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Boyd, Pitt confident ahead of Saturday matchup with No. 5 Irish

Tyler Boyd celebrates with Pitt students after defeating Notre Dame in 2013.  TPN File Photo

Tyler Boyd celebrates with Pitt students after defeating Notre Dame in 2013. TPN File Photo

Tyler Boyd celebrates with Pitt students after defeating Notre Dame in 2013. TPN File Photo

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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Each week, Pitt’s football coaching staff preaches an even-keeled mindset, so players will maintain their focus throughout the season.

This week against Notre Dame, getting that message across became a bit tougher for wide receiver Tyler Boyd and the rest of the Pitt team. Saturday’s matchup isn’t just any other game, as the Pitt-Notre Dame rivalry runs deep.

“When you see Notre Dame on your schedule, that’s the only team you really want to beat for sure, even if you’re 1-11,” Boyd said.

On Saturday at noon, Pitt (6-2, 4-1 ACC) will welcome the No. 5 Fighting Irish (7-1) into Heinz Field in a nationally televised game on ABC. The Panthers will try to get back in the win column after a despiriting loss last Thursday to North Carolina.

After starting slow last week, Pitt wide receiver Zach Challingsworth said the team hopes to correct its lethargic starts and avoid self-inflicted mistakes.

“We have to come out with a lot of energy because we came out flat the last couple games,” Challingsworth said. “You can’t win a game when you play two people, yourselves and the other team.”

Avoiding costly mistakes will be especially important against Notre Dame, whose only loss came in a 24-22 contest against No. 1 Clemson. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi praised Notre Dame’s depth and skilled players.

“They’re probably one of the most talented teams to walk into Heinz Field this year,” Narduzzi said. “[Notre Dame head coach] Brian Kelly probably wouldn’t admit this, but they basically have their pick of who they get in recruiting.”

That talent overflows on both ends of the ball. On offense, Notre Dame ranks No. 17 nationally in yards per game. Leading that unit is quarterback DeShone Kizer, who poses a threat in both passing and running. Kizer has thrown for 1,669 yards and 11 touchdowns and run for 318 yards and five touchdowns this year.

“He can make plays and make all the throws he needs to. He’s a big, big guy,” Narduzzi said.

When Kizer takes the snap, he has a variety of offensive weapons at his disposal. Wide receiver Will Fuller has been especially impressive, accumulating 748 yards and nine touchdowns, the latter of which ranks eighth among receivers. Boyd said the team can partly imitate much of what Fuller does in practice, though his speed presents a challenge.

“One thing he does best, he takes the top off the coverage. He’s got blazing speed,” Boyd said.

On the ground, running back C.J. Prosise leads the Fighting Irish with 947 yards and 11 touchdowns. Prosise is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and has run for at least 100 yards in five games.

Pitt’s defense, which had a hot start but has tapered off in the past three weeks, will face one of its toughest challenges yet in Notre Dame’s multiple weapons. Narduzzi said he’s had to call more blitzes with the defense not executing fundamentals.

“Our guys got to play better base defense, so you don’t feel like you have to, as I call it, junk it up,” Narduzzi said. “I felt like we had to junk it up really the last two weeks because our guys aren’t paying attention to the details in base.”

Even with more blitzing, the Panthers have struggled  to get to the quarterback. Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said their players aren’t getting in the backfield enough or making plays when they do get there.

“I think we’ve just got to do a better job of finishing. I don’t think there’s any magic potion,” Conklin said.

Similarly, Pitt’s offensive performance has sputtered, faltering in completing drives and generating big plays.

In particular, Pitt has struggled in executing throws downfield. Fixing that problem isn’t as simple as just throwing the ball deep more, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.

“I wish it was as easy as, ‘Hey, let’s just throw it down the field.’ It’s not that simple,” Chaney said. “Sooner or later, you’ve got to generate big plays that score points, and our inability to do that on Thursday night cost us.”

Notre Dame presents Pitt with a talented group of defensive players, which collectively ranks 39th in points allowed per game. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell leads the defense with two interceptions. Boyd looks forward to the challenge against Russell, considered one of the top cornerback prospects for the upcoming NFL draft.

“Every time I get a chance to go up against him, I want to make sure the ball’s coming my way. I want to let the world know I’m still a great receiver,” Boyd said.

Boyd’s confidence has resonated through the whole team this week. Despite the daunting opponent, Challingsworth said he expects Pitt will secure the upset Saturday.

“We’ve had a good week, and we feel prepared. We’re going to come out swinging,” Challingsworth said. “We feel like we can compete, and we can beat them.”

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Boyd, Pitt confident ahead of Saturday matchup with No. 5 Irish