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Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh: Keys To An Irish Win

By · October 30th, 2008 · 0 Comments
Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh: Keys To An Irish Win

After routing the Huskies to start the second half of their season, Notre Dame welcomes Pittsburgh to South Bend. The visiting Panthers enter the contest with a 5-2 record, 28 the AV Ranking, and impressive resume. Although potentially untested (70th ranked AV strength of schedule, Pittsburgh is respectable in most statistical categories.

The most glaring weakness of the upcoming Irish opponent is a –6 in turnover margin. While the Panthers don’t turn the ball over at a particularly high rate, they do fail to generate turnovers.

Pittsburgh enters Saturday’s contest converting 44.1 percent of third downs. Additionally, the offense has a 92 percent red zone efficiency, good for 10th in the country. Moreover, the Panther offense scores touchdowns 72 percent of the time they cross their opponents’ 20-yard line.

Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh brings a balanced offense that ranks 37th in the country at 395.7 yards per game. Even more impressive is the fact that this is nearly 50 yards per game better than their competition has allowed. The Panthers average 5.6 yards per play—17th best in the country—en route to putting up 28.7 points per game.

On the ground LeSean McCoy and company average 4.2 yards per carry and 162.7 yards per game. Additionally, Pittsburgh has scored 20 touchdowns on the ground.

Under center against Notre Dame could be Pat Bostick or Bill Stull. Both are serviceable signal callers with similar playing styles. On the year the Panthers are completing nearly 60 percent of their passing attempts for 233 yards per game. However, Panther quarterbacks have only thrown four touchdowns and the offensive line has given up 16 sacks against rather mediocre pass rushing teams.

Pittsburgh likes to go downfield with the ball (mostly to former Irish recruit Jonathan Baldwin), evident by a 7.3 yard per attempt and 12.3 yard per completion average.

On defense the story is a bit different. The Panther defense allows 5.2 yards per play and over 26 points per game, surrendering points 95 percent of the time their opponents enter the red zone. To make matters worse, 79 percent of opponent red zone possessions have been touchdowns.

The Panther defense is respectable against the rush, allowing only 122 yards per game. However, 11 opponent scores have come on the ground from teams that do not score an overwhelming number of rushing touchdowns.

Opposing quarterbacks have also completed better than 58 percent of their passing attempts at 7.3 yards per attempt and 12.5 yards per completion. Of note was Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel’s 361 yard, six touchdown performance last week at the expense of the Panther secondary. Pittsburgh’s secondary may only allow 187.1 yards per contest through the air, but this has come against offenses that only average 192.7 yards per game.

If there is a strength on defense, it is applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Pittsburgh has 21 sacks on the year, good for 12th in the country. And this sack production comes mostly from the front four. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett and head coach Dave Wannstedt don’t typically employ a lot of blitzing, relying instead on their defensive front to make plays.


  1. Win the one-on-one battles up front – Task number one for the Irish offense is keeping quarterback Jimmy Clausen upright. The Irish receivers and Clausen are the most talented the Pittsburgh defense has seen and should create favorable matchups in the passing game. This is all for naught, however, if the Irish cannot effectively protect the passer. Against a pass rush that will mostly feature the Panther front four, the success of the pass protection schemes will heavily rely on winning individual matchups. This is amplified by offensive coordinator Mike Haywood’s proclivity to get into empty shotgun sets.
  2. Haywood, help ‘em out – Haywood has improved steadily over the course of the season but is still deliberate in his play calling. The predictability in the passing game will be a huge liability against a strong front four. Screens, draws, flares, and some designed roll-outs and/or bootlegs will help to keep the defensive front off-balance. This should go a long way to helping the offensive line protect Clausen. On the other hand, if the Panther defensive line is allowed to pin their ears back, Notre Dame could be in for a long day.
  3. Complement the defense – Like so many other games this season the offense must help their weak run defense. Whether it be through building an early lead or running the ball effectively to win the time of possession battle, the Irish offense must do its part to help force a one-dimensional Panther offense.


  1. Make them one-dimensional – Pittsburgh’s offense doesn’t spread the field. Instead, they rely on a balanced attack that features unpredictable run/pass formations. Cavanaugh uses his personnel and play calling to keep the defense guessing rather than create favorable matchups in the passing game. As such, the success through the air is predicated on an effective running game. If the ground game gets going, the Irish will have a difficult defending both facets of the Panther offense. To counter McCoy et. al. Notre Dame needs to maintain gap assignments and mix run blitzing in with their pass pressure package. Setting the edge on the outside and forcing runs back to the pursuit is imperative against an elusive runner like McCoy.
  2. When it’s obvious, do it – On obvious passing down and distances the Irish must blitz. The Panthers do not protect their quarterbacks particularly well and the aggressive Irish scheme should amplify this problem. As a large percentage of Cavanaugh’s passes are drop-backs and play action, the Irish should be able to capitalize and record several sacks.
  3. Don’t pull a Zibi – As much as I loved him (I own two number nine jerseys), Tom Zbikowski had a tendency to bite on play action. Pittsburgh is an effective play action team. If the Irish safeties do not read fakes well, they will leave holes in the secondary.


For the Irish offense this game will come down to protecting quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The Irish passing offense is arguably the best the Panthers defense has faced all season. But with the Irish tendency to telegraph the pass, the front four for Pittsburgh can pin their ears back and rush the passer.

For defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, task number one will be to shut down McCoy and the Panther ground game. Offensively, Pittsburgh relies on a balanced attack to keep opposing defenses guessing. Notre Dame’s defense is best served dictating the game rather than reading and reacting. Cavanaugh mixes the run and pass well, but frequently depends on the ground game in critical situations. While both quarterbacks are respectable, neither has consistently proven he can win games.



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