Pitt fell to a disappointing 3-3 after a competitive game down in Miami while missing Kenny Pickett at quarterback. Unfortunately for the Panthers, it seems unlikely that Pickett will suit up this week at home against Notre Dame either. With some personnel returning such as Keyshon Camp and Israel Abanikanda, the team will get some much-needed help on both sides of the football. In a crucial game against the third-ranked Fighting Irish, what should the Panthers expect?
Notre Dame’s Schemes
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are known for running the football. They have always done it at a high level and most importantly, they would run it right down the middle. With a scheme that once employed lots of pullers and pin-pull techniques in the running game, Notre Dame has made a strange deviation away from such things. Even the signature power read that Ian Book has amassed so many yards from throughout the years is seldom used in 2020.
With new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, the Irish have moved mostly towards outside zone. The switch-up has been a bit of a surprise, but outside zone is the wave throughout all levels of football. It was expected that the Irish could implement more zone concepts with Rees in charge but these outside zone concepts have become the bread and butter of their rushing attack.
The outside zone scheme is something that is concerning for the Fighting Irish. The coaches, including Brian Kelly, have been adamant that they believe in their outside zone scheme and that the offensive line is best suited to be running an outside zone scheme over anything else. The issue is that just has not come true on the field. Whether they need reps or not, it feels like fitting a square peg into a round hole here. Teams, including Louisville last week, have been able to stifle the outside zone attack that operates mostly out of the shotgun with extremely vanilla looks in general. For a team that relies so heavily on the running game, this is concerning and can leave them vulnerable.
Now, Notre Dame has an inside zone and split zone series, too. It is to be assumed that the full pin-pull series is still within this offense but just not employed nearly as extensively as it once was. To that tune, the Irish find their best success when they use pullers. Their counter series in particular has netted them lots of success in the year. When they go under center is when they really like to use jet motion, as they have a jet sweep series to play off of this counter running game to keep defenses honest. Much like Steelers do with their jet sweep game, they have reverses and other different formations out of this set to keep defenses on their heels. It really opens up the counter runs quite nicely.
Now, the passing game is that of a typical spread offense. Similar to how Pitt runs its spread offense, there are lots of three-wide receivers and four-wide receiver looks. Notre Dame also likes to get the tight end involved, especially up the seam to attack linebackers, sometimes off of play-action. However, they have really stuck to the quick passing game to a degree this year. That is both off of play-action and similar three-step drops. Quick slants, out routes, digs, and other quick hitters are things that the Irish love to do almost as an extension of their running game. They will push the ball downfield, especially if they get man-to-man opportunities on the boundary, however.
The Irish defense runs a 4-2-5 defense under Clark Lea that is stout on the edges. Over the past few years, as they have gotten used to the 4-2-5 scheme, the Irish have gotten progressively more and more experimental with the Rover in their scheme. He is the wild card in both coverage and run defense, and the Irish have a true ‘it’ guy playing there this year. In allowing the Rover to really work his magic, the scheme likes to ask its strong safety to be a big part of run defense to sometimes account for the missing person off the edge in the run fits. The 4-2-5 base is what it operates almost primarily out of it and timed blitzes are a nice twist with the scheme. They will mix up general looks with this front, but it is really the wild card of the Rover that can catch quarterbacks of guard. He must be identified and watched at all times.
Players to Watch
QB Ian Book
The now longtime starter of the Fighting Irish, Ian Book’s dual-threat ability has elevated Notre Dame’s offense every year he steps out there as a leader. He is decisive, quick, and extremely tough to bring down in the open field. Rees draws up numerous quarterback runs as a result. As a rhythm passer, Book is fine. Getting up-tempo and executing the quick passing game to make an efficient offense is the best way to maneuver around Book’s below-average arm strength and shaky accuracy. Book is a relatively fine processor but makes some questionable decisions when trying to do too much that his arm strength can not live up to, especially some tight-window throws.
OT Liam Eichenberg
Offensive Lineman rarely gets much love here in the scouting report, but they have to when they are as talented as Eichenberg. In terms of just pure-play, Eichenberg may be the best tackle in the nation playing right now. He has been a stone wall, even when facing talented pass rushers Chris Rumph and Victor Dimukeje of Duke. Eichenberg’s strong hands and quick feet are NFL-level traits and he could be a first-round draft pick. Patrick Jones will have his hands full in an NFL level matchup here.
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
The designated rover of the 4-2-5 system, Owusu-Koramoah is a freak. Athletically, he is someone who can jump out of the gym, has sideline-to-sideline range, and fluidity guys at his size should not have. While acting as a linebacker, Owusu-Koramoah’s special job is acting as a super slot cornerback. He even gets some reps at deep safety. They move him around like a chess piece on this defense and he is delightfully perfect for this role. Another potential first-round pick, Owusu-Koramoah can eliminate slot receivers with his exceptional coverage abilities and length.
Matchups to Watch
Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey vs Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver
The general matchup of the Pitt defensive line against the Notre Dame offensive line is a key matchup, too, especially in their need to stay disciplined in their rush lanes. However, the edge matchups are going to be NFL players going up against one another. Jones and Eichenberg is a heavy, hard-hitting dual that has explosiveness and flexibility in Jones facing the powerful and graceful Eichenberg. Meanwhile, on the other side, it is a battle of power versus power as Hainsey and Weaver battle it out. Expect both sides to get their wins on the day given their talent levels are relatively equal. Eichenberg against Jones arguably may be the best edge rusher versus the best offensive tackle playing right now. Their ability to disrupt off the edge and hold their ground against the outside zone running scheme will be critical to Pitt’s success.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah vs Jordan Addison
Lots of teams do not have an answer for the Panthers talented freshman receiver in Jordan Addison, but Notre Dame has a unique player in Owusu-Koramoah, who had a valiant affair with Tutu Atwell last week against Louisville. Owusu-Koramoah held Atwell to just four receptions for 40 yards, but Addison is bigger than Atwell, even if he is more inexperienced. Given the fact that Pitt’s offense is run through Addison oftentimes, it will be interesting to see how Mark Whipple plans to attack this matchup with Owusu-Koramoah having the advantage.