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Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh: Keys to an Irish Win

The Irish seek their first winning streak of the season in a home game against the Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday. Both teams enter the contest coming off a win but neither are living up to the pre-season hype—Pittsburgh started the year ranked 15th while many Notre Dame fans anticipated a nine-win season.

Pitt is a familiar foe, at least recently. The Irish have faced the Panthers 20 times since 1980 and 14 since 1990. The series record stands at 13-7 (0.650) in favor of Notre Dame since the earlier date, and 10-4 (0.714) since the latter.

The more recent contests, however, haven’t been as favorable. Notre Dame has only one victory in the last four meetings—former head coach Charlie Weis’ 42-21 debut in Pittsburgh. If Brian Kelly can replicate his predecessor’s success, the Irish will move to 0.500 with three very winnable games on the horizon.

Pittsburgh, Version 2010

When it comes to team composition, Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio follow very similar blueprints. Both believe in a physical brand of football with an emphasis on discipline, and both believe in running the ball and playing good defense.

Wannstedt brings a wealth of coaching experience to the sideline: he had two NFL head coaching stints with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins and is in his sixth season as head coach of the Panthers. His 37-28 (0.569) overall record at Pitt isn’t overly impressive, but his last two teams combined for 19 wins and contended for the Big East Conference Title both years.

This year, at least in the early going, the success hasn’t continued. Pitt enters Saturday at 2-2 with victories over New Hampshire and Florida International, an overtime loss to Utah, and a lopsided defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes. Despite returning several playmakers on both sides of the ball, the on-field performance hasn’t mimicked the previous two seasons.

Offense

Last year was a banner season for the Pitt offense. The unit ranked in the top 25 in scoring and yards per play, mostly due to a strong running game (180.3 yards per game, 4.9 yards per carry) and efficient passing attack (150.8 pass efficiency, 8.1 yards per attempt).

Running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin were a big part of last season’s success, and both are back this year. Lewis ranked third in the country in rushing yards, was the Big East Offensive Player and Rookie of the Year, and earned freshman All-American honors. Baldwin, meanwhile, led the team in receptions (57) and receiving yards (1,111) to go along with a scorching 19.5-yard per reception average.

But several critical pieces from last year’s unit did not return, and the Panther offense has regressed as a result.

Through four games Pitt ranks in the bottom half of every total offensive statistical category, struggles on third down (36 percent efficiency) and in the red zone (46.7 percent touchdown efficiency), and ranks 89th in both yards per pass attempt and pass efficiency.

About the only carryover from last year is a running game that averages five yards per attempt (39) and nearly 170 yards per game (52). The production is, however, aided by games against New Hampshire and Florida International—against Utah and Miami the Panthers managed only 2.9 yards per carry.

To return to last year’s form, Pittsburgh needs better play from the offensive line. Jason Pinkston and Chris Jacobson anchor the left side after starting 13 games and playing well in 2009, but the rest of the front five are largely inexperienced and have proven to be a liability.

The Panthers have depth in the backfield as Lewis is joined by fellow sophomore Ray Graham and fullback Henry Hynoski. Graham may be more athletic than Lewis, and he certainly showed his explosiveness last week rushing for 277 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries (9.6 yards per attempt).

Redshirt sophomore Tino Sunseri has the challenge of replacing the departed Bill Stull. Sunseri has solid physical tools and good mobility, but his production has been lacking. The young signal caller has been fairly efficient (63 percent completion rate) and protected the ball (only two interceptions on 100 attempts), but has also only thrown for 172.2 yards per outing and averages a modest 6.9 yards per attempt.

Sunseri’s primary targets are the aforementioned Baldwin (15 receptions, 211 yards, two touchdowns, 14.1 yards per reception) and redshirt sophomore Mike Shanahan. Shanahan has developed into a reliable option, only narrowly trailing Baldwin in receptions and yards. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti also likes to use his running backs in the passing game—Graham and Lewis have combined for 17 receptions and 160 receiving yards.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Panther offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Pittsburgh’s 2010 opponents excluding New Hampshire).

