Notre Dame Football: Pittsburgh Panthers

1. Cleaned out my closet over the weekend and found a promotional poster from a trip I covered in 2008 in which five Division I head coaches visited U.S. troops in the Middle East. The trip was six years -- and a cumulative eight job changes -- ago. Charlie Weis has gone from Notre Dame to Florida to Kansas; Tommy Tuberville from Auburn to Texas Tech to Cincinnati; Jack Siedlecki from Yale to Wesleyan; Randy Shannon from Miami to TCU to Arkansas. Only Mark Richt from Georgia has remained in place. I’m guessing you could select randomly five head coaches in 2008 and come up with a similar result. What a business.

2. Everett Golson returned to the football field at Notre Dame on Monday. How much did the Irish miss him last year? While total yardage and touchdowns remained virtually the same from 2012 to 2013, look deeper. The run/pass yardage ratio in 2012 was 46/54. Last season, it shifted to 37/63. Trips into the red zone dropped from 60 to 45. Notre Dame missed Golson’s ability to run. Quarterback rushing yards went from 285 yards to minus-30. Every defense is stressed by a running quarterback. The Irish have that threat again.

3. I love that Paul Chryst canceled Pitt’s spring game because his young team would benefit more from another practice than a pretend game, especially with the relatively low number of available players (seniors are gone, freshmen haven’t arrived, and the injured are recuperating). And I love that Chryst felt the need to apologize for doing so. Spring games are a valuable marketing tool to rekindle interest among fans during the long offseason. But I bet more teaching goes on in practice than in a spring game.

ACC announces 2014 schedule

January, 22, 2014
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The 2014 ACC schedule was released Wednesday, featuring Louisville’s inaugural season in the conference, the first year of the ACC’s partnership with Notre Dame, one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules and a weekend of rivalry games to end the regular season.

Defending national champion Florida State will start the first season of the College Football Playoff on Aug. 30 at Cowboys Stadium, where the Seminoles will face Oklahoma State in the sixth annual Cowboys Classic. It also happens to be the site of the final game of the season, as Arlington, Texas, is where the new College Football Playoff will crown its first champion on Jan. 12, 2015.

Some of the ACC schedule's highlights include:
  • Miami will travel to Louisville on Labor Day night.
  • Notre Dame will play North Carolina, Syracuse, Louisville and Florida State.
  • Week 1 also includes Clemson at Georgia and UCLA at Virginia.
  • Five nationally televised Thursday night games, including Virginia Tech at Pitt (Oct. 16); Miami at Virginia Tech (Oct. 23); Florida State at Louisville (Oct. 30); and Clemson at Wake Forest (Nov. 6). The final 2014 ACC Thursday night contest on ESPN will have North Carolina traveling to Duke on Nov. 20.
  • Three nationally televised Friday night games, including Virginia Tech hosting Virginia (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2) on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. The Hokies and Cavaliers previously played on Thanksgiving Friday in 1996. Boston College will also host Pitt (ESPN or ESPN2) on Sept. 5 and Louisville will play at Syracuse (ESPN or ESPN2) on Oct. 3.
  • ACC teams will play nine games against teams from the final 2014 Associated Press poll (No. 4 South Carolina, No. 12 Ohio State, No. 16 UCLA, No. 17 Oklahoma State, No. 19 USC and No. 20 Notre Dame).

Here's what we like about this schedule, aside from the fact it came out unusually early this year: great rivalries to end the season (including Louisville-Kentucky), another Labor Day matchup and a strong nonconference lineup that includes the likes of Ohio State, South Carolina and UCLA. We're going to break it all down -- lots -- between now and Aug. 30, so stay tuned.

ACC, Notre Dame announce future dates

December, 20, 2013
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The ACC and Notre Dame announced future dates for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, highlighted by an Irish-Boston College matchup in 2015 at Fenway Park as part of the Shamrock Series.

The joint announcement, made Friday, is part of the scheduling agreement Notre Dame made with the ACC when it decided to join the league in all sports but football. Because of previous schedule commitments, Notre Dame will face four ACC teams in 2014. Wake Forest, initially scheduled to play Notre Dame in 2014, will now face the Irish in 2015 -- giving Notre Dame six ACC games.

Beginning in 2016, Notre Dame will play five ACC teams each year and alternate between playing three home and two away games one year, with two home and three away games the next. BC announced separately it will host Notre Dame at Alumni Stadium in 2017. Below is a look at the Irish's future ACC opponents over the next three years, with Notre Dame as the home team.


