have had the numbers that LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis have put up the last two seasons, but he has led the Irish in rushing for two straight seasons, and he does provide some stability to the position. Again, with little experience returning on the offensive line, he will need some help, but with 19 starts returning, he provides some senior leadership to the offense. Allen has rushed for 585 and 697 yards in each of the last two seasons.
Defensively, the Irish are switching to a 3-4 defense, which is beneficial to their personnel. Whoever their front seven will be, it is a strong and experienced unit. If they adjust to the new scheme quickly, they could be dangerous. They return senior defensive tackle Ian Williams, who should be very comfortable at the nose position in this defense. Williams will be flanked by defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore. All three were starters last year.
The linebacker corps is also experienced. Brian Smith and Darius Fleming lead the unit. Smith has lined up at inside and outside linebacker during his career, and will go back to outside linebacker for his senior year. He was Notre Dame's leading tackler last season (71 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Fleming, a disruptive force on the outside, led the team with 12 tackles for a loss. Senior Kerry Neal has 21 career starts, and will also be in the mix. There's also sophomore Mantei Te'o, who started 10 games as a freshman last year. He figures to lock up one of the inside spots. The other inside linebacker spot will be a camp battle between sophomore Carlo Calabrese, junior Anthony McDonald, and former WPIAL players Steve Paskorz (Hampton) and David Posluszny (Hopewell).
HOW FORMER WPIAL STANDOUTS ARE FARING AT NOTRE DAME
Darrin Walls - CB (Woodland Hills)
- 63 career tackles in 21 starts, 2 INT and 16 PBU
Brian Castello - walk-on QB (Chartiers Valley)
E.J. Banks - CB (Montour)
- did not play in any games as a freshman last year, but is in excellent position to be in the two-deep at corner this year.
Steve Paskorz - LB (Hampton)
- has bounced back between fullback and linebacker during his career, and is now back at linebacker for his senior year, where he will compete for one of the starting spots at inside linebacker. Paskorz has played in 12 career games.
David Posluszny - LB (Hopewell)
- played in 10 games as a sophomore last year, and like Paskorz, is one of those players battling for a starting spot at inside linebacker.