Who the Heck is Pitt Playing: Notre Dame Edition

It's Game 4 of Who the Heck is Pitt Playing and today we look at what is probably the marquee opponent of the non-conference schedule.

Who the heck are we playing: The Notre Dame Fighting Irish

When and where are we playing: September 24th at Heinz Field, kickoff time TBA

Why should I care: It's Notre Dame. It will also be Pitt's second major test to see if the team has adjusted to the new system.

Have we played these guys before: Yep, a bunch of times. Notre Dame won last year in South Bend 23-17. The Irish lead the all-time series against the Panthers 45-20-1. Pitt and Notre Dame will meet for the 67th time this season. That makes the Irish the 3rd most commonly played opponent in Pitt football history, tied with Syracuse.

What conference do they play in? Notre Dame football...in a conference? Nope, still not happening. The Irish are still Independent

How did they do last season? 8-5 in 2010. The Irish dismantled Miami in the Sun Bowl, winning 33-17. Two of Pitt football's worst memories in the past few years: Miami and the Sun Bowl.

Who's the coach? That would be Brian Kelly, a man Panther fans are all too familiar with after 2009.

How many starters return? 8/9 on offense, 8 on defense, 2 on special teams*

*WR Michael Floyd wasn't a member of the team at the time Notre Dame's Spring Prospectus was written.

What's the offense like?

Brian Kelly ran a spread offense at Cincinnati and he brought that with him to South Bend. And yet as explosive as his offense at Cincinnati was in 2009 (they finished 13th in total offense), Notre Dame finished at 61st in total offense in 2010. So what was the reason for this? Well, QB uncertainty certainly helped (we'll go into further detail in a bit). But the passing game for the Irish was actually decent, finishing at 34th in passing offense with 253 yards/game. The real weakness of the Irish offense? The running game, which finished at 92nd in 126.6 yards/game. Yikes. But watch out for the Irish in 2011. There's a reason many media pundits are saying Notre Dame could be BCS bowl bound in 2011. With 9 returning starters on offense and Brian Kelly on the sidelines, you know the Irish will be improved on offense.

We start at the QB position, where the starting QB figures to be Dayne Crist heading into the opener against USF. Last year, the Irish headed into the season with no starting experience at QB and it was a big concern throughout the season. However, as we've seen when Kelly was at Cincinnati, the QB position will always be a strength wilth Brian Kelly as head coach. Crist started the first nine games for Notre Dame before being injured in the game against Todd Graham's former team, Tulsa. Tommy Rees, a true freshman at the time, came in and started the remaining four games, which the Irish all won. Crist was actually a decent QB, throwing for over 2000 yards in nine games with 15 TDs and seven picks. His completion percentage (just over 59%) needs to improve if the Irish are to make a BCS game, but you can chalk that up to having no starting experience and learning a new system last season. If Crist should fail, Rees can come in and the Irish shouldn't suffer in the passing game. Regardless, this area should be a strength for the Irish.

The running back position, however, is not a unit where the Irish can plug in players and see production. Part of the problems stem from replacing three starters on the offensive line in 2010, but that shouldn't have affected the running game this much. The Irish say goodbye to Armando Allen, but he wasn't the leader in rushing yards for the Irish anyways. That honor goes to Cierre Wood, a junior, who figures to be the team's starting running back. Wood averaged about five yards/carry and rushed for over 600 yards last season, a number that should go up with increased playing time. The pound-the-ball-up-the-middle back will be senior Jonas Gray. If Notre Dame expects to compete for a BCS berth, this unit has to improve. The passing game can be as explosive as it wants, but the Irish, with the schedule they face, cannot afford to one dimensional like Cincinnati was under Brian Kelly.

The wide receiving corps returns stud WR Michael Floyd, who won't be suspended for the Irish opener despite having three alcohol-related offenses in college (I won't get into a rant that starters get preferential treatment over other players). Getting Floyd back is huge, obviously, as it means that other WR's won't be the main target of opposing secondaries and allows them to focus on getting open. Junior Theo Riddick and sophomore T.J. Jones will be the main beneficiaries of Floyd's return as the two combined for nearly 720 yards, almost 25% of Notre Dame's passing offense, and six scores in 2010. The tight end position will be held by junior Tyler Eifert, who is more of the catching tight end than a blocking one. Look for him to be a part of the offense against the Panthers.

The line will be much improved over 2010, with four returning starters that have combined for over 100 starts. The right side of the line is the most experienced, with senior Trevor Robinson at RG and fifth-year senior Taylor Dever at RT - the two have nearly 40 starts between them. The center position will be occupied by senior Braxston Cave, who won the starting job last fall. LT will be held by junior Zack Martin, who was one of the nation's best first-year lineman in 2010 (he did not play his freshman season) and he only figures to get better in 2011. The final position, LG, will be the site of a fall camp battle between fifth-year senior Andrew Nuss and junior Chris Watt. But just looking at this line, it has potential to be one of the best in the country with all the experience they return.

