A week ago there was chatter of Notre Dame going 10-2 in the regular season and reaching a BCS game. Those chatters have been silenced with the 23-21 defeat at the hands of Navy in Notre Dame Stadium, now the calls for the head of Charlie Weis gain even more steam.
The Irish travel to Pittsburgh this weekend, ironic enough probably the site of Charlie Weis' biggest win to date which was his very first at Notre Dame. A loss to the Panthers (8-1, 5-0 in Big East) and Notre Dame's hopes for the Gator Bowl may even appear to be dead with the likes of Connecticut and Stanford still on the schedule. It truly hurts to mention those two as major scares at this point in the season but sadly facts are facts.
What needs to happen for the Irish to take a win from the Panthers in Pittsburgh this weekend? Two things especially come to mind, both have cost the Irish big time in all three of their losses this season.
1) Stop the Run
Run the ball and the clock runs, we saw a week ago how valuable each possession is when a team controls possession like Navy was able to do. Pitt offers perhaps the best offensive freshman in the nation in Dion Lewis as the true freshman has put 1139 yards and 12 TD's this season. He has averaged 5.61 yards a carry and been a major problem for opposing defenses. If the Irish don't get a better showing from Ian Williams and Ethan Johnson then we have seen the majority of this season then it will be another long day at the office for ND. I really hope to see the Irish use primarily a 4-3 defense and perhaps a 5-2 at times and take my chances with less blitzing.
2) Convert Red Zone Chances
Early in the season it was obvious to all that Notre Dame would walk away with points anytime they got inside their opponents 40, let alone the red zone. The Irish wasted red zone by leaving loads of points on the field against Michigan, USC, and Navy this year. A week ago against Navy the Irish put up a 0-spot in the first half after 3 trips inside the Navy 25 yard line. That would be suicidal against Pittsburgh on Saturday. If the Irish don't get in the end zone when they drive the ball deep they will not win the game.
The Pitt Panthers as a team are a 38-31 loss to North Carolina State away from being in the national title hunt. Obviously this isn't a slouch of a team, what else do they have to offer besides the ability of all-world freshman Dion Lewis?
The offense is run first but too much commitment to the run is going to burn the Irish without a pass rush. Bill Stull has thrown for 1879 yards on the season with 17 TD's to only 4 INT. His favorite targets include 6'5'' sophomore Jonathan Baldwin (35 rec, 698 yds, 4 TD) and Dorin Dickerson, a senior tight end with 39 grabs for 450 yards. Dickerson is Stull's favorite red zone target as the senior has pulled in 10 touchdown receptions.
On defense Notre Dame is going to have to find a way to get Jimmy Clausen time to throw the football. I don't want to see the Irish going strictly downfield like they often do but intermediate routes will play a huge factor in the outcome. Pitt gets great pressure on the quarterback, leading the nation with 39 sacks on the season. Greg Romaus leads them with 7.5 sacks while Myles Caragram and Adam Gunn each add 5.
The Panthers pass defense ranks 38th in the nation as they allow 204 yards a game. Notre Dame must get Clausen time or find success in screening the ball to its backs because throwing downfield won't be a great possibility.
This is a game that Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish must have. A loss very possibly ends the Irish's hopes of the Gator Bowl and sends them to even a lesser bowl game. A win keeps the hope for Jacksonville alive and the dream of a 10-win season (with a bowl victory) existent.
We will see an emotional Irish team on Saturday night the defense doesn't do enough.
Nick (7-2): Pittsburgh 27 Notre Dame 21
Mark (7-2): Pittsburgh 31 Notre Dame 27