2014

Sept. 27 at Syracuse (MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.)

Oct. 11 North Carolina

Oct. 18 at Florida State

Nov. 22 Louisville

2015

Sept. 12 at Virginia

Sept. 19 Georgia Tech

Oct. 3 at Clemson

Nov. 7 at Pitt

Nov. 14 Wake Forest

Nov. 21 Boston College (Fenway Park, Boston)

2016

Sept. 24 Duke

Oct. 1 at Syracuse (MetLife Stadium, E. Rutherford, N.J.)

Oct. 8 at NC State

Oct. 29 Miami

Nov. 19 Virginia Tech

Irish lunch links

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
12:00
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Yes, please.

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
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These three stood out in No. 23 Notre Dame's 28-21 loss Saturday at Pitt:

TJ Jones, WR: Another week, another strong effort for Jones, though his fumble will sting. Still, the senior captain finished with six catches for a game-high 149 yards and a touchdown, while adding 41 yards and a touchdown on three carries.

Ben Koyack, TE: The junior impressed once again, coming oh-so close to hauling in his fourth touchdown in the last five games. He will have to settle for four catches for 76 yards, as he continues to establish himself as another legitimate threat in the passing game.

Sheldon Day, DE: So much for the ankle injury. Day, finally getting a chance to play with his fellow first-team defensive linemen -- for some of the game, at least -- notched three tackles for loss and five total tackles after a week in which no one was sure how much he would play after re-aggravating a high ankle sprain last week against Navy.

Five things: Notre Dame-Pitt

November, 9, 2013
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No. 23 Notre Dame visits Pitt tonight (8 ET/ABC) to renew a rivalry that has featured no shortage of close calls in recent years. Here are five things to watch when the two teams square off at Heinz Field.

Injured guys. Yes, we're starting here again. Warmups every week during a Notre Dame game have become all the more important for watching who lines up where, and next to whom. Chris Watt (PCL tear) practiced this week and is expected back at left guard. Sheldon Day (ankle) and Louis Nix III (knee tendinitis/small meniscus tear) are both expected to play again on the defensive line as well, though to what extent, we do not know. Then there is safety Austin Collinsworth, who is cleared to play after suffering a neck strain during last week's game against Navy. Brian Kelly says that Elijah Shumate is fine after a hamstring injury kept him out of the last three games.

Tarean Folston. Everyone had been waiting for a Notre Dame running back to break out the way Folston did last week against Navy. The freshman carried the ball 18 times for 140 yards and ran it in for the go-ahead, one-yard touchdown with less than four minutes to play. Pitt's defenses won't be as forgiving as Navy's, but it will be interesting to see if Folston can build off his career day or if this was just a flash in the pan, as the Irish certainly could use a consistent force in the backfield.

Tight end play. These guys have certainly risen to the occasion this year. No one is replacing Tyler Eifert's production -- nor were they expected to after the captain was drafted in the first round -- but Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack continue to improve every week. Niklas has 22 catches for 372 yards and five touchdowns and, as seen last week, has become much more aggressive as a blocker. Koyack, meanwhile, has seen the ball come his way much more in recent weeks, as he has scored three touchdowns in the Irish's last four games. They take plenty of pressure off a passing game that has often been too reliant on TJ Jones, and another strong outing can further stretch the defense.

Aaron Donald. The Pitt defensive tackle just might be the best interior lineman in the country this season. He leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.4 per game) and is third in sacks (1.1), in addition to forcing three fumbles. At 6-foot, 285-pounds, he is not overwhelming with his size, but he certainly can change the game, as evidenced by last week's performance at Georgia Tech -- 11 total tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one sack. The six TFLs were the most in a game by an FBS player this season. To put that into perspective, the Yellow Jackets ran 63 plays, meaning nearly 10 percent of their plays ended with Donald making a tackle in the backfield.

Defensive newcomers. Nix and Day should play, but we don't know how much. Jarron Jones, Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo and Isaac Rochell all have seen more time lately because of the injuries across the line. Ben Councell is also done for the year (ACL tear), Ishaq Williams is out for at least this game with a different ACL injury, and there is the chance that Collinsworth and Shumate could be limited (or not play), as well. Romeo Okwara and Eilar Hardy are among the reserves who have seen much more action in recent weeks, and they will need to step up again in order to contain a dangerous Pitt passing attack.

