Pitt hopes to keep momentum as stumbling Irish come to Heinz Field
By Kent Brown
It was supposed to be the biggest home game in Dave Wannstedt’s career.
The 7-2 Fighting Irish coming to town against, looking for a BCS Bowl Game and sporting a top 20 ranking. College Gameday in the Steel City. The Panthers with an 8-1 record, a top 10 ranking and 5 straight wins.
Perhaps the biggest game Pitt has played since they upset WVU 13-9 and spoiled the Mountaineers goal of playing for the national championship.
There was just one little problem, Navy 23 Notre Dame 21 in South Bend, Indiana. College Gameday gone and off to Forth Worth for Utah @ TCU. Notre Dame goes from a clear top 20 team to out of the top 25.
Does the appeal go away? A bit. But this is still a huge game for both teams. And I would say it is safe to say that this game means a lot more for ND than it does for Pitt. This is a non-conference game for Pitt and all that truly matters is the remainder of the Big East season.
In fact, this game is not just big for the Irish, but it is monumental for Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. If he loses this game, it may be the end of the road for him in South Bend.
So what will happen? Will the Irish come to Pittsburgh motivated and play to “Win one for Coach Weis.” Or will the Panthers do what they’ve been doing all season, and dominate the opposition. Make no mistake, Pitt has been the better team this season. But are they much better than Notre Dame? I don’t think so.
For Notre Dame to win this game, quite a few things must happen. First and foremost, the Notre Dame offensive line must to a great job of blocking Pitt’s front four. Mick Williams, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are all having very good seasons. In Notre Dame’s 2nd loss of the season, USC routinely got into the Notre Dame backfield with just 3 and 4 rushes. If this occurs again, expect the Panthers to win.
One more key is what will Notre Dame do when they get into the red zone. It’s clear that Notre Dame lost last week’s game because of their ineffectiveness in the red zone. The Irish have had 39 red zone trips this season and have scored only 20 touchdowns. When you have future 1st round picks in QB Jimmy Clausen, WR Michael Floyd, WR Golden Tate, TE Kyle Rudolph, you should be better than that.
It’s clear that the one game this season in which Clausen was held in check was Boston College. Note, Clausen was 26 for 39 with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. However, the BC defense forced Clausen to dink ‘n dunk. The Irish needed long, sustained drives. This should be Pitt’s strategy. If they bring the blitz, it will almost definitely be a long day for the Panthers defense because their cornerbacks will not be able to keep up with Floyd and Tate one-on-one.
And finally, how will the Irish contain potential All-American RB Dion Lewis? If Lewis establishes himself early, I really do not see any way the Irish will keep Pitt under 30 points. What the Irish need to do is hold Lewis to about 100 yards rushing, but make him earn those yards. Any big yardage plays will mean the Irish will be hesitant and that will open things up for Dickerson and Baldwin. And believe me, Dickerson is going to have a big game. I would imagine somewhere near 8 -10 receptions, 120-140 yards and 1-2 TD’s. Baldwin had the big 4th down catch in the 4th quarter last season and I have no doubt that Pitt will look for Baldwin in those red zone situations this season.
What I expect to happen is both teams will move the ball, especially between the 20’s. The big difference will be who can punch it the end zone when both teams are in the red zone? I am still not sure, but I do expect Notre Dame to abandon the run, for the most part, with just 1 scholarship Tight End healthy. Notre Dame’s TE Kyle Rudolph is out for the game and the Irish will probably not be able to run the ball that well on Pitt anyway.
Not too mention, Notre Dame’s best bet to beat Pitt is through the air. If there is a glaring weakness on Pitt’s team, it’s the secondary. Notre Dame’s best strength is their passing attack. Coming off of a loss to Navy in what could be a “must-win” game for head coach Charlie Weis, I expect the Irish to come out fighting with everything they have. This is not to say Pitt won’t play hard, but they may not need it as much.
However, the Irish defense is not talented enough to shut down Pitt. But once again, if they can hold Pitt’s red hot offense to FG’s in the red zone rather than touchdowns, expect the Irish to pull out a close victory.
My final prediction is a high-scoring, close game that should go down to the final couple of minutes. Jimmy Clausen has been as good as any team in the country this season. And he has been remarkable in the final minutes of every game. With the Irish in must-win mode against a good Pitt team, there is no reason to expect anything other than a close game.
Pitt will score plenty, as will Notre Dame. With that, I think Notre Dame score touchdowns in the red zone, rather than field goals. Add in the fact that I believe Notre Dame will win the turnover margin. Since Charlie Weis has taken over as Irish head coach in 2005, only one team has had more games without a turnover, and that is Florida. Last week’s -3 turnover margin vs. Navy was not typical and I don’t expect more than 1 turnover this week.
I would not be surprised if either team wins, however I would be very surprised if it's a blowout. I'm going with Clausen and the Irish passing attack to outshine the Panthers Saturday night.
Final score: Notre Dame 34, Pitt 30.