Preview: Panthers will shock unbeaten Irish

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

The Pitt Panthers return home to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Heinz Field on Saturday.

By Tyler Mathes, Staff Writer

The Pitt Panthers (3-3, 2-3 ACC) return home to take on the No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-0, 3-0 ACC) at Heinz Field on Saturday at 3:30pm on ABC. Finally, after six straight weeks of playing on the ACC Network, Pitt will get a nationally televised game. Not only that, but the Panthers will see fans return to the seats at Heinz Field for the first time this season.

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s matchup undefeated and ranked in the nation’s top five, exactly as they did the last time the two teams squared off. The Irish escaped with a narrow 19-14 victory in 2018, but unranked Pitt, also 3-3 at the time, nearly shocked the world. 

After missing last week’s game against Miami with an ankle injury, Pitt senior quarterback Kenny Pickett’s status remains up in the air ahead of Saturday’s game. If Pickett isn’t ready to hit the field, redshirt first-year Joey Yellen will likely start under center for the second week in a row, Narduzzi said Monday.

Notre Dame redshirt senior quarterback Ian Book threw two touchdowns and two interceptions in the 2018 matchup against the Panthers. One of those touchdowns came late in the fourth quarter to put the Irish up for good. Pitt redshirt senior safety Damar Hamlin played in that game and knows going into Saturday’s matchup the skills Book brings to the table.

“He’s a veteran quarterback,” Hamlin said. “He’s smart with the ball. When he doesn’t have the looks that he wants, he’s fast enough to get going and get the first down.”

Book produced 34 touchdowns to only six interceptions in his 2019 campaign, good for over 2.5 touchdowns per game. While he continues to show his top-tier decision making, only throwing one interception through four games this year, he’s down to less than one touchdown per game.

The Irish rely more heavily on the run than the pass, with 178 rushing attempts and only 96 passing attempts this season. Book averages less than 200 passing yards per game, and the Irish count on their electric rushing attack, led by sophomore running back Kyren Williams to win games.

Notre Dame hasn’t faced much adversity yet this season, with their opponents posting a combined 5-17 record entering Week 7. The Irish offense ran for 232 yards and threw for 106 more, but could only find the end zone once last week against Louisville. Pitt can capitalize on Notre Dame’s lack of experience against such a brutal defense, which has 11 takeaways, 29 sacks through six games. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi knows that even with a staunch defense, stopping the Irish will be no easy task. 

“Their talent across the board, offensively, defensively, haven’t watched a lot of special teams at this point,” Narduzzi said at a Monday press conference. “They are big, strong, physical. A typical Notre Dame football team.” 

Much of that talent stems from the offensive line. With 129 combined starts among their five starting linemen, the Irish boast one of the most experienced and best lines in college football. Notre Dame entered this season with a Pro Football Focus top-15 offensive line, and they’ve performed even better than expected. Without facing any elite defenses so far, the Irish offensive line has made the game easy for Book and the running backs. Notre Dame has only put up less than 400 yards of offense once this season, last week against Louisville. 

On the other side, Pitt’s offense has accumulated at least 300 yards of total offense every game this season, but hasn’t found the end zone as much as they need to. Narduzzi said that Pitt’s special teams have played excellently, but he’d rather not see the unit take the field in the red zone anymore.

“Special teams, our kicking game for the most part has been as good as it’s been in the last several years, in my opinion,” Narduzzi said. “Four for four [on field goals], we have to turn two of them into touchdowns instead of kicking them.”

I’m sure many Pitt fans may think of redshirt senior kicker Alex Kessman’s performances against Syracuse and Boston College, and disagree with Narduzzi here. But even with the misses in each of those games, Kessman has made the second-most field goals in the country and has only missed one within 40 yards. 

Settling for field goals won’t beat the No. 3 team in the country, however. Whether Yellen or Pickett start at quarterback, the air attack will have to put together a statement performance to win. 

Redshirt senior wide receiver Taysir Mack’s 2019 campaign put him in prime position to return as the top pass catcher in this Pitt offense, but instead the newcomers have led the way. First-year wide receiver Jordan Addison and graduate transfer wide receiver DJ Turner highlight Pitt’s passing attack. Pitt will need to get several players involved early on to win Saturday, instead of keying in on one target.

“We’ll continue to try to get [Addison] the ball without wearing him out either. Some other guys have to step up,” Narduzzi said. “We have to spread the ball out. If you’ve got one guy you’re throwing it to all day, you’ve got problems”

Although five different Pitt receivers have caught at least 15 passes, Addison has had a scorching hot start to his college career, with 38 receptions for 444 yards and three touchdowns. Addison has double the catches and over 100 more yards than the next closest receiver, Turner. Addison has downplayed his pivotal role in the offense, focusing on improving his game during practice.

“Week in and week out I’m just trying to get better,” Addison said. “No matter what the outcome is of each game, just getting back in the lab and keep working every day.”

Prediction:

No team can shut down opposing running backs like Pitt, giving up just 61.5 yards per game on the ground. Notre Dame enters this battle in the trenches with the seventh-best rush offense in college football, creating quite a strong matchup at the line of scrimmage.

The Panther front seven will force Book to carry the offense through the air, preventing the Irish from non-stop rushing attacks they’ve unleashed through their first four games. Pitt has had struggles in pass defense this season, but the added depth at cornerback last week brought some opposing numbers back down to Earth.

Book faces one of the best defenses in the nation this week, and he’s in for pressure he hasn’t seen yet.

This is my most wild prediction so far this season, but both the Panthers and the Irish are good for an October shocker, and Pitt has a knack for playing them close. Instead of Notre Dame narrowly escaping like they did two years ago, the Panthers will come out on top for their biggest win in years. 

Final: Pitt: 24, Notre Dame: 19

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