Pitt will take on not only a familiar opponent in Notre Dame on Saturday, but also a familiar coach in former Cincinnati Bearcats coach, Brian Kelly.
Pitt and Notre Dame will square off for the 66th time. Meanwhile, Kelly in his first year with the Irish has a team that's struggled a bit. But on the road, Pitt will have its hands full. I don't expect the Panthers to be awestruck when they take the field - after all, many of them were there for Pitt's game against the Irish only two seasons ago. But it's still a challenge to go into a place like Notre Dame and come out with a win.
The Irish may be down a little, but it's still a game against Notre Dame and the players are excited - especially since some of them were recruited by the Irish:
Pitt junior wideout Jon Baldwin was heavily recruited by Notre Dame, and he even took a visit to South Bend before committing to the Panthers.
Baldwin made a second trip to see the Fighting Irish as a freshman at Pitt in 2008, but that wasn’t as memorable as last year’s game at Heinz Field.
On the third try, Baldwin caught a fade pass for a touchdown at Notre Dame as a freshman, but his diving, 36-yard reception for a score last fall was as spectacular as it gets. He averaged 28.4 yards on just five catches.
"My freshman year, the environment was great," Baldwin said. "There’s a great tradition out there, but I could have done better. So, I just circled that game on my calendar for last season, and I ended up having a great game.
"I circled it on my calendar again this year, so I plan to have a great game this time, too. I took one trip out to Notre Dame, so I wasn’t surprised by anything. I went there on a visit, but I’m really looking forward to going back this year."
Pitt junior right offensive guard Lucas Nix also made the trip to Notre Dame as a freshman in 2008. He played sparingly that season, but hopes to make an impact on the Irish defense this year.
"I was recruited by them, and it was nice – I guess an honor, you could say – for them to come to my school," Nix said. "But I never took an unofficial visit out there. I stayed in Pittsburgh, pretty much, but I remember the last time we went out there. It’s definitely an experience.
Going back to Baldwin a bit, he had a coming out party of sorts last year when the two teams met at Heinz Field. He caught five balls for 142 yards including a spectacular diving touchdown. Apparently, the defensive back who gave up some of those catches to JB last year wants some redemption:
Walls covered Baldwin step for step until the Pitt receiver stretched out to make a spectacular, diving, 36-yard catch in the second quarter of a 27-22 victory over the Fighting Irish last season at Heinz Field.
While those two plays continue to haunt Walls, the Notre Dame senior cornerback swears he isn't stung by Baldwin's comments Monday that he "never even heard" of the former Woodland Hills standout before they played last November. And he didn't know if Walls was physical because Walls didn't press him at the line of scrimmage or tackle him.
"I've seen what he said," Walls said Wednesday. "I really don't care about it. I know I'm a different player from last year, and so is he. I don't really talk much. We'll see what happens Saturday."
And despite being off to a slow start, Baldwin thinks he'll again have a big game on Saturday:
"I circled the game on my calendar the last two years, and I circled the game again for this year, and I plan on having a great game," Baldwin told reporters.
We all know Baldwin can't be effective if he doesn't get the ball. And the player in charge of that is going to have all eyes on him:
Players on the spot: Pittsburgh QB Tino Sunseri. Sunseri rebounded from a 2-of-9 start against Florida International to complete 13 of his final 14 passes, for 204 yards. Will he carry that momentum into the game against Notre Dame? Between a healthy Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, Pitt should have an effective running back duo. The retooled offensive line did not allow a sack last week against FIU.
Sunseri struggled in his last true test against Miami, but did fairly well against Utah in his first start on the road. Really, I've got no clue what to expect. Tino's going to have his good moments and his bad ones this year. One thing that's slightly encouraging is that Notre Dame's pass defense is just as bad as Pitt's, ranking 96th in the nation giving up almost 250 yards per game.
But Notre Dame's strength is its passing game. Still, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt doesn't think this passing attack is as strong as Cincinnati's was last year:
Wannstedt says Kelly’s offense is similar to the one he employed so successfully at Cincinnati behind quarterback Tony Pike and big-play receiver Mardy Gilyard. It’s just that Notre Dame’s players aren’t quite as experienced in the offense.
"Both coordinators are with him, so schematically there is a lot of carry-over," Wannstedt said. "They’re not quite as far along in their passing game today at Notre Dame like they were last year at the end of the year with Cincinnati with having those kids around him a couple of years."
That may be true, but Notre Dame's aerial game is still a potent one, ranking 17th in the nation. Mix that with Pitt's pass defense that ranks 92nd and you've got a recipe for disaster. And with Pitt's secondary struggles, the Panthers will need to get to QB Dayne Crist. I'm hoping we'll see more blitz packages even though that's not Pitt's typical approach.
So what's my prediction? Well I'm sticking with ESPN.com's Brian Bennett in calling for a narrow Pitt loss. Pitt has the tools and the players to win, but they really struggle against the pass and unless they can come away with some turnovers, I think that will be the team's downfall. I'll go with Notre Dame 23, Pitt 20.