THE MATCHUP: PITT (3-3) AT #5 NOTRE DAME (6-0)
WHEN: 2:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: NOTRE DAME STADIUM, SOUTH BEND, IN
HOW TO WATCH: NBC
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
After turning an early 14-point deficit into an overtime victory against Syracuse, the Pitt football team has regained some momentum heading into the second half of the 2018 season. However, maintaining that momentum through the weekend will be difficult as the Panthers travel to South Bend, Indiana to face the 5th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Holding an undefeated record with wins over Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech, the 6-0 Fighting Irish have legitimate aspirations of reaching the 2018 College Football Playoff. Without the chance of winning a conference championship, though, they cannot afford to suffer a single defeat if they wish to make the playoff, making every game for Head Coach Brian Kelly and his team a must-win. And as 21-point favorites over the Panthers, the Fighting Irish are overwhelming favorites to preserve their title hopes come Saturday.
Will this be Pitt’s next upset of a top-five team? Who knows. But an upset over the Fighting Irish could reinvigorate frustrated Panther fans, especially considering that Notre Dame has out-recruited Pitt for many of the WPIAL’s top prospects in recent years. Offensive tackles Robert Hainsey (two seasons at Gateway) and Josh Lugg (North Allegheny), defensive tackle Kurt Hinish (Central Catholic), quarterback Phil Jerkovec (Pine-Richland), and recently retired linebacker David Adams (Central Catholic) all committed to Notre Dame after playing high school football in the Panthers’ back yard. Although only a verbal commitment at this point, Pine-Richland’s offensive tackle, Andrew Kristofic, is heading to South Bend next year, too. A victory over the Irish could offset the sting of losing out on such revered local talent.
Notre Dame’s offense lost many vital contributors from 2017 in the offseason, including two top-10 NFL draft picks in offensive guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey; their leading rusher, Josh Adams; and their leading receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown. They struggled to find a rhythm at the beginning of 2018 until a crucial lineup change in week-four (which will be addressed momentarily) transformed the offense into one of the nation’s top units. Operating out of a spread offense, the Irish have averaged 518.0 total yards and 46.3 points over the past three weeks, which is markedly better than their averages of 365.3 total yards and 23.3 points over the first three weeks.
So what happened in week four that led to such a turnaround?
Ian Book became the Irish’s quarterback. That’s what happened.
When redshirt-sophomore Ian Book replaced Brandon Wimbush at starting quarterback against Wake Forest, Notre Dame’s offense went from mediocre to remarkable. While Wimbush is the superior runner, Book has opened up the offense with his passing, completing 77-of-105 passes for 887 yards, 9 touchdowns and 1 interception. He may not possess Wimbush’s pure athleticism, but Book can still make plays with his legs, rushing for 3 touchdowns this year. He may not be the sole reason for the offense’s improvement, but it would be hard to argue that Book wasn’t the catalyst who sparked it.
Book distributes the ball to a handful of pass-catchers, including a trio of massive targets that will challenge the physicality of Pitt’s secondary. On the outside, the Irish start two 6-foot-4-inch receivers in Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. Boykin, the team’s leading receiver with 28 receptions for 428 yards and 3 touchdowns, made one of the top highlights of last year’s bowl season during ND’s victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Former 4-star tight end Alizè Mack, at 6-feet-5-inches and 227 pounds, is another towering receiving threat who contributes frequently in the passing game. And while the 5-foot-10-inch Chris Finke may be easy to overlook next to such imposing figures, he is second on the team in both receptions (19) and receiving yards (243) from the slot position.
Notre Dame also features an all-purpose weapon in Jafar Armstrong. At 6-feet-1-inches and 218 pounds, Armstrong is larger than the typical running back/wide receiver hybrid, and the majority of his touches come as a runner (47 carries for 245 yards and 5 touchdowns). However, Armstrong is expected to miss his third game in a row on Saturday due to a knee infection.
