With Pitt-Notre Dame nearly here, we checked in with SB Nation's awesome Irish blog, One Foot Down. Below are Patrick's answers to my questions about Notre Dame and the big game. Be sure to head on over to OFD for my answers to his questions a bit later.
Notre Dame obviously isn't as good as they were last season. That said, I'm not sure they're as overrated as some have made them out to be. There have been some close wins, but 7-2 at this point with that schedule isn't too bad, right?
It's right about where we thought they would be, but it is certainly not how we thought they would get there. The defense has been ravaged by injuries to key players. While some Irish fans were a little upset at how close some of the games have been against lesser opponents, most fans are just happy to have picked it up to get to 7-2.
Tommy Rees took over for Everett Golson this year and really hasn't been bad in looking at him from the outside. Are Irish fans pleased with what he's done so far?
I would say, by and large, most Notre Dame fans are very pleased with what we've seen from Rees this season. He has kept the turnovers down, and has really improved his arm strength from the full-time starter we saw in 2011. He's not the most accurate or strong-armed QB, but he's the best Notre Dame has, and he's doing a great job.
Pitt always plays Notre Dame close, it seems and even though they've lost the past three games, each one has been pretty tight. Do you see a scenario where the Irish run away with this one despite the past history?
I think that's definitely a possibility. I would say the numbers all seem to point to Notre Dame being able to handle Pitt pretty comfortably. That being said, I fully expect this game to be decided by less than a touchdown, simply because it is Pitt/ND. Pittsburgh is one of the teams that always seems to play way above their heads when going up against ND, and I fully expect them to be extra focused, cutting down on mistakes, and making life tough for the Irish on Saturday.
One reason why I give Pitt a chance in this game is because of Notre Dame's defensive line. The Irish rank near the bottom of the FBS in sacks last I checked and allowing quarterback Tom Savage to be regularly taken down has really been Pitt's Achilles heel this year. The offensive line has really struggled but I'm hoping for a break against Notre Dame's defensive line. Is the defensive line really down this season as the low sack totals would indicate or is it more of a case of playing some very good teams?
I am very surprised by this question -- Notre Dame's defense is built around its defensive line, including two All-Americans in Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. With Prince Shembo on the opposite end from Tuitt, I think it will be a long day for Savage and the Panthers' offensive line.
The lower sack totals are a combination of playing quick-passing teams, option teams, and Tuitt building back from a sports hernia surgery in the offseason. For a better look at what the defensive line will be bringing to the table, I would look at the USC game, and see the damage that Tuitt and Shembo caused along the Trojan front.
I don't think the Panther offensive line is going to get that break you're hoping for.
Like Pitt, Notre Dame has had some trouble running the ball this season. Is that more of a lack of talent at running back or is the offensive line down?
I think it is mostly due to teams willing to stack the box against the Irish, and the coaching staff's willingness to take what the defense gives them. Most defenses early in the season were willing to bring an extra defender into the box to stop the run, and force Tommy Rees to make the throws needed to beat them. The staff trusts Rees enough to allow him to throw in these situations, and that's what we saw most of the season.
As the season has gone on, the running game has improved. In my opinion, it is due to two reasons: the emergence of Ben Koyack as a very strong all around 2nd tight end behind Troy Niklas, and the narrowing down of our backfield rotation to the three strongest running backs. Freshman Tarean Folston had a breakout game against Navy, and is easily our most instinctive, talented running back. Cam McDaniel is the workhorse back, who the staff has the most trust in. He will hit the hole and get you what is there every time. George Atkinson III is the home-run hitter. He's a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. If the Panthers give the Irish the looks to run the ball, Notre Dame will take them and have the ability to capitalize.
How do you see Saturday's game shaping up?
I think the biggest factor in the result of this game will be how Pittsburgh's offense fares against ND's defense. Given the struggles of Pitt's running game and pass protection, I think if the Irish front can create some havoc, it will be a long day for the Panthers.
I think on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame will be efficient and balanced, depending on the look the Pittsburgh defense gives Tommy Rees. I don't see the offense struggling too mightily.
Despite all of that, I fully expect Pitt to benefit from a couple poor Irish turnovers or special teams plays, that allow them to keep the game close. In the end, I think Notre Dame's defense will simply be too strong for the Panthers to push them over the top, however.
Final score ND 31 - Pitt 24