SOUTH BEND – For the rest of the season, Notre Dame will play games that, on paper, it should win. The challenge in those games will be to start fast and put teams away so any thoughts of an upset are snuffed out, something the Irish failed to do early in the season against Ball State and Vanderbilt.
That stretch of schedule starts today and putting Pittsburgh away early will be of the upmost importance for Notre Dame. This is a Panthers team that owns Top 5 wins in each of the last two seasons and is looking for a season-defining victory. They've already lost big to Top 10 teams Penn State and Central Florida, so they'll come in trying to prove that they can play against an elite team.
As I've written all week, the challenge for the Irish will be stopping the Pitt run game, which has been potent even in the Panthers' losses (they ran for 245 yards against Penn State in a 51-6 defeat, which is an eye-popping stat). Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall each average 6.5 yards per carry and had career games last week in a 44-37 overtime win over Syracuse, so the Irish defensive front will have its hands full. Brian Kelly said the Panthers are running as well as anyone Notre Dame will face this season.
On offense, the Irish seem likely to have an easier time of it. The Panthers rank 99th in the country in points per game allowed, giving up 32.6 per contest. They held Penn State to less than 400 yards of offense, however, and Heisman Trophy-candidate Trace McSorley completed less than 50 percent of his passes against the Panthers. The game was only so lopsided because of three Panthers turnovers.
Unfortunately for Pitt, it lost its best defensive player to injury this week in practice. Senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis suffered a non-contact injury and had season-ending surgery Wednesday. Through six games, he led the Panthers in tackles for loss and sacks.
Without that weapon, the job gets a little easier for the Irish offense, which will likely lean on an ever-more-potent run game heavily featuring Dexter Williams. Williams has been a revelation the last two weeks and with the capable Tony Jones Jr. fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered against Stanford, the Irish might not have much of a reason to pass this week. If they do, expect Ian Book to look for Miles Boykin, who has two straight 100-yard games. Book missed several long throws last week where his receiver was open, but he can make those throws, so don't be surprised to see Notre Dame take some more deep shots today to keep the defense from creeping too close to the line of scrimmage.
Like earlier games against Vanderbilt and Wake Forest, this is a game the Irish should win. It's a game that a great team would win going away, just another checkmark in the win column as an undefeated season rolls on. Pitt will come in with confidence after its win against Syracuse, but if Notre Dame can go in front by a couple of scores early, the Panthers might be deflated. Score early, score often and this game could be over by the third quarter.