Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
When: 2:40 p.m. Saturday
Records: Notre Dame (6-0), Pittsburgh (3-3)
Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM
SOUTH BEND – Once already this season, Notre Dame has followed a hard-fought, statement victory with a flat performance against an opponent that was – on paper at least – inferior.
The Irish beat then-No. 14 Michigan in a rivalry game to open the season and then barely survived at home against Ball State the next week. This week, coming off a big road victory over then-No. 24 Virginia Tech, the No. 5 Irish must stave off a similar letdown against a Pittsburgh team that has a history of springing upsets.
Despite the win over the Hokies at Lane Stadium, coach Brian Kelly said the Irish didn't play up to their potential, especially in the first half. There will be an emphasis in practice this week on playing with more passion, and the coach insists he is not concerned about a letdown.
“One of the things that we talked about is that that wasn't our best performance in a lot of ways, and we have to play with more energy,” Kelly said. “This is really about going back to the practice field, having much more of a focus on how we prepare.
“We have a great deal of respect for Pittsburgh and how they'll come out to play us.”
The Panthers are just 3-3, but they are coming off a big win over Syracuse. Also, Pittsburgh has registered major upsets over top-five teams in each of the last two years, defeating No. 3 Clemson in 2016 and No. 2 Miami last season.
Linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill, who ranks second on the team in tackles behind fellow linebacker Te'von Coney, framed the issue as a “choice” the team has to make to avoid any drop-off in performance.
“It's easy to go out there and (play hard) for one or two or three games, but to do it for the longevity, 14 games of the season, not many teams can do it, and that's why there's only one champion,” the Carroll graduate said. “We have to remind ourselves each and every day of what our goals are and what we're striving towards.”
Tranquill's goal since before the season has been to win a national championship in his final year with the Irish. It's no coincidence that he mentioned 14 games as the length of the season. Notre Dame will play 14 only if it reaches the national title game in January.
Tranquill emerged from practice with a cast on his broken left hand, which he also sported against Virginia Tech. The cast bore the signature of just one player, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, but Tranquill assured the media that he was on his third iteration of the cast and others had signed it earlier.
In addition to trying to remain focused for Pittsburgh, the fifth-year senior has the added challenge of learning to play without much use of that left hand. He had five tackles against the Hokies in his first attempt at playing with the cast and said he has gotten more comfortable in practice this week.
“It's tough, being able to snatch off blocks, I've got to take advantage of angles and put my body in a situation where I can win,” he said. “It's fun trying to adjust.
“I've thought of (one-handed Seattle Seahawks linebacker) Shaquem Griffin a lot, honestly, like 'dang man, how is he so productive and so exceptional with only one hand,' because it's so, so difficult.”
While limited motion in one hand is a distraction that afflicts only Tranquil, the Irish also have midterms this week, which could distract any player if their focus wanes. Kelly made it clear he expected his players to work with passion in the classroom, as well.
“It's Notre Dame. Let's go. Bring it on,” the coach said. “You can say this is a tough week, and I've got three exams, and that's not going to do you any good. Let's go at it like warriors.”