At running back, the Fighting Irish have seen a new primary ball carrier emerge over the past two weeks. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound Tony Jones, Jr. leads the Irish in carries with 58, but Dexter Williams – who missed the first four games of the season due to unspecified disciplinary reasons – holds the lead in rushing yards after breaking off a 97-yard touchdown against Virginia Tech. With 38 carries for 339 yards and 4 touchdowns over just two games, expect to see Williams receive the bulk of Notre Dame’s carries, especially after Jones, Jr. was banged up against Stanford and only received two carries against Virginia Tech.
Rounding out the offense is Notre Dame’s offensive line, which is – as usual – talent-rich and huge. Although they lost the aforementioned Nelson and McGlinchey in the offseason, and 2018 Sporting News Preseason First-Team All-American guard Alex Bars was lost for the season after sustaining a knee injury against Stanford, they have recruited excellently in recent years and still field an impressive unit. The player Pitt fans may want to monitor along the line is sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey, who played at Pittsburgh’s Gateway High School before spending his junior and senior seasons at Florida’s IMG Academy.
Unlike the offense, Notre Dame’s defense has been consistently stout in 2018. Operating out of a base 4-3 defense, the Irish allow 357.3 yards-per-game (49th in the FBS), but they don’t concede many points from those yards (19.5 points-per-game). Their run defense allows a respectable 127.8 yards-per-game, which may make this a tough matchup for a Pitt offense that relies heavily on the ground game.
The Irish have a talented and deep defensive front-four, highlighted by defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Tillery, CBS Sports’ 30th-ranked prospect for the 2019 NFL draft, is a 6-foot-7-inch, 305-pound force of nature with 7 sacks (t-6th in the FBS) and 3 forced fumbles. He is undoubtedly Notre Dame’s most disruptive player along the line, but breakout defensive end Khalid Kareem is having quite the season, too. With 7.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble, Kareem is living up to his 4-star rating in his first year as a starter.
At the next level, Mike linebacker Te’Von Coney and Buck linebacker Drue Tranquill are performing as well as any pair of linebackers in the country. Coney has 48 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery and an interception, while Tranquill has been anything but tranquil with 40 tackles, 5.0 tackles-for loss and 1 sack. Redshirt-junior Rover linebacker Asmar Bilal is also a solid contributor on the outside.
In the secondary, Notre Dame boasts one of the nation’s top cornerbacks, Julian Love. Rated the 28th-overall prospect in next year’s NFL draft by CBS Sports, Love has 1 interception and an astounding 11 passes broken up (2nd-most in the FBS). Opposite of Love is former 4-star cornerback Troy Pride, Jr., and Houston Griffith will see the field when Notre Dame lines up in the nickel.
Rounding out the defense are Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman. Elliott, the returning starter at strong safety, and Gilman, a free safety transfer from Navy, combine for 69 tackles, 3.0 tackles-for-loss, 2 interceptions, 6 passes-broken-up, and 1 forced fumble.
|Points Per Game||26.0||32.8||34.8||19.5|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1386||1330||1338||949|
|Yards Lost Rushing||163||149||164||182|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.2||4.8||4.5||3.4|
|Average Yards Per Game||203.8||196.8||195.7||127.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||149.2||224.0||8.1||5.8|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.6||6.0||5.9||4.6|
|Average Yards Per Game||353.0||420.8||441.7||357.3|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||11-254||5-109||8-183||13-394|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||10-104||12-97||10-91||10-73|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||5-99||5-67||7-33||5-45|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||23.1||21.8||22.9||21.9|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||10.4||8.1||9.1||7.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||19.8||13.4||4.7||9.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||9-6||13-5||4-1||7-4|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||43-404||33-255||27-246||31-236|
|Average Per Game||67.3||42.5||41.0||39.3|
|PUNTS – YARDS||31-1202||25-1046||26-1203||32-1390|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||35.6||36.9||39.6||38.7|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||31:06||28:54||28:46||31:14|
|4th Down Percentage||43%||50%||55%||50%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||11-73||13-106||15-112||11-68|
|Jones Jr., Tony||58||302||5.2||3||31|
This will be the 71st meeting in a series which Notre Dame leads, 48-21-1. The game kicks off at 2:30 Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Indiana. It will be aired on NBC, and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.