Panthers to bring the fight to Fighting Irish


Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

Then-quarterback for Notre Dame DeShone Kizer scores a touchdown on a 2-yard against Pitt in the fourth quarter at Heinz Field Nov. 7, 2015. Notre Dame won 42-30.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

Coach Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers (3-3, 2-1 ACC) will venture to South Bend, Indiana, this Saturday to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-0). Pitt came out on top 44-37 in a thrilling homecoming showdown against Syracuse last week, while Notre Dame upended Virginia Tech 45-23 en route to entering the top five teams of college football in most polls.

Pitt failed to compete this year against Penn State and UCF, two teams of Notre Dame’s caliber. But the Fighting Irish will almost certainly treat the Panthers as equals in hopes of avoiding any roadblocks on their path to the College Football Playoff — Pitt is notorious for upsetting playoff hopefuls these past few seasons.

The Panther offense definitely had more highs than lows against the Orange. The unit scored four touchdowns, Pitt’s offensive line pummeled Syracuse’s front seven players and senior tailbacks Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall were able to essentially do as they pleased. On the rare occasion that there were no holes to be found, the two lowered their shoulders and grinded out yards through sheer force of will.

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett put on another lackluster performance. Pickett threw for a mere 137 yards, and 68 of those came on a bubble pass where redshirt senior receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes did all the work on his way to the endzone.

This has become a regular occurrence among the Panther offense. Hall and Ollison will perform and make plays if given the opportunity, but the passing attack’s inability to generate big plays limits the offense. The Panthers have a particularly tough time when facing deficits because they must abandon the run game in order to try and come back. This week’s matchup may cause that to be the case, and if so, Ollison and Hall could see a lack of opportunity.

When given the ball, the senior tailback duo is piling on the stats, having amassed nine touchdowns and over 900 yards combined halfway through the season. Pitt’s rushing attack will likely shoulder the bulk of the offensive load against the Fighting Irish, and probably the rest of the year — or at least until offensive coordinator Shawn Watson figures out his passing attack.

Notre Dame’s defense gets the job done, but they currently rank No. 49 in total defense and are far below other top-five teams in this area. But the Fighting Irish have held much more dangerous offenses than Pitt in check, including Stanford and Virginia Tech.

Senior Jerry Tillery and junior Khalid Kareem are two defensive lineman that could give the offense trouble. While the Panther O-line blocked well for the run, the pass protection was shaky. Tillery and Kareem have each tallied seven sacks in six games and the line’s ability to block them will be key to Pitt’s success.

Pickett and his receiving core must begin to work together this week or a blowout is inevitable. Araujo-Lopes has made eye-popping plays two weeks in a row and will look to continue that trend. Junior Maurice Ffrench has shown a nice connection with Pickett at times, but not often enough. Redshirt sophomore Taysir Mack possesses big-play potential but sat out against the Orange and may miss this week too. It’s become obvious that Pickett won’t throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns a game this season, but there’s no reason the entire passing attack can’t be more productive than it currently is.

Similarly to the offense, Pitt’s defense was both good and bad against the Orange. The Panthers gave up 37 points, more than four points higher than their season average. However, they came up with key stops and created key turnovers throughout the game to give Pickett and the offense room to breathe.

The defensive play of the day was, without question, redshirt sophomore defensive back Therran Coleman’s overtime interception. On Syracuse’s first offensive snap of the period, quarterback Eric Dungey dropped back and launched an end zone shot to his receiver. Coleman was with his man the whole way, and rose up to snag the ball and give his team the win.

Both of Panthers first-year kicker Alex Kessman’s first-half field goals were attributable to the defense. The Panthers forced the Orange to punt from their own end zone and junior defensive lineman Amir Watts picked off a ball around midfield to give the offense great field position on back-to-back drives.

The Panthers’ biggest stand of regulation came on the last ’Cuse drive of the game. After giving up their signature big play of 42 yards on a Dungey completion, the defense forced a field goal, keeping the game in reach and taking some of the pressure off the offense.

The Fighting Irish have recently dismantled opposing defenses and this success starts at the QB position. Junior quarterback Ian Book got all the snaps against top-25 opponents Stanford and Virginia Tech. He threw for more than 270 yards in each game and combined for six scores over the two-game stretch. Senior Brandon Wimbush was seeing time at the start of the year, but it appears Book has taken over.

Senior tailback Dexter Williams leads Notre Dame’s rushing attack and junior Tony Jones Jr. is another playmaker in the backfield. Williams faced a mysterious suspension from the university for the first four games, but has wasted no time making an impact upon his return. In just two games against two ranked opponents, Williams has amassed nearly 340 yards and four touchdowns. It’ll be a tall order to shut him down completely. The defense needs to avoid missed tackles and limit big plays to at least slow him down.

Senior receiver Miles Boykin rounds out Notre Dame’s three-pronged offense. Nineteen of his 28 receptions have come the past two weeks with Book under center. Boykin gashed Stanford for 11 catches, 144 yards and a score before lighting up VT for eight catches, 117 yards and a pair of TD grabs. Pitt’s defense limited the Syracuse passing attack last week, but Book and Boykin could tell a different story.

The Panthers’ kicker showed up last week. Kessman wound up three for three — his kick of 54 yards tied the Heinz Field record and then he followed that up the next drive with a 55-yarder to take the record for himself. And, not to mention, he nailed the FG that sent the game into overtime. If the offense can put together solid drives, it’s a comfort to know that Kessman can come in and put points on the board if Pickett and company stall out.

Notre Dame: 41    Pitt: 23

The Panthers once again fall victim to a brutal non-conference schedule. The team is coming off a confidence-building home win and will definitely put up a fight, but Notre Dame is too talented at every offensive skill position for the Panthers’ questionable defense. The offense remains mostly one-dimensional and fails to capitalize when the defense buckles down and puts them in good spots. Ollison and Hall will do their thing and try and keep this one close, but the lack of downfield plays and inconsistent defense will be the deciding factors as Notre Dame continues on their undefeated path to the College Football Playoff, dropping Pitt to 3-4.