Notre Dame prediction: Game 10 at Pitt

November, 8, 2013
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Does another tight contest await Saturday night when No. 23 Notre Dame and Pitt square off?

When Notre Dame has the ball: The onus falls on the offense a little bit more this week as it tries to bail out a defense with no shortage of injuries. The expected return of Chris Watt at left guard will be big for a group tasked with slowing down Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the nation this season. Tommy Rees cannot afford to turn the ball over, and he and the rest of the offense will be helped a great deal if Tarean Folston runs on Pitt the way he did against Navy last week, as the freshman looked better than any of the other Irish backs during his breakout 140-yard day.

When Pitt has the ball: Though Notre Dame's starting defensive line is probably at less than 100 percent health, the Panthers have been abysmal running the football this year, failing to reach even 25 rushing yards as a team in three games this season. They do, however, have a much better decision-maker under center in Tom Savage, who has two arguably the ACC's best receiving duo in redshirt senior Devin Street and freshman sensation Tyler Boyd. Street has struggled against the Irish in three previous matchups but is a smart, sure-handed route-runner who can make plays all over the field. Boyd was a running back in high school and Pitt is not afraid to get him the ball in several different ways to keep the defenses honest. Though nothing like the challenge of facing an option team the past two weeks, Notre Dame will have to again be cautious on the edges in defending Pitt's playmakers.

Intangible: Notre Dame, as we know, has been dealing with a lot of injuries. So, too, has Pitt, though it expects the left side of its offensive line, Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King, to be fine Saturday night. This series has not been short on drama in recent years, and that could be the case again at Heinz Field.

Prediction: Notre Dame 14, Pitt 10. Picture the 15-12 contest from 2011, just in a night atmosphere. And this time, both teams will have somewhat of an excuse, as it is later in the season and both are ailing. Nonetheless, the Irish survive one last test before a much-needed bye week.

Irish lunch links

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
12:00
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Enjoy the weekend, gang.

Did you know? Notre Dame at Pitt

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
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As always, thanks to sports information departments and ESPN Stats & Info for these tidbits:


  • This will be the 69th time Notre Dame has played Pitt. The Irish have played only four other programs more than they have played the Panthers: Navy (87), Purdue (85), USC (85) and Michigan State (77).
  • Pitt has lost three of four and has been inconsistent all season running the ball. The Panthers have been held under 25 yards rushing in three games this season. The only other FBS team to do that this season is Washington State.
  • In Notre Dame’s seven wins this season, Tommy Rees has 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. In two losses, Rees has four touchdowns and five interceptions.
  • Notre Dame's defense has fallen off this season in the red zone, as it is allowing 3.3 yards per play (from 2.2 in 2012), has recorded one sack (nine in 2012) and has allowed 17 touchdowns (13 in 2012). Opposing quarterbacks also have a total QBR of 77.5 in the red zone this year, as opposed to 6.3 last season.
  • Pitt is looking to avoid its first three-game single-season losing streak since 2007 when it lost four in a row.
  • With a win, Notre Dame will have its fourth straight season with at least eight wins. The last time that happened was a seven-year stretch from 1987-93 under Lou Holtz.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A normally reserved pass-rushing menace, Stephon Tuitt had trouble containing a smile when asked if he was eager to see what Notre Dame's defense could do with his two right-hand men next to him at full-strength.

"When that time comes," the 6-foot-6, 312-pound defensive end said, "it comes."

A four-year starter at left tackle, Zack Martin gave less ground when asked about being the lone veteran along the Irish's first-team offensive line last week.

"I never really thought about it during the game," the two-time captain said, "because we've got guys getting reps in practice and coaches throwing different guys in there and getting different groups in there just to be ready."

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix III
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesWith Louis Nix III expected back Saturday, the Irish will have their full complement along the D-line.
In any event, Tuitt and Martin are expected to get reinforcements Saturday at Pitt. Sheldon Day and Louis Nix III should join Tuitt up front defensively in some capacity, while Chris Watt practiced this week at left guard.

For the meat of Notre Dame's roster, the Irish's biggest strengths entering this season, the relative health of several starters will provide a welcome reprieve for units that have experienced more than their fair share of attrition so far in 2013.

"We put together some good football against some very good offensive football teams, and never getting those three guys on the field at one time says a lot to the group coming together," coach Brian Kelly said of the defensive line.

That side of the ball has dealt with more hits recently, and it is, in some sense, ironic to see Tuitt as the most healthy defensive lineman since the Irish's last bye week, nearly a month ago.

