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Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh: Keys to an Irish Win

By · November 12th, 2009 · 0 Comments
Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh: Keys to an Irish Win

The Fighting Irish travel to Pittsburgh Saturday. Notre Dame visits the Panthers in the wake of a stunning loss to the Midshipmen, a game where the defense was repeatedly gashed up the middle and the offense struggled mightily in the red zone. The latter has been a theme all season while the former has also been an Achilles’ heel.

In what seems to be a can’t-lose game for head coach Charlie Weis, the Irish face a formidable opponent on the road. For the Panthers, this falls into the classic “trap game,” an underdog opponent coming off the heels of a tough loss with their back against the wall.

Pittsburgh Version 2009

Pittsburgh is led by coach Dave Wannstedt and boasts strong line play on both sides of the ball, a stingy run defense, and balanced offense that do a good job protecting the ball and forcing turnovers. On the year the Panthers get off to a good start early, outscoring their opponents by 87 points in the first half.

There are few apparent weaknesses in Wannstedt’s team, but they are also largely untested. Pittsburgh enters the game at 8-1 with the 11th best AV Ranking, the lone loss coming to North Carolina State. However, the Panthers have only faced the 83rd toughest schedule and have struggled to defend against the pass in several contests.

The Panthers have forced seven fumbles and 10 interceptions to go along with only five fumbles and four interceptions of their own. The plus-eight turnover margin ranks 14th in the country, and has come against teams that typically take care of the ball.

Despite the balance on offense and good defense, Wannstedt’s squad doesn’t possess the ball that well. Additionally, the Panthers suffer from rather undisciplined play ranking 81st in penalties at 60 yards per game.


Gone is running back LeSean McCoy and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, but that has hardly slowed down the Pittsburgh offense. Cavanaugh’s replacement, Frank Cignetti, Jr., has developed a very balanced offense that relies on running behind a strong front five and keeping opposing defenses off-balance with the run and pass. The result is a productive ground game and efficient passing attack.

On the year, Cignetti has called a 58.2/41.9 percent run/pass split, resulting in nearly even production on the ground (45.8 percent of total offense) and in the air (54.2 percent of total offense).

The production on the ground has led to an efficient offense, as quarterback Bill Stull and company rank in the top 40 in third down (47.8 percent) and red zone efficiency (90 percent) against teams that are fairly strong defending both.

The Panther offense also ranks in the top 20 in points per game and yards per play, averaging almost 11 points per game and one yard more per play than their competition typically allows.

Even with the departure of McCoy and facing above average run defenses, the rushing offense has performed well. Freshman Dion Lewis leads the way with 1176 yards on 203 carries (5.6 yards per attempt) to lead a Panther rushing offense that ranks 26th in yards per game (187) and 14th in yards per carry (5.2). Additionally, Pittsburgh has scored 18 rushing touchdowns on the ground, good for 20th best in the country.

Behind Lewis are Ray Graham and Henry Hynoski. Both average 4.6 yards per carry or better and have combined for 73 rushing attempts, 385 yards and four touchdowns. The strong rushing offense has also paid off in the passing game. While Stull hasn’t been overly productive, he certainly has been efficient.

The Panthers rank only 61st in yards per game (221.4) but have a passing efficiency of 161 (6th ranking), average 8.4 yards per attempt (16), and complete 67 percent of pass attempts (12). Moreover, the play-action pass game has proven a valuable weapon as Stull is credited with 17 touchdowns through the air. When Stull looks downfield he typically goes to standout wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin.

The front five also protect their signal caller, allowing only nine sacks (12) or one per 26.2 pass attempts (25) on the year.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Panther offense.

Pittsburgh Offensive Efficiency

[table id=152 /]

Pittsburgh Total Offense

[table id=153 /]

Pittsburgh Rushing Offense

[table id=154 /]

Pittsburgh Passing Offense

[table id=155 /]


Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is back after giving the Irish all sorts of second half fits in last year’s meeting. If there is one strength of this defense, it is the front four, both against the run and pressuring the passer.

The Panthers rank first in the country in sacks (39) and sacks per pass attempt (6.7), with over 70 percent of the production coming from the defensive line. Senior Greg Romeus leads the way with 7.5 quarterback sacks while fellow defensive linemen Myles Caragein, Brandon Lindsey and Chas Alecxih have four each. The last time the Irish offense faced a front four this good they struggled to protect Clausen for much of the day.

Pittsburgh’s defense is also strong on third down and in the red zone. Bennett’s unit allows only a 35 percent conversion rate on third down and ranks 17th in red zone scoring (74 percent). The Panthers are 19th in scoring (17.1 points per game) and 21st in total defense (310.9 yards per game), allowing only 4.9 yards per snap (33). Dom DeCicco leads a defense in tackles that is stout against the run and pass.