2010 Pittsburgh Offensive Efficiency
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency368931.223
4th down efficiency505445.345
Red zone appearances/game3.859342
Red zone efficiency873274.340
Red zone TD efficiency46.610033.714
2010 Pittsburgh Total Offense
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game27.36520.342
Touchdowns/game3742.335
Plays/game62.59363.835
Yards/game35377292.829
1st downs/game17.58914.814
Yards/play5.7614.635
2010 Pittsburgh Rushing Offense
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game34.38038.276
Yards/game169.852135.151
Yards/attempt5393.645
Fumbles326354
Attempts/fumble45.75845.849
TFL allowed/game4.526827
1st downs/game7.5796.325
Touchdowns/game2351.356
2010 Pittsburgh Passing Offense
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game28.37125.722
Completions/game17.37413.116
Yards/game183.388157.818
Yards/attempt6.5896.235
Yards/completion10.69112.273
Interceptions442456
Attempts/interception28.37630.839
Sacks allowed/game2.3833.123
Attempts/sack allowed12.6809.118
1st downs/game8.579721
Touchdowns/game1860.719
Completion %615850.717
Pass efficiency120.289102.535

Defense

Pitt fielded a top 25 unit last season, mostly by executing defensive coordinator Phil Benett’s philosophy:  stop the run, force obvious passing situations, and pressure the quarterback. The defense allowed only 3.3 yards per carry and 106.3 rushing yards per game, both good for 17th in the country, and ranked first in sacks notching one quarterback takedown every 8.7 pass attempts.

But, like the offense, the success hasn’t continued this year.

Pitt has struggled on third down (48.3 percent efficiency) and preventing touchdowns in the red zone (62.5 percent, 76th ranking). Additionally, the Panthers rank 68th in pass efficiency and have allowed 6.9 yards per pass attempt (62) and 244.8 passing yards per game (92). The overall production isn’t bad, and the rushing defense has continued to perform well (17th in yards per carry, 15th in rushing yards per game), but this defensive unit is not on par with last year’s group.

Most of the problems start upfront. Jabaal Sheard is a strong pass rusher on one end of the line but the rest of the front four has a relatively small amount of experience and has struggled accordingly. Defensive tackles Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas (combined for 80 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss, and 9.5 sacks in 2009) moved on after last year and defensive end Greg Romeus (led defensive linemen with 43 tackles and the team with eight sacks) has been sidelined with an injury for most of this season. Regardless of who is waiting in the wings, replacing that kind of production is no easy proposition.

Behind the front four is a linebacker corps that is the strength of the defense. Greg Williams, Max Gruder, and Dan Mason all played extensively in 2009 (24 combined starts) and form the nucleus of the unit, but Tristan Roberts has also played in the rotation. Gruder and Williams are the top two tacklers on the team with 45 combined stops, while Mason and Roberts have combined for 29 tackles.

The secondary returns two starters from last season, safeties Dom DeCicco and Jarred Holley. DeCicco is arguably the most reliable tackler in the Panther secondary while Holley plays very well with the ball in the air (three interceptions in 2009 and three more through four games in 2010). The outside of the defensive backfield is manned by Ricky Gary and Antwuan Reed. Gary has plenty of game experience (10 starts over the last three years) while Reed is in his first season as a starter.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Panther defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Pittsburgh’s 2010 opponents excluding New Hampshire).

2010 Pittsburgh Defensive Efficiency
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency48.210643.846
4th down efficiency10011147.272
Red zone appearances/game484454
Red zone efficiency941138168
Red zone TD efficiency62.57666.340
2010 Pittsburgh Total Defense
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game22.85632.247
Touchdowns/game2.8524.344
Plays/game686767.860
Yards/game341.853372.568
1st downs/game20.58419.563
Yards/play5475.663
2010 Pittsburgh Rushing Defense
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game32.32234.974
Yards/game9715145.370
Yards/attempt3174.265
Fumbles361351
Attempts/fumble45.75629.266
TFL/game4.5974.342
1st downs/game7408.263
Touchdowns/game1.3531.663
2010 Pittsburgh Passing Defense
StatisticPittsburghPittsburgh RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game35.89932.848
Completions/game21.59919.748
Yards/game244.892227.356
Yards/attempt6.9627.163
Yards/completion11.45511.770
Interceptions461562
Attempts/interception35.87649.961
Sacks/game2.5360.820
Attempts/sack14.35359.419
1st downs/game1210710.446
Touchdowns/game1.578239
Completion %60.17460.960
Pass efficiency125.968135.559

Adding It All Up

Offensively, Pitt has struggled to adapt after losing several critical pieces of last year’s unit. Stull (the 10th-most efficient passer in the country last year), tight ends Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham (who both occupy NFL rosters), and three interior offensive linemen are all gone, and it hasn’t exactly been plug-and-play for Cignetti.

Lewis earned a lot of credit for his performance last year, but his production this season (47.7 rushing yards per game, 3-yard per carry average) suggests the offensive line had a lot to do with his success. Moreover, the formation and personnel flexibility Dickerson and Byham provided is sorely missed and, without Stull’s efficiency and ability to manage the game, the Panther offense is mostly one-dimensional.

