NOTRE DAME — These next three weeks have all the makings of playing out as the opposite of these past three weeks.
After gritty, emotional wins over Stanford, BYU and Oklahoma, Notre Dame enters a stretch of games it should win comfortably and come out 11-0 to face its regular season finale at USC.
Pitt is first on that slate, followed by Boston College and Wake Forest, and — at 4-4 — is as inconsistent a team as Notre Dame will see all year. The Panthers opened their season under new head coach Paul Chryst with a loss to FCS school Youngstown State but beat then-ranked Virginia Tech two weeks later.
Pitt has fallen into a pattern of winning two in a row, then losing two in a row. If such a pattern continues, they’re primed to lose to Notre Dame today.
But Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly knows beating Pitt is rarely an easy task and that Pitt is rarely intimidated by the Irish.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us because they will play their very best here at Notre Dame Stadium,” he said of Pitt. “We’re prepared for that.”
Here’s how the teams match up:
Tino Sunseri has hit his stride in his third year as the Panthers’ starting quarterback and, in the words of Kelly, has been playing the best football of his college career.
Sunseri has climbed to eighth nationally in passing efficiency, completing 69 percent of this throws for 2,199 total passing yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. Sunseri hasn’t thrown a pick in five games, since Pitt’s win over Virginia Tech.
Receiver Devin Street is Sunseri’s primary target and leads the Panthers with 50 catches for 695 yards and four touchdowns. At 6-foot-5, wideout Mike Shanahan presents a tall, deep threat, averaging 17.1 yards per catch for 631 total yards this season.
On the ground, tailback Ray Graham has recovered from last season’s ACL injury and leads the Panthers with 134 carries for 622 yards and seven touchdowns, while freshman running back Rushel Shell has contributed 441 rushing yards and four scores.
Graham and Street ran into some legal trouble earlier this week but are expected to travel with the team and take the field today.
While Pitt’s offense looks good from a numbers standpoint, the Panthers have yet to beat a team with a defense ranked in the Top 40 in the nation. Pitt has beaten Virginia Tech (49th), Gardener-Webb (101st in FCS), Buffalo (54th) and Temple (68th).
By comparison, Notre Dame has the 11th-best total defense in the country against much more talented competition.
On one hand, Pitt has the 29th-ranked defense in the nation. On the other hand, Cincinnati scored 35 points on the Panthers, while Louisville scored 45. Even Youngstown State scored 31 during its rout of Pitt.
Four teams (Youngstown State, Cincinnati, Louisville and Buffalo) rushed for more than 150 yards against Pitt, which should make Notre Dame running backs Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III and even Cam McDaniel drool at the possibilities.
Pitt lost two starting linebackers — Dan Mason and Manny Williams — to injury last week and graduated another slew of veterans after last season. Joe Trebitz will make his first career start at middle linebacker, though he’s also battling a dislocated elbow from earlier this season.
Pitt will dress as few as five linebackers today, which could present a conditioning issue for the Panthers against a very mobile Notre Dame ground game.
The Panthers secondary is much more talented and experienced, anchored by safety Jason Hendricks, who has 44 tackles and a Big East-leading four interceptions on the season.
If Everett Golson can come back from the Oklahoma win with a solid performance at home and the tailbacks keep running the ball like they have been, the game won’t even be close.
This Notre Dame team — especially this defense — is too disciplined and too mature to allow a slip up at this point in the season. Pitt will make it a game in the first half, but Notre Dame will pull away in the final two quarters for a comfortable win.
Notre Dame 28, Pitt 9