Tuitt was slow to adjust this season after surgery for a sports hernia, and he dealt with a back issue in the first month, as well. Around the time Tuitt was just starting to shape back into form, Day suffered a high ankle sprain Sept. 14 at Purdue that kept him out for all but the next three games.

Then came the Oct. 19 game against rival USC, with Tuitt earning the game ball after a two-sack night, a night in which Nix suffered a minor shoulder injury.

Then came Nix's knee tendinitis, with a small meniscus tear working its way into the diagnosis earlier this week, with Kelly saying that the tendinitis is the bigger issue. PRP treatment already has taken place, and a minor operation to clear up the knee will follow, likely after the season.

Day also happened to return to full-strength against the Trojans, only to re-aggravate his ankle this past Saturday against Navy.

"We go out every week, and we play and we practice" Tuitt said. "Stuff happens. It's football. Other than that, we just do the best we can do."

The offensive line's depth has not taken quite the same hit, despite losing right guard Christian Lombard for the season because of back surgery after the USC game. Watt's PCL tear at Air Force kept him out of the Navy game, leaving Conor Hanratty to make his first career start, at left guard. Martin was the lone elder statesman this past Saturday among a group that had Steve Elmer making his second career start at right guard, with first-year starers Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley manning their regular spots at center and right tackle, respectively.

Martin likely will get his tag-team partner Watt back against the Panthers, though he was impressed with what the newcomers brought to the table in their first taste of extended action.

"Those guys, it's all about preparations," Martin said. "They did it the right way, and they do it the right way. That's the biggest thing we talk about as a team and as an offensive line group, is if you prepare the right way, when your number is called, not only are we confident in you, but you should be confident in yourself."

Video: Irish LT Zack Martin

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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Matt Fortuna interviews Notre Dame two-year captain Zack Martin, who discusses the health of his offensive line and the challenges of facing Pitt on Saturday.

Close games highlight Pitt-ND series

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The package was called "Desperado," a phrase both Pittsburgh and Notre Dame fans would probably rather never hear or speak of again.

It was not discovered until the day after the Fighting Irish's triple-overtime win over the Panthers last year that cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver Chris Brown, both No. 2 for the Irish, were on the field together when Kevin Harper's potential 33-yard game-winning field sailed wide right after a bad snap.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh vs. Notre Dame in 2012
Matt Cashore/US PresswireEverett Golson's game-winning touchdown in the third overtime last season gave the Irish a heart-stopping victory over Pitt.
For the Panthers, it was an oversight that all but cost them a program-defining win for new coach Paul Chryst. For the Irish, it was a crisis averted, one of several minor miracles in a magical season.

It was another hold-your-breath moment in a series that, for one reason or another, has never lacked for drama. A primetime atmosphere awaits Saturday night at Heinz Field when the Panthers and the Irish square off. One team is fighting to clinch bowl eligibility, the other is clinging to BCS-bowl hopes and, well, here we go again.

"It happens," Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas said of the officials' error last season. "Two No. 2s on the field, it happens. Refs make mistakes, so everybody's not perfect. So it happens. So we just put the loss behind us and just carried on to the next week. But it happens. Everybody's not perfect."

Notre Dame has beaten Pitt by three points in each of the last two years, including a 15-12 tractor-pull of a contest in 2011 that both teams are best served to forget. The Irish are 6-3 against the Panthers since 2002, but eight of those games have been decided by eight points or fewer.

There have been seven total overtimes across two of those games -- a four-overtime Pitt win in 2008 and last year's three-overtime Notre Dame victory, its last close call on the way to the BCS title game.

"You know what, we're letting it go, it's old news," Pitt end Bryan Murphy said. "Whatever happened last year happened. We're not paying attention to it. We're just moving on from there. That's all last year. We were a different team, they were a different team. So we're not even concentrating on anything that happened last year."

Chryst echoed that sentiment during his Monday press conference in Pittsburgh, though tight end J.P. Holtz had a decidedly different tone when he told reporters that he did not like Notre Dame, calling their coaches "really cocky."

The comments seemingly made their way back here to Irish coach Brian Kelly, who said Tuesday: "They don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame."

Though in just his fourth year at Notre Dame, Kelly is more familiar with Pitt than any other opponent in the last seven years, having faced the Panthers in each of his three seasons at Cincinnati before playing them annually so far while with the Irish.

