November 06, 2015

Rakes Report #33: You and I both know that the house is haunted (The Pitt Preview)


We start our look at the Panthers with a question from Michael D:

Why is Pitt doing this? It just seems so petty and unnecessary. So Pitt of them.

This was sent last Thursday night as the Panthers fell well behind North Carolina, a deficit they could not overcome in a loss that knocked them out of the Top 25 and denied the Irish a second straight ranked-on-ranked match up. This will not stop Saturday’s game from being an annoying riverside knife fight, because the only thing Pitt knows how to do beyond cycling through head coaches is to play the Irish in weird, uncomfortably close, soul-sucking games. Let’s take a trip through the recent history of this series and tell me what outside of the 2005 game was even remotely fun.

2004: Pitt wins at Notre Dame Stadium 41-38 on senior day, the rare game that managed to get both Ty Willingham and Walt Harris fired. This game featured approximately a dozen defensive pass interference calls on the Irish and Tyler Palko dropping an f bomb in his postgame interview after throwing five touchdown passes.

2005: The only comfortable Irish victory on the list, Charlie Weis wins a battle of alma mater head coaching debuts 42-21 over Dave Wannstedt at Heinz Field, a clash visited by “GameDay” for some odd reason. The series takes a brief break after this.

2008: At home, Notre Dame blows both a 17-3 halftime lead and a fourth quarter touchdown advantage to a Pitt team whose offense basically consisted of direct snaps to Shady McCoy. Four overtimes later, the Panthers prevailed 36-33 on a 22-yard field goal. Michael Floyd and Golden Tate did combine for 16 catches, 211 yards and three touchdowns, though.

2009: The last gasp of the Weis era. The best Pitt team of the millennium won 27-22 at Heinz Field in a game notable really only for Golden Tate’s punt return touchdown to make things interesting late. This was my first visit to Heinz Field and I did not enjoy it.

2010: In Brian Kelly’s first season, Dayne Crist propels the Irish to a 17-3 lead and then the home team holds on for a 23-17 win, needing two fourth quarter stops to survive. I barely remember this game happening.

2011: Tommy Rees-to-Tyler Eifert gives the Irish a 15-12 road win in a noon kickoff against Todd Graham, who stopped in to coach the Panthers for a season before heading to the desert. Notable only for Jonas Gray running real fast up the sideline and for being the last regular season noon start for the Irish until Saturday’s. (If you’ve got a few free minutes, someone put the entire go-ahead drive from this game on YouTube. Mike Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and Urban Meyer on color commentary. It’s something.)

2012: You can shout “LETDOWN GAME! LETDOWN GAME!” as much as you want, but there will still be letdown games. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma win, the Irish needed to score two fourth quarter touchdowns just to force overtime, where they needed a missed 33-yarder to survive Paul Chryst’s team 29-26 in three extra sessions. I have fond-ish memories of this game only because Everett went Full Everett in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns, diving in for a two-point conversion and throwing a horrible pick in just 15 minutes.

2013: To me, this 28-21 defeat at Heinz Field is one of the worst losses of Kelly’s tenure. The Irish were 7-2, winners of four straight and had a third quarter lead that would have kept them in the hunt for a BCS bowl when things fell apart. This game was the hottest club in Pittsburgh because it had absolutely everything: Stephon Tuitt was ejected on a BS targeting call, T.J. Jones fumbled inside the ten, Tommy Rees threw two fourth quarter picks to the same player (one from the Pitt five) and Tarean Folston only got four carries a week after dominating Navy. I was also at this game and did not enjoy it. I will not be returning to Heinz Field.

The long and short of it is that Pitt/Notre Dame games are almost always close, they’re almost always frustrating and while there is some reason to think Saturday might be a little different, we’d all be better served to treat this as an exercise in survival. What can we expect at high noon on the north shore of the Allegheny?

Pat Narduzzi will be the fourth Pitt head coach Brian Kelly has faced in his tenure at Notre Dame, but he’s a familiar face. The Michigan State defensive coordinator went against Kelly’s offense four times from 2010 to 2013, a fake field goal in overtime away from an 0-4 record. (Please never, ever forget that Michigan State went 13-1 in 2013 and the “1” was against Rees.) Narduzzi’s defensive style is simple: He stacks the box with physically and fundamentally strong gentlemen and then has cornerbacks play extremely tight, going with the assumption that referees will not call pass interference every single play. Despite a lack of overall talent and it only being his first year on the sideline, the Narduzzi Effect is real, as Pitt’s defensive efficiency has leapt to 58 after being ranked 110 in 2014.

The defense, however, might be running out of steam, as after 22 sacks in the first five games they’ve recorded just one in the last three combined, including zilch in their prior two against Syracuse and North Carolina. Considering the job the offensive line has done in keeping DeShone Kizer clean (and Kizer’s ability to move around in the pocket to further delay pressure), the Irish quarterback should have plenty of time to operate. Pitt’s defense is pretty good at everything, but they have allowed some big plays in the passing game (paging Will Fuller) and are among the worst in the country at preventing points once the opponent crosses the 40 (this could be the cure for what ails the Irish’s wobbly red zone offense). The big play guys on the Panthers defense are middle linebacker Matt Galambos (8 tackles for loss, four sacks) and frosh safety Jordan Whitehead, who leads the team in tackles. If the Pitt front can’t get any pressure, the well-monikered Lafayette Pitts and Avonte Maddox will be the corners attempting to slow down Fuller and Chris Brown.

