PITTSBURGH — After games against BYU and Oklahoma, Notre Dame plays at home Saturday against a more familiar opponent in Pittsburgh.
Sam Werner, a Pitt beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a Notre Dame graduate, answers questions about Panthers’ quarterback Tino Sunseri’s emergence and if Pitt has what it takes to upset the 8-0 Irish.
Q: Pitt’s a 4-4 team under a new head coach with a win over then-ranked Virginia Tech and a loss to Youngstown State. What are you making of the team under coach Paul Chryst after eight games? Can you see this being a six-win season?
Sam Werner: I think the team was really inconsistent to start the year, with the Youngstown State and Virginia Tech games sort of being perfect examples of “Good Pitt/Bad Pitt,” but has really started to find its identity in the last few weeks.
The offense is at least starting to resemble what I think Paul Chryst wants it to look like, which is a run-based attack that can make just enough plays in the passing game to keep defenses honest (much like at Wisconsin).
I think Pitt will be right on the cusp of bowl eligibility this season, and it might come down to the last game of the year at South Florida. Chryst’s biggest goal — providing stability for a program that has had absolutely none over the last four years — will take a couple of years, but I think he is the right guy to do it.
Q: Quarterback Tino Sunseri hasn’t thrown an interception in five games, he’s completing 69 percent of his passes and he’s ranked eighth nationally in passing efficiency. What happened over the course of the season to make him so much better? How do you see him faring against Notre Dame’s defense?
SW: He’s much more comfortable in the pro-style offense than he was in Todd Graham’s spread. I don’t necessarily want to say he has to “do less,” in this offense, but he’s much more aware of what reads and checks he has to make. He looks more confident when he’s making his reads and throws, which translates into much better passes.
His receivers, particularly Devin Street, have also stepped up this season, so that has helped. I think if he has time to throw (which is a massive, massive “if”), he could be all right. If Notre Dame plays the same way they did against Oklahoma, dropping eight guys into coverage frequently, Sunseri has been good enough this season to make his progressions and find open guys.
Q: Judging by the stat line alone, it looks like tailback Ray Graham hasn’t fully bounced back from his ACL injury. He had 958 rushing yards in eight games last season but 622 in the same span this year. How has Graham looked this year, and how does his freshman backup Rushel Shell work in the rotation?
SW: Graham has gotten progressively better as the season has gone on. He has finally shed his knee brace, which is a good sign. You could tell earlier in the season that he was still learning to trust his knee again, but I think he’s almost back to 100 percent now. He had 109 yards last week against Temple, including one 35-yard run where he juked a defender out of his shoes and looked like “the old Ray Graham,” so to speak.
Shell is also a really important part of the running game. Usually the coaches will have he and Graham alternate drives early in the game and then work out the rotation based on who seems to be the hot hand. Shell is a much more physical runner than Graham even though he’s only a freshman. He isn’t afraid to run over defenders and is pretty good at getting yards after contact.
Q: Pitt lost two starting linebackers against Temple last week. How do their replacements look? Has anyone stood out in the Panther defense?
SW: This is a major area of concern for Pitt. They should be OK on the outside, with Todd Thomas taking over the weakside linebacker position full-time for Manny Williams. Thomas is a good enough athlete that he can play that position well.
At middle linebacker, though, it doesn’t look good. They lost Dan Mason for the season last week, and the regular starter, Shane Gordon, has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain. It looks like at this point Joe Trebitz is going to make his first career start at middle linebacker, and he’s still wearing an arm brace from a dislocated elbow earlier this season.
It also doesn’t look like he will have a backup, which is sort of scary for Pitt.
To counter that, as well as Notre Dame’s spread offense, I would expect Pitt to go with a lot of nickel and dime formations. That also allows them to get safeties Andrew Taglianetti and Ray Vinopal, two very good players who are backups because of Pitt’s depth at the position, on the field.
As for a standout player, safety Jason Hendricks has had a real good nose for the ball this season. He leads the Big East with four interceptions and has done a good job studying film and recognizing routes as they develop.
Q: Chryst was the offensive coordinator for Wisconsin when it knocked off No. 1 Ohio State in 2010. If the Chryst and the Panthers are going to replicate that win against Notre Dame on Saturday, what’s it going to take on both sides of the ball?
SW: First, I think it’s essential that Pitt either keeps it close or takes a lead early. This isn’t an offense that’s conditioned to play from behind, so if the Panthers fall behind by double-digits in the first quarter, it’s over.
They’re going to have to be able to run the ball at least a little bit against Notre Dame, and maybe hit one or two big plays through the air to set up scores, because they won’t be able to march up and down the field against the Irish defense.
On defense for Pitt, they need to stop the run. It’s that simple. In Notre Dame’s two blowout wins (Navy and Miami), the Irish just ran up and down the field. If Pitt can contain the running game and force Everett Golson to make some plays, that’s their best bet. Also, like in any major upset, some turnovers and/or a big special teams play usually can be key ingredients.