Notre Dame visits Heinz Field on Saturday (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Two days, two Q&As. This time, we've got one with Jon over at SB Nation Notre Dame blog, One Foot Down. Be sure to visit their site for my answers to his questions about Pitt.
1. Okay, let's get this out of the way - was the Michigan loss the worst you've witnessed as an Irish fan?
Ugh. I was in attendance for that game. I sat through the entire 3-9 season in 2007 and was there for the losses to Syracuse and UConn in ’08 and ’09 and two losses to Navy, and that Michigan game was definitely the most painful. The one redeeming quality of that game was that it was by far the most exciting game I’ve ever been to and my first time in the Big House, so I’ll remember it somewhat fondly.
As bad as that game was, though, nothing will top the 2005 USC game any time soon (even th
ough that game didn’t technically happen). At the end of the day, the Michigan game was basically two mediocre teams falling over themselves in alternating fashion. The USC game pitted the best team in the country against an overachieving Irish team intent on making a name for themselves and their brash new coach. The team played out of its mind and refused to go away. A decade of frustration and losing was almost wiped out when the clock hit 0:00 after Leinart’s fumble. But then the refs put more time on the clock, gave USC the most favorable spot I’ve ever seen, and then… dammit. So yeah, that game still hurts.
2. The Irish could easily be 3-0 and as last week's thrashing against Michigan State proved, are probably the best 1-2 team out there right now. How far do you see this team going? Is a BCS bowl possible?
I think a BCS bowl is still possible. For the BCS to consider Notre Dame, the Irish would have to finish 10-2 and USC and Stanford would need to have good seasons to bolster the Irish schedule. Notre Dame lost early which is always a good thing and the BCS loves ND because they bring fans and TV viewers and might give them a berth whether they deserve it or not. At 10-2 I think it would be hard to turn the Irish down.
But in a more realistic sense, I don’t think the Irish will make a BCS bowl. I see them dropping at least one more game, probably two. I predicted 9-3 before the season started and I think that’s still possible, but it leaves the Irish with little margin for error. It’s not like the Irish are in the SEC West, but there are some tough games coming up. Pitt, Maryland, USC, Navy, Air Force, and Stanford are all games I could see the Irish dropping. This team is too good to end up 7-5 again, so I think they’ll go 8-4 with a chance at 9-3, though that would be tough to pull off.
3. Pitt fans have grown accustomed to playing Notre Dame as this will be the seventh time the teams have met in the past decade. As I wrote about last month, there's also been talk of a longer-term deal. From this side of things, Pitt fans look forward to this game each year, but I'm curious to hear the Irish perspective. Do Notre Dame fans care about Pitt? Are the Panthers even on their radar?
It seems like everyone claims Notre Dame as a rival sometimes. I don’t want to speak for all Irish fans, but I hardly consider Pitt a rival. USC, Boston College, Michigan, and Michigan State are all schools I would put ahead of Pitt, and really, after those four, I don’t think I would call anyone else a true rival (sorry Purdue).
That said, I also enjoy our games with you guys. Pitt gives Notre Dame a quality opponent on its schedule that it has a bit of history with. And outside of the shellacking Notre Dame gave Pitt in 2005 (sorry, had to bring that up) these games tend to be tight and go down to the wire. So even though I don’t work up a frothy anger when we play you, I enjoy having you on the schedule and hope we can keep it going in the future.
4. Having dealt with Brian Kelly while he was at Cincinnati, I'm always impressed with his teams. Personally, I think he has the Irish on the right track, but where does he stand in your eyes and with the fans?
I think the Irish are definitely on the right track. Kelly has worked hard to improve both the offensive and defensive lines and that work is showing up this season. The two lines are probably the best the Irish have had in years. Though the start to the season has been a little disappointing, the Irish aren’t losing due to lack of talent anymore, and that’s the biggest sign of improvement, I think.
There are still some fans that have been upset with Kelly’s performance so far (the Navy and Tulsa losses last year, the two losses to start the season, etc.), but they’re the type of fans who would be complaining if the ghost of Knute Rockne was coaching this team. It’s very difficult to please Notre Dame fans, but this program can’t be turned around overnight. Kelly has the team moving in the right direction and those fans will come over eventually.
5. What are the holes on Notre Dame's team that Pitt can try to exploit Saturday?
Though there’s no way I would have said this at the beginning of the season, the secondary is a big weakness. Senior RJ Blanton has been all kinds of awesome this year, but his battery mate, senior Gary Gray, has struggled mightily so far. Gray had a good season last year so his performance has been mystifying. If I was drawing up the Pitt passing game, I would stay away from Blanton and attack Gray all afternoon.
On the offensive side, the Irish were dealt a big blow when TE Mike Ragone went down with a season-ending knee injury. He was maybe our best blocking tight end and really helped drive our powerful running game in the first two games of the season. Against MSU, the Irish went to more spread sets and still ran the ball well, but in the second half they couldn’t get anything done on the ground when they were trying to run out the clock. So if Pitt stacks the box to take away the run, it will put the game into the turnover-prone hands of Tommy Rees. But then you’re taking your chances with Michael Floyd, so I guess Pitt has to pick its poison.
6. With conference realignment shifting everything around, where does Notre Dame stand? Obviously, they'll try to hold out for as long as possible, but do you think the time will come when they'll be forced to join a conference? If so, where is the best fit for them?
We’ve had quite the discussion about this over at One Foot Down. Notre Dame is definitely in "wait and see" mode. They want to hold on to independence as long as possible and will resist joining a conference until
the last minute. Notre Dame has a brand they will protect to the last breath. Being a small Catholic school in Indiana, football independence allows Notre Dame the opportunity to play teams across the country and stay relevant in the media. This obviously helps to attract football talent nationwide, but it also keeps the school in the minds of high school kids which helps Notre Dame get the best and brightest students to apply. I’m speculating here, but Notre Dame is worried that joining a conference will turn the school into "just another school" in the conference and Notre Dame will be pigeonholed to one area of the country and those advantages independence brought will be gone. So don’t expect Notre Dame to join a conference any time soon unless something really catastrophic hits.
As for which conference would be best if the doomsday scenario did happen, the ACC is looking more and more attractive. With the addition of Pitt and Syracuse, the conference stretches all along the east coast, giving Notre Dame a large footprint to work with. The Big Ten seemed like the best fit a few days ago, but that conference is centered very heavily in the Midwest and there is a bit of bad blood between Notre Dame and the other schools in the B1G. I would look for Notre Dame to make a push for the ACC if the unthinkable happens.
7. What's your pick for this weekend?
I like Notre Dame in this game a lot. Ray Graham worries me, but the Irish defense has been murder on opposing tailbacks so far this season. The Pitt offense might give Notre Dame problems if Sunseri starts picking on Gary Gray and hitting his tall receivers for big gains, but outside of the bizarre fourth quarter against Michigan, the Irish defense has been lights out. On offense, I look for the Irish to finally stop turning the ball over. I mean, it has to stop eventually. I think. There are too many weapons for this offense to be stopped by anyone but themselves. I think the game will be closer than the Michigan State game was last week, so I’ll say the Irish win with a score of 31-24.