This offense will be explosive under Kelly, make no mistakes about it. In year two at Cincinnati, the Bearcats and Kelly won the Big East (and then failed to show up in the Orange Bowl) behind a high-powered offensive attack. Look for the Irish to do something similar. If they don't make a BCS Bowl, expect them to at least steal the Champs Sports Bowl from the Big East.

Ok, now what about the defense? 

Brian Kelly will mainly use a 3-4 scheme in 2011, but did use other formations from time to time in 2010, like a 4-2-5 or a 4-3, He also returns a boatload of starting experience. The Irish return 11 players who have combined to start 190 games in their Notre Dame careers. The defense finished at 50th in total defense in 2010 at 357 yards allowed/game, but the question I have what will become of this defense. Brian Kelly is an offensive guru, but we saw with Cincinnati in 2009 how the defense was susceptible to giving up points in bunches. Yes, Notre Dame gets more talented players than the Bearcats, but the question is still out there and it will be one to watch in 2011.

The Irish gave up around 20 points/game, good for 23rd in FBS. The rushing defense was average, finishing at 50th in yards allowed/game at 142 yards. The passing defense was similar, finishing at 54th with 215 yards/game. Overall, the Irish defense was a solid unit. They force turnovers, have a good red zone defense, get sacks. There's much to like about this defense and if they can take their game to the next level, Notre Dame may actually be "back."

Starting up front, two seniors will play at the two ends with Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore. These two have over started over 40 games combined, so it will a battle to watch when these two match up against Pitt's offensive line. Johnson was second on the team with five sacks and six tackles for loss while Lewis-Moore led the defensive line with 66 tackles in 2010. The nose guard position will be one to watch, as starter Ian Williams graduated and his backup Sean Cwynar missed spring camp. Assuming Cwynar is healthy, he should get the starting nod, but if not, look for redshirt freshman Louis Nix III to be the starter. There is a lot of hype surrounding Nix so we will see if he is able to live up to it. The unit has some depth to it, but most of the players behind the starters lack significant playing time, so the hope for Kelly is that the unit stays healthy for 2011.

The Irish return three of four linebackers from 2010, but Kelly expects the competition to still be fierce in this unit, more so than any other unit for Notre Dame. One player who will not be competing for a spot is All-American candidate Manti Te'o at middle linebacker, who led the Irish with 133 tackles in 2010. Due to his injury in the Sun Bowl last year, he was barred from contact drills in spring camp, so it will be interesting to see how this injury affects his play in 2011. The main battles to watch in this unit will be at weakside linebacker and the other middle linebacker. The opposite inside LB should be won by Carlo Calabrese, who started at the position for 8 games last season prior to injury. As for the outside linebackers, one position will be held by senior Darius Fleming, who led the Irish in tackles for loss a year ago with 11. The other spot is a bit more confusing to pin down a specific starter, as there are several players who could start. Two players to keep an eye on are Prince Shembo and Danny Spond. Despite the confusion, this will be one of the better units on this Notre Dame team, with talented and experienced players throughout.

The secondary is by far the most experienced unit, with five players having over 80 games of starting experienced between them. At the safety position, the headliner is All-American candidate Harrison Smith, who was second on the team with 93 tackles and led the team with seven interceptions. He is, in Kelly's eyes, the leader of this defense. As for the other safety position, the battle for the starting job will be between Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta. Slaughter started the first five games, but was injured, allowing Motta to start the remaining eight games. At the cornerback position, seniors Gary Gray and Robert Blanton have the two starting positions locked down. Gray was third on the team in tackles at 66 and helped limit opposing offenses to just over 10 yards/completion, the best for Notre Dame since 1993. However, there are only two other scholarship cornerbacks behind these two, so it is imperative that they stay healthy in 2011 as there is not much else after them.

This defense, as I said at the start, should it get better, will lead Notre Dame to a good bowl game, perhaps a BCS berth. However, if they become like the Cincinnati defense in 2009, expect a lot of shootouts, and more losses than anticipated if the offense runs into a good enough defense.

What about special teams?

 Returning to his placekicker duties is fifth year senior David Ruffer, a Lou Groza Award finalist. He is one of the top rated kickers according to Mel Kiper, Jr. of ESPN. At punter will be junior Ben Turk.

Prediction?

This is without a doubt Pitt's toughest out of conference opponent and fortunately for the Panthers they get the Irish in Pittsburgh. If this was in South Bend I would pencil in a loss, but at home I am at least considering the possibility that Pittsburgh could win. It certainly helps that Graham beat this team in South Bend with arguably less talented players at Tulsa. But with all this returning talent, I'm going with my head and Pitt will lose its second game of the season 31-21.

Stats come the NCAA

Starting information comes from Notre Dame's Spring Prospectus http://issuu.com/bhardin2/docs/2011_ndfootball_springprospectus?mode=embed&layout=http%3A%2F%2Fskin.issuu.com%2Fv%2Flight%2Flayout.xml&showFlipBtn=true

If interested in learning more about the Irish, head over to Notre Dame's new SB Nation blog, One Foot Down.

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