The Panthers offense took the same early hit Notre Dame did, losing all-world tailback James Conner in the first game of the season. Freshman Qadree Ollison and sophomore Chris James are doing yeoman’s work in their attempt to replace him (5.6 and 4.9 yard per carry, respectively), but the Panthers offense revolves around funneling the ball to star wide receiver Tyler Boyd at all costs. Boyd has 63 catches for 578 yards and has been targeted on a whopping 40% of Pitt pass attempts (for comparison’s sake, Fuller’s rate is 26% and JuJu Smith tops out at only 28%.) Boyd is going to play on Sundays next year but his receptions are not stretching the field, as he hasn’t had a catch of 25 yards since mid-September (and that one went for just 36). After averaging 13.8 yards per catch as a freshman and 16.2 last year, he's down to just 9.2 in 2015.

As you can tell from their star receiver’s numbers, this is not a big play offense, meaning it will be the story of a resistible force attempting to push the movable object of Notre Dame’s big play-accommodating defense. Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman - a transfer from Rocky Top who usurped last year's starter, Chad Voytik, in September - doesn't have a big arm but he minimizes mistakes, throwing just three picks (to ten scores) and completing 67% of his passes. Peterman is a factor in the running game, but isn’t going to break any 79-yard runs. (At least I don’t think so.) (Please don’t let Nate Peterman run for 79 yards.) (Why did I even mention this?)

The recipe for stopping Pitt will be for KeiVarae Russell to become best friends with Boyd, keeping him from turning any of those short catches into long gains. (This also seems like a thing that Jaylon Smith will end up helping out with, in addition to cutting down the pair of tight ends the Panthers feature in the passing game.) Pitt is among the worst teams in the country at preventing sacks, meaning that it could be another big day for the Irish defensive line. Narduzzi is probably well aware of Sheldon Day’s backfield quests, meaning there will be a lot of quick passes that will require solid tackling. If the Irish wrap up and keep Pitt in front of them (even with Elijah Shumate missing the first half due to the targeting call against Temple), I don’t see the Panthers scoring a whole lot of points. It would also be nice if the Irish forced at least one turnover, something they haven't done against Pitt over the last trio of games.

On offense, it’ll be a repeat of last week. Plenty of guys in the box and receivers getting mugged, with the onus on Kizer to take enough shots to draw pass interferences or to find guys on the second level that can turn and take advantage of the lack of defenders between them and the end zone. It feels like this could be a big game for Alize Jones, Torii Hunter and/or Amir Carlisle if Brown and Fuller are being embraced on the outside. I’d also like to see a decent amount of Josh Adams in this game, if only because I am contractually obligated to mention my concerns over C.J. Prosise’s usage rate in every edition.

There has been much talk about Notre Dame’s slow starts, but reader Dan Z. wrote in to point out that the second quarters have actually been where the problems arise, with a negative-13 scoring differential, the worst of any quarter by far. Here’s how the S&P+ ratings for both sides of the ball look when you break them down by quarter:

The defense is all over the place, but that offensive rank is really where the Irish get in trouble. You could attempt to make the case that Kizer (and therefore the offense as a whole) is better in the first and third quarters because the coaches have more time to prep him, and he’s good in the fourth because he’s got nerves of steel and is great at rising to the occasion in crunch time. In comparison, the second quarter is sort of the most boring of all four so things are just less crisp during those 15 minutes. However, it’s not just a Kizer thing, as the Irish offense managed just three total points in the second quarter against Texas and Virginia with Malik Zaire at the helm. Something for Kelly and the Mikes Sanford and Denbrock to smooth out over the final four regular season games, as I’m now very much invested in a good second quarter effort.

(Would it be crazy to insert Brandon Wimbush for a second quarter series, just to mix things up in an attempt to jumpstart the offense? It would be, right? But would you hate it? I wouldn't hate it until the inevitable defensive touchdown, then I would.)

I mentioned above that Pitt’s pass rush might be running out of juice, and it’s possible that could apply to the whole team. They had their bye week back on September 19 and are in the middle of a stretch of nine games in as many weeks, including their entire ACC slate. The Notre Dame game is wedged between North Carolina and Duke, their two biggest rivals for an ACC divisional crown that Saturday’s game will in no way effect. Will the Panthers maybe pump the brakes to conserve energy for their November stretch run?

Right. Wouldn’t want it any other way. Anyway: This is a tough opponent that’s won a lot of games late and whose two losses have come by a total of ten points to two teams that are a combined 15-1. It’s an uncommon noon start in a sterile NFL stadium with an atrocious playing surface. And it’s Pitt, who always always always plays the Irish tough. Win this game, get to 8-1 and we’ll worry about style points later.

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Let’s spend a very brief amount of time on the first playoff rankings, which featured the very pleasant surprise of the Irish all the way up at fifth. This doesn’t change the fact that an undefeated Big Ten or Big 12 team will get in over Notre Dame, but it does certainly make it seem more likely that that 11-1 Notre Dame would have a much better chance at getting in over a one-loss team from either conference. We’ll see, a lot of football yet to be played.

Rooting interests for some of that football: Honestly, the biggest win that can happen for Notre Dame outside of Heinz Field would be Navy taking down Memphis, a 7:00 p.m. ET game on ESPN2. If Navy and Temple square off in the American title game and USC can drag itself to the Pac-12 final against Stanford that would be very, very good for the Irish. I also think we should root for LSU against Alabama just to eliminate the Tide, although a Bama win isn’t the end of the world.

Some other results that would be useful, some realistic and some very much not that way: Washington over Utah, Indiana over Iowa, Nebraska over Michigan State, Auburn over A&M, Iowa State over Oklahoma, Vanderbilt over Florida, Minnesota over Ohio State.

We now live in a world where the Notre Dame football team's best friends are Stanford, USC, Temple and Navy. Life is weird. Go Irish, Beat Panthers, talk to you all on Monday.

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