The strength of Pittsburgh’s defense is an active linebacker corps that excels stopping the run. The unit has, however, struggled to defend against the pass. The secondary hasn’t played particularly well, but they are at somewhat of a disadvantage. The scheme relies on pressure from the front four, something the defense hasn’t been able to consistently generate without Romeus lining up opposite Sheard.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Throw it on first down. The defensive strength of Pittsburgh is against the run, but their first down run defense is particularly stout. The Panthers have allowed an average of 3.5 yards per first down rush with the best performances coming against the Utes (3.8 yards per carry) and Hurricanes (2.4). They do, however, struggled against the pass. Pitt has allowed 6.8 yards per pass attempt (8.1 per attempt against Utah and Miami) and a completion rate of nearly 68 percent on first down (100). The Irish offense seems to work better when the run is mixed in the with the pass, but Notre Dame ranks 11th in first down passing yards and, given Pitt’s defensive strength, this game calls for Kelly to air it out.
  2. Calling Dayne Crist from Michigan State. The Irish signal caller had an excellent red zone performance against the Spartans, and the Panther defense has struggled to defend against the pass inside their 20-yard line. Pitt has allowed a touchdown every 3.4 red zone pass attempts and posted a pass efficiency of 169.9. Notre Dame notched four touchdowns on five red zone appearances last week, and, provided Crist plays well inside the 20-yard line, should continue that trend.
  3. Different game, same story. The Panther defense has struggled to get off the field. Opponents have averaged 20.5 first downs (84) and four red zone appearances (84) per game in addition to converting on 48.2 percent of their third down attempts. The Panthers have also allowed an average of nearly six plays per drive with roughly one out of every five drives going for 10 or more. In other words, moving the ball simply means avoiding mistakes. Notre Dame has been up-and-down on offense all year but this is the game to break out some consistency.

Defense

  1. Open down run defense will win the game. Pitt likes to run the ball on open downs and, looking at the numbers, it isn’t difficult to tell why. Cignetti has called a run on 62 percent of open down plays and been rewarded with a 6.4-yard per carry average. The Panther offensive coordinator wants to use the ground game to stay ahead of the chains and keep pressure off Sunseri, and has been fairly successful doing so. The Irish defense must limit open down rushing gains in order to force obvious passing situations.
  2. Limit the big play, particularly on first down. Lewis and Graham can be explosive (four touchdown runs of 15 or more yards), and Baldwin is a dynamic receiver with the ability to stretch the field. Limiting big plays from these three players is critical to making the Panther offense work for yards, but especially crucial to playing good first down defense. Counting sacks as pass attempts, the Panthers average 6.4 yards per rush and 5.6 yards per pass on first down. But 211 of the 404 rushing yards (52.5 percent) have come on only five runs (42.2 yards per run). Similarly, 190 of 270 first down passing yards (70.4 percent) have come off six passes (31.7 yards per attempt). Without these 11 gains Pitt averages just 2.7 yards per first down play. In other words, limiting big plays on first down will go a long way to putting the game on Sunseri’s shoulders.
  3. Stunt and blitz from center to left. While Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco hasn’t employed the blitz-happy scheme of his predecessor, this game would be a good time to change things up. Miami dismantled the Panther front five (five sacks and eight tackles for a loss) with stunts and blitzes that targeted the right side of Pitt’s offensive line. The Irish need to replicate this success by bringing pressure of their own in obvious passing situations.

Prediction

On offense, Pitt is very similar to Boston College. Lewis and Graham are more explosive than Montel Harris and Sunseri has played better than any of the Eagle quarterbacks, but the Panther offense relies on the running game to open up the pass, and doesn’t function well without it.

For the Irish defense, this means the game comes down to the same critical factors—stop the run on early downs, force obvious passing situations, and make Sunseri sustain drives and win the game with his arm. Additionally, the Irish must limit the big play and avoid giving up easy yards to a team that struggles to consistently generate them.

Defensively, the Panther secondary has proven vulnerable without a pass rush. Crist has plenty of talented targets at his disposal and should have a productive day through the air.

In all likelihood, Notre Dame won’t shut down Lewis and Graham like they did Harris, but the defense is stout enough to make Pitt one-dimensional and contain the Panther offense. On the other side of the ball the Irish offense should enjoy more consistency against a Panther defense that struggles to get off the field.

Notre Dame 31, Pittsburgh 17

Furthermore

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