He has also faced the Panthers' new starting quarterback, redshirt senior Tom Savage, who appeared in Rutgers' 2009 season-opener against the Kelly-coached Bearcats.

"A big kid, strong-armed, and obviously they like to throw the football with him," Kelly said of Savage. "He's got some talented receivers. We're going to have to prepare ourselves for a kid that likes to throw the football and has some weapons."

The best of those weapons, redshirt senior Devin Street, is two weeks removed from becoming Pitt's career leader in receptions. Though winless and held to 42 or fewer yards in each of his three contests against the Irish, Street has no particular distaste for the team he will face this weekend.

"We don't go in disliking anyone, but we definitely have a respect for Notre Dame and the tradition and that type of team," Street said. "But we don't hate them or anything like that. I think they're a great team."

Both teams are coming off consecutive games against option teams -- Pitt losing to Navy and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame beating Air Force and Navy.

And both will reconvene in two years, and roughly every three years after that, as part of the Irish's five-game-per-year scheduling agreement that takes effect next year with the ACC, which Pitt is finishing out its first season in.

"Everyone knows Notre Dame; Notre Dame is one of the most historic football programs in the country, and they always will be," Murphy said. "I think it's amazing to have a team like that on your schedule. That's always a primetime game for us. I think it's huge for our team going forward to always have that game because we always play great against them. It's always just an amazing game between us two, so I think it's important that we continue that matchup."

Irish lunchtime links

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
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Good to see the Knicks are already in midseason form.

ACC upset watch: Week 11

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
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The No. 1 game on this list came to fruition last week, as Boston College knocked off Virginia Tech and snapped a five-game losing streak to the Hokies. The Upset Watch is back this week, with two ranked teams making an appearance ... and no, one of them is not Florida State:

1. No. 23 Notre Dame at Pitt -- Last year, Notre Dame was ranked No. 3 and that’s exactly how many overtimes the Irish needed to beat the Panthers, 29-26. Notre Dame trailed 20-6 in the fourth quarter -- in South Bend -- and had three turnovers. In 2011, Pitt pushed Notre Dame to the fourth quarter before losing, 15-12. Is this the season the Panthers finally break through? Pitt will have home field advantage, and the Irish are banged up defensively. Last week’s win over Navy came with a price, as linebacker Ben Councell is out for the season with a left knee injury and defensive lineman Kona Schwenke is out for Saturday's game with a high-ankle sprain. Sheldon Day aggravated a high-ankle sprain he had suffered earlier this season but may be ready to play against Pitt. The past five games in this series have been decided by an average of four points, and two of them have gone into overtime.

2. Virginia Tech at No. 11 Miami -- Both of these teams are trying to rebound from disappointing losses, and yet both still have everything to play for. The Coastal Division will be on the line when the Hokies travel to South Florida this week. Miami is the only team left in the division that can get to Charlotte by winning the rest of its remaining games. If the Hokies win, they’re right back in the race, despite back-to-back losses to Duke and Boston College. Virginia Tech has turned the ball over eight times in the past two games, but Miami will be without its top offensive player in injured running back Duke Johnson. Neither team is flawless, and both are playing with embattled quarterbacks trying to carry their respective teams on their shoulders. This is going to be a gut-check game for both programs, but Virginia Tech has more to prove. The Hokies have made improbable comebacks before. Can they do it again?

Players to watch: Pitt

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
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Notre Dame has topped Pitt by three points in consecutive closer-than-anticipated contests. Nov. 9 is the schools' last meeting before the Irish's ACC scheduling agreement kicks in. (They will then meet in 2015, again at Heinz Field.)

To read previous entries from this series, click here.

Offense: Devin Street, WR. The second-team All-Big East receiver hauled in 73 catches for 975 yards and five touchdowns last season. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound senior had just three catches for 35 yards in last year's loss at Notre Dame and two for 21 in the 2011 contest, but Street is capable of breaking out at any time, as evidenced by his three 100-yard receiving games for the second consecutive year. The question is how quickly a new quarterback and complementary receivers will emerge around the Biletnikoff Award watch-lister.

Defense: Aaron Donald, DT. Donald has been named to five different watch lists already, this after notching 18.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2012. His 1.54 tackles for loss per game were a Big East-best last season, and he has been named All-Big East in each of the past two seasons (first team in 2012, second team in 2011). The 6-foot, 285-pound Donald had seven tackles and one tackle for loss in last season's loss at Notre Dame.

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