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Pitt faces tough test in No. 5 Notre Dame

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

A week after scoring a nice win over Syracuse, Pitt will face an even stiffer challenge this weekend in No. 5 Notre Dame. While the home game against Penn State was arguably the team’s feature game, in the Fighting Irish, the Panthers may be facing an even better team.

And judging how things went against Penn State, well, it has the potential to get ugly.

Forget that Pitt will even be playing on the road for a second. Notre Dame is a perfect 6-0 with wins over three ranked opponents. Their latest feat was traveling to Virginia Tech this weekend for a night game and coming away with a 22-point win. Head coach Brian Kelly is in his ninth year with the Irish and this looks to be his best team yet.

Things all start at quarterback for Notre Dame with junior Ian Book. Book has only 887 passing yards on the season so the casual fan might think he’s not much of a passer. But those numbers are through a mere three games as he was the team’s backup for the first three contests this year. He had his chance in Week 4 after some close games and Notre Dame, frankly, has looked like a much different team.

Book is not only averaging about 300 yards a game, but he’s played mostly mistake-free ball with nine touchdowns to only a single interception. The Irish won their first three games by only 20 points and didn’t look like the team they are now. Since Book took over, they’ve won by a whopping 72 - an average of 24 points per game. That has included blowout wins against ranked Stanford and Virginia Tech teams.

No one skill guy is having a standout year for Notre Dame. Rather, they’ve got contributions coming from a variety of places. Miles Boykin is the top receiver but even his totals are pretty modest for a team that’s scored so many points (28 catches for 428 yards and three touchdowns). At running back, it’s a team that’s used a by-committee approach. Taking the quarterbacks out of the mix, three guys, Dexter Williams, Tony Jones, Jr., and Jafar Armstrong, have all had at least 35 carries this year. All three are averaging at least five yards per carry, so they’ve all earned their playing time, it seems.

Defensively, Notre Dame has been very good, too. They’ve held four teams under 20 points three times and the most they’ve given up all year is 27 to Wake Forest, of all teams. They’ve been most stingy at home and their two highest outputs given up (Wake and Virginia Tech) both came on the road. To say Pitt’s offense will be tested is an understatement with the Irish giving up no more than 17 points to anyone at home.

This is one of those games you basically throw out if you’re a Pitt fan. The Panthers did have that 2016 season where they went on the road and took down Clemson. We can also look at last year’s win over Miami. Because of that, folks will always be hesitant to say Pitt absolutely can’t win. But the Pitt team that beat Clemson had a lot of talent on offense and this is one still finding its way around. And last year’s Miami team was playing on the road and not as good as their No. 2 ranking.

That’s not to diminish those wins in any way. But a win against Notre Dame this year would probably be the most impressive given the circumstances and given the talent on this team. The Panthers will need to not only score points this weekend to win but will have to play as close to lights out defensively as they can - and I don’t see that happening.

I don’t want to sound like Mr. Doom and Gloom here. And, truthfully, the players themselves should be expecting more. But no matter how you add this week’s game up, it’s hard to see a favorable result. I suppose you never say never, but this one has the look of a throwaway to me. I’ll be watching much closer for things like some development of individual guys than I will be for an actual victory. And, by the way, that’s okay.

I’ll be watching, as I expect most of you will. But I’m not sure I’m expecting much from a scoreboard vantage point. Pitt keeping it somewhat close would be a reasonable outcome and the hope here is that we don’t see another loss that gets out of hand.

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