Pitt Vs. Notre Dame Football: Cardiac Hill Preview

A week ago today, things were totally different. Pitt and the ACC weren't even on my radar. The next day, Twitter exploded and for the past week, we've been all over the expansion stuff.

Part of me feels a bit guilty because I know there are plenty of people who couldn't care less about college football expansion or if the Big 12 is going to explode or continue as is. But I'm fascinated by what's going on and the blog has kind of taken a turn in that direction this week.

I'm getting this preview up a bit late, but it's time to turn our attention to the Irish a bit.

As I mentioned in the Q&A with ESPN's Dave Pasch this week, Notre Dame may be the best 1-2 team in the country.The Irish have lost their two games by a total of seven points - and it's safe to say that anyone paying attention is aware of the crushing loss to Michigan two weeks ago. Notre Dame may not be a great team, but I'm convinced they're better than their record would indicate. Part of that is because of the 31-13 thrashing they gave Michigan State last weekend.

So what can we expect Saturday? Well the game, as expected, is a sellout. A few tickets returned by Notre Dame are on sale, but for the first time this year, Heinz Field will basically be at capacity. No one would argue that Pitt has the game day experience of places like The Big House or The Swamp, but when the stadium is full, it's a great time and definitely gets loud. As Jerry DiPaola of the Trib points out - that hasn't happened a lot. Since the move in 2001, there have only been five sellouts (for the record, Notre Dame has accounted for three of those).

On the field, Pitt is mostly healthy. But with the talk that Chris Jacobson may miss the game, Pitt's already thin offensive line will get a bit thinner. While Notre Dame isn't expected to put a ton of pressure on the quarterback, as evidenced by their five sacks, they are capable of doing some damage. K'Waun Williams and Chas Alecxih also were dinged up but I've heard less about them, so I'm assuming they'll be ready to go.

Other than the offensive line, which could be dealing with the loss of Jacobson, where else should we be paying attention? The biggest concern (with all due respect to those who think Tino Sunseri is the weakest part of the team) is in pass coverage. We knew it was bad, but this week I was shocked to find out just how bad:

That has Pitt ranked next-to-last in the nation in pass defense, giving up an average of 336 yards a game.

It goes without saying, but there's no excuse for that. Pitt is in a new system and the talent is built more for a 4-3 than a 3-4 defense. But the defense is full of talent. Brandon Lindsey's a lock to play on Sundays and could even be a first-round pick. Jarred Holley, Chas Alecxih, and Myles Caragein should get some looks. And while it's too early to tell on the younger guys, Juan Price and Aaron Donald have shown a lot as well. Regardless of a new scheme and new coaches, there's too much talent there for the team to be ranked nearly dead last in pass coverage.

Seemingly everyone is picking up on Pitt's poor coverage lately - including Notre Dame's official blog:

Last week, Michael Floyd had six catches for 84 yards - a solid contribution from the senior receiver, but seemingly small compared to the first two weeks of the season, in which he caught 25 passes for 313 yards. Tommy Rees did not pass the ball against the Spartans as frequently as during the first two games, but that might change this weekend. Pittsburgh is currently ranked 119th in pass defense. To put that in perspective, there are 120 FBS schools. There might not be a better opportunity all season for more of the Rees-Floyd combination. If the early season statistics ring true, we can expect to see a lot of Irish offense through the air at Heinz Field.

Meanwhile, Tristan Roberts (somewhat surprisingly) thinks the team has a good hold on things:

"In the spring, it was really confusing," he said. "We were all over the place. We figured it out on the fly. At this point, we're pretty comfortable with it."

If you miss the irony of this quote coming out after giving up 400 yards in the air to Iowa then I can't help you. Seriously, though, there are a few ways to go here. Tristan could be completely playing up to the media, which is fine. Or Pitt's defenders really are comfortable with the scheme but lack the talent to execute it. Or, lastly and probably most disturbing, Roberts thinks the pass coverage isn't all that bad.

But the pass coverage hasn't been bad all the time. The fourth quarters have been particularly painful and Todd Graham, for one, can't figure it out:

In the first three games of the season, the Panthers have been outscored, 49-13, in the fourth quarter.

"It's been something else," Coach Todd Graham said. "It's all come in the last couple of minutes of the game. The fourth quarter has been tough."

Graham has put a lot of thought into the phenomena.

"It's tough to figure out," he said. "We shut out all three opponents in the first quarter. In the first two games, the other teams came on but this was different down the stretch. We had about 12 critical mistakes on defense down the stretch. We made a lot of mental mistakes, a lot on blitzes as we were trying to execute the new system."

 

Like others have theorized, I think fatigue is a part of it even though Todd Graham said it's not.

On the offensive side of the ball, how well the Panthers executed last weekend in the first three quarters has been all the rage:

"We went up 24-3," Graham said. "We made tremendous progress. For the first time it resembled what we’re trying to make it look like and what we’re trying to do."

And while Pitt was able to get off to a good start against Iowa, ESPN blogger Matt Fortuna thinks the Irish can get off to a good one at Heinz Field:

An opening-drive score: Notre Dame has been nearly flawless on its opening drives so far. Of course, that one flaw ended up costing the Fighting Irish six points the other way. Regardless, the Irish have been efficient in the early going, scoring opening-drive touchdowns in their past two games and coming a yard shy in their first game before a goal-line fumble. Expect more of the same against a suspect Pitt secondary.

So it's prediction time. One Foot Down, SB Nation's Notre Dame blog, calls for a big Irish win. A Notre Dame blowout wouldn't completely surprise me, but after seeing what Pitt did to Iowa on the road for three quarters last Saturday and Notre Dame's penchant for turnovers, it's hard to see a blowout at home.

I do think the Irish are the better team, though, and will pick an Irish win, 37-31.

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