DeCicco and company allow only 106.8 yards per game on the ground (26) and a paltry 3.1 yards per carry (16), surrendering only eight rushing touchdowns (21). And this production has come against teams that favor the run over the pass.

Against the pass things look decidedly worse, even against a slate of rather pedestrian passing teams. Excluding sacks, the panthers rank no better than 38th in any major passing category and allow 7.1 yards per attempt (65) and 12.5 yards per completion (86).

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Panther defense.

Pittsburgh Defensive Efficiency

[table id=156 /]

Pittsburgh Total Defense

[table id=157 /]

Pittsburgh Rushing Defense

[table id=158 /]

Pittsburgh Passing Defense

[table id=159 /]


Pittsburgh has a very efficient and balanced offense predicated on a run-first approach that maintains favorable down and distances and produces excellent play-action passing opportunities. The front five open holes for Lewis and protect Stull with equal proficiency and Baldwin is a terrific downfield receiving threat.

On defense, Bennett has built a front four that can generate pressure on the passer and a front seven that is strong against the run. The Panther secondary is suspect, but has improved in the last few weeks and is typically able to drop seven or eight defenders into coverage due to the pass rushing prowess of the front four. Getting opponents into obvious passing downs is essential to success.

So what must the Irish do to defeat a formidable ranked opponent?


  1. If you can’t protect Clausen with five, it’s all over. The Irish front five struggled against the Trojan front four. While the Panther secondary doesn’t match that of USC, it will be imperative that the Irish offensive line protect quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Weis’ play-calling is obviously pass-heavy, and also favors spread formations and personnel groupings. For Notre Dame to be successful throwing the ball they must have multiple receivers out in routes.
  2. Calling Old Spice. It is obvious the Irish struggled in the red zone last week, but this has been a problem all season. Weis must use the running game inside the 20-yard line and work the play-action pass into his game plan. If he doesn’t, this week will be more of the same, tons of yards outside the red zone, but offensive futility on a short field.
  3. This is a game about fast starts. North Carolina State forced Pittsburgh into a bit of desperation. The Panthers never established a strong lead and maintained their balance on offense, instead, relying on a more wide-open passing game. Cignetti’s offense isn’t built for this and generating an early lead will go a long way to keep the Panther offense out of its comfort zone and help the confidence of a team reeling from the Navy loss.


  1. Win first down. Pittsburgh has balance, both in production and play-calling. Cignetti likes to use a heavy dose of run on first and second down to achieve manageable third downs. If the Irish allow the Panther offense to maintain balance, it doesn’t bode well for a unit that has struggled to defend the run and pass all year. Notre Dame’s defense must use down and distance to force the hand of Stull and company.
  2. Force Stull to win it. The only game Pittsburgh lost was a game in which they played even or from behind. Stull isn’t a gunslinger and the Panthers lack multiple weapons at wide receiver, Cignetti needs to rely on the running game to open up the pass. Against North Carolina State the Panther offense was forced to spread the field and throw the ball, something that doesn’t suit their strengths or offensive philosophy.
  3. Field goals are fine. Pittsburgh has the 36th ranked red zone touchdown offense in the country. They have a solid kicker in Dan Hutchins, but so do the Irish in Nick Tausch. With an Irish offense that is woeful at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, it is imperative that the Irish defense rise to the occasion à la the Washington game and force field goals rather than allow touchdowns.


In many ways the Panthers are like the Irish coming off their bye week earlier this year. Notre Dame’s offense appeared to be very good, but was largely untested. In somewhat opposite fashion the Irish defense struggled through the first part of the season but graded-out better when benchmarked to the competition.

Pittsburgh hasn’t faced a great passing offense and Clausen and company certainly pose a unique challenge. If the Irish front five can handle Romeus and company it could be a long day for the Panther secondary. Likewise, if Cignetti is able to maintain balance and keep Notre Dame’s defense off-balance it could be a long day for the Irish defense.

In many ways this game favors strength on strength, weakness on weakness. Coming off the heels of a rather inexcusable loss it’s difficult to know what the Irish will do. Come out fighting tough early, build a big lead, and the upset is in hand. Come out flat, face a deficit, and fold in earnest, is also a real possibility. This Irish squad has shown no quit all year, but last week may have been too much to handle.

The Irish offense should keep them in this one, but the defense hasn’t proven capable of playing well on first down and against the run. The strong, physical play of both Panther lines is too much for the talent at the skill positions for the visiting Irish.

Notre Dame 27, Pittsburgh 31



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