Pitt and Notre Dame play Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium in the 66th edition of a great rivalry.
The Panthers have had great success recently in South Bend, but this year’s Pitt squad is far different than recent teams. Both the Irish and Panthers have as many questions surrounding their identities as any team in the country. Bryan from Pitt Script, The Fighting Wannstaches and Chas from Pitt Blather joined me to try and break down this game.
Question #1: Dave Wannstedt declared Dion Lewis to be Pitt’s starter at running back against Notre Dame. Do you agree with his choice?
Pitt Script: I’m a fan of riding the hot set of legs, and right now, there’s no denying that’s Ray Graham. Graham was explosive, powerful, and most importantly, he was productive. He single-handedly may have saved the game (and Pitt’s respect) in what was otherwise a 13-10 game. Lewis, on the other hand, has clearly struggled. Now, that has a lot to do with Cignetti running him up the middle behind the combination of Karabin and Gaskins, but production is all that matters right now. I’d expect Dion to be the “starter,” but would be shocked if Ray Graham isn’t in there at least every other drive.
The Fighting Wannstaches: While our choice would be to start the hot hand in Ray Graham, he has at least earned himself even carries in the game. With even carries, we think the “starting” tag is meaningless and is more of something ceremonious at this point, much like all seniors starting on Senior Day and you don’t lose your job because of injury. With that said, we are fine with Lewis starting the game, but if he is ineffective for the first few series, the switch needs to be made without hesitation. Another slow offensive start is not something this team can afford.
Pitt Blather: Can I push? No? Okay, not really. I think Graham has earned the start and is simply more productive right now. Pitt needs a fast start and to score points early against ND, because you know a Brian Kelly offense will produce.
I love Dion Lewis and I’m saying you bench him, but he has been noticeably less productive. Plus whatever his injury situation is, only fuels questions of how healthy he really is. I want him to get carries, but let him give the change-of-pace, off-the-bench back a shot to see if it helps.
4-1-Zoo: Not at all. Too often Pitt has gotten off to slow starts and it has been because of the running game. Dion Lewis just hasn’t gotten it done. It’s hard for me to understand benching a running back that just recorded the second best single-game rushing effort in school history, has an average of roughly 165 yards per game (over 9 yards a carry) and eclipsed your starter’s season total in less than a half of football last weekend.
Question #2: Numbers indicate Tino Sunseri played well and improved as the game progressed against FIU. How do you feel about his performance?
Pitt Script: For me, Tino has kind of stalled out after the second half against Utah. I keep waiting for a game for him to show why he’s been ordained the face of the program, but he was just OK against New Hampshire and then dismal against Miami. Against FIU he started out very poorly by overthrowing Baldwin and Cruz in an ugly fashion — which led to some fans giving him the Bill Stull treatment. He did progress as the game went on, but his completions consisted mostly of 4-6 passes and screens to Ray Graham. Eventually, he’s going to have to start making plays down-field. I’m not saying that he won’t be a very good quarterback, but as of right now, I need to see a lot more from him.
The Fighting Wannstaches: Tino did play much better in the second half after an abysmal start to the day. The problem was he still started out very slow (2/9 in the first 29 minutes) against a team that is not going to receive an at large bid for a BCS bowl game any time soon. He was staring down his receivers and then missing them badly. On a day in which he was not sacked once and had better protection than he has had all season, he should have been past this point by now. Overall, it turned out to be an adequate performance, but until Tino can prove himself against a more formidable opponent, we feel questions will remain.
Pitt Blather: Uhhmm. Ehhrm. Not as encouraged. He came out scattershot and still happy-feet early. Excuses are starting to run weak after 1/3 of the season. ND doesn’t have the greatest defense, but they have watched tape. You know they are going to blitz and rush Sunseri to try and rattle him.
4-1-Zoo: I feel that he did improve, but it’s still the same story with him that is has been thus far this season. Unless he can improve from game to game, what happened Saturday against FIU doesn’t matter. Pitt can get away with no passing game for an entire half against a Sun Belt team. I understand Notre Dame hasn’t been great this season, but the Irish’s level of talent is so much higher on defense that Pitt must be able to stretch the field early on to create holes in the running game.
Question #3: Lucas Nix moved inside on the line and Jordan Gibbs took Nix’s old spot. How did you evaluate their performance and the entire offensive line?
Pitt Script: Much, much better. I didn’t have a chance to rewatch the game online so I have to depend on my memory, but I noticed Nix a few times — all positive. He is a much better run blocker the Gaskins and his experience at tackle has made him very good on his feet against the pass. I’ll have to watch Gibbs more this week, but the downgrade from Nix-to-Gibbs clearly isn’t as steep as the upgrade of Gaskins-to-Nix is. Overall, a very good move.
The Fighting Wannstaches: Based off of the results, the newly configured offensive line had a pretty good outing. Tino was not sacked once and Ray Graham had the 2nd best rushing performance in Pitt history. While some may say that it was a good day only because it was against FIU, just remember that New Hampshire seemed to do a fairly decent job in applying pressure and stopping the run a few weeks back. We aren’t going to anoint them the greatest thing since sliced bread, but there is positive trending. Let’s just see how they do against an average Notre Dame defense this week.
Pitt Blather: Definitely an improvement. I hate to rip the players, but Gaskins out appeared to be addition by subtraction. Lucas Nix is performing well, even with a shift in his spot. The line just seemed to get off a little faster. Definitely better protection and opened holes were visible.
4-1-Zoo: After watching the game a second time, I am very happy with what the left side of the line did Saturday. Both protected well in the passing game and created a push in the running game, all the while rarely getting beaten by their man. The true test will come against a defensive front more comparable size-wise at Notre Dame. But for a first game I think things turned out about as good as one could have hoped for.
Question #4: What worries you most in Pitt matching up against Notre Dame?
Pitt Script: Notre Dame should have some swagger back after drilling Boston College. Yes, it was only “31-13,” but it really wasn’t even that close. Notre Dame’s defense held BC to 5 (yes, “5”) yards rushing, while containing their QB for only 72 yards, 58 of which were on a 58 yard screen for a TD. On offense, Dayne Crist looks promising, but not there yet and Armando Allen is a nice running back that should probably get more work than he got last week. I suppose my biggest worry is the bright lights of playing in South Bend effecting Tino and him struggling like he did against Miami. He just needs to take what’s there and try to keep the safeties out of the box for Lewis/Graham to go to work.
The Fighting Wannstaches: Brian Kelly’s goal in South Bend is to implement a balanced spread offense, and so far he has been unsuccessful with the balance part. Through five games, the Irish are averaging just over 100 rushing yards and less than 1 rushing TD a game. That leaves the bulk of the work on Dayne Crist and the passing game, who ranks 17th overall in passing yards per game. Two spread teams have already beaten Pitt this season using the pass, leaving Kelly a nice blue print of what works, but we’re sure he has a few of his own ideas from the previous two seasons. Will Dom DeCicco and the newly restructured linebacking corps be up to the challenge? Stay tuned…
Pitt Blather: ND’s passing against Pitt’s secondary/linebackers. They make use of a talented TE in Rudolph and they have good receivers. Pitt’s corners have struggled in every game. Sometimes they make plays, but they get burned and play soft a lot. Add in the tight end and linebackers having to cover and I worry. Even with DeCicco playing linebacker now, he still has a tender hamstring. I expect that to be exploited.
4-1-Zoo: The same thing that burnt Pitt against Cincinnati last year: big plays. Pitt hasn’t been very impressive defending the pass. Big plays killed the Panthers against both Utah and Miami. The linebackers haven’t been good in coverage and it has been problematic. I understand Dom DeCicco’s role has changed a bit, but it won’t solve everything.
Pitt can’t allow long, quick scores to the Irish. The way the Panthers’ offense has struggled, Pitt can’t afford to fall behind quickly or give up scores on just a few plays.
Question #5: Who wins? What’s the score?
Pitt Script: Pitt, of course. I think the running game should find room to get going against a mediocre at best Domer defense and Tino manages the game effectively, if unspectacular. I’ll say 27-21 with Pitt getting their third straight against the Irish.
The Fighting Wannstaches: While Notre Dame’s (passing) offense has kept them in games all season, it has been their inability to stop opposing offenses that has cost them games against three Top 20 teams. Pitt’s running game finds its wheels this week behind the new o-line, but our nemisis Brian Kelly has our number. Irish 28-17.
Pitt Blather: Going pessimistic here. I just am struggling to see a Pitt win. I’m guessing ND 37-27. Hope I’m dead wrong
4-1-Zoo: I’ll continue the pessimism. Pitt looked awestruck against Miami. I’m afraid of what will happen on the road in the most fabled stadium in college football. Notre Dame wins, probably by two scores, 31-17.
Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog