Stretch run won’t be easy for ND

South Bend Tribune

Earlier this week, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly mentioned how it will be nice for his team to get away from option-based opponents after playing Air Force and Navy.

From the standpoint of facing the quirky, tough-to-prepare-for attacks, and the pesky cut-blocking, yes, it will be nice to face a more conventional offense.

But on the other hand, the opponents on the tail end of ND’s schedule provide a variety of challenges, starting with this weekend’s trip to Pitt.

The following is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of Notre Dame’s final three regular-season opponents, any one of which could put a final stake through 7-2 ND’s hopes for a second straight trip to a BCS bowl.

At Pittsburgh


lþStrengths: It starts on defense for the 4-4 Panthers, whose star player is defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Pitt ranks 33rd in total defense, allowing an average of 366 yards (Notre Dame, by comparison, ranks 36th with an average of 370).

Tough, physical defense is what you’d expect out of a Pittsburgh team, and that’s what the Irish will get Saturday night.

While Pitt ranks just 70th in passing offense, former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage is big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and he has receivers to whom he can throw, mainly senior Devin Street and freshman Tyler Boyd. Street is the bigger name of the two because he’s been around longer, but Boyd actually leads the Panthers with 45 catches and six touchdowns.

lþWeaknesses: Running the ball in recent years has been a Panther staple, with standout backs LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. Rushel Shell was expected to become the next great Pitt back, but he transferred in the spring.

That left the backfield chores to Isaac Bennett and James Conner, and the Panthers enter the ND game ranked 104th in rushing offense with 122 yards per game.

The Panthers are built around a beefy offensive line that averages 315 pounds, but it hasn’t been able to help spring a dominant rushing game. Pitt’s ground attack has in turn dragged down the offense as it ranks 103rd nationally.

If the Irish make the Panthers one-dimensional, you have to like their chances.


Nov. 23

lþStrengths: The Cougars last year were one of the nation’s top defenses. This year, however, it’s the BYU offense that is providing the fuel.

BYU ranks 12th nationally in total offense with 511 yards per game. The Cougars grabbed a lot of attention early when they dropped 40 points on a then-struggling Texas team.

Quarterback Taysom Hill leads the Cougars in not only passing but also rushing. The guy to watch out for is receiver Cody Hoffman. In fact, when asked this spring who were some of the top receivers he faced last year, Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell mentioned Hoffman, which is saying a lot considering the Irish faced USC, Oklahoma and Alabama a year ago.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy projects as a late-first round or early-second round pick in next year’s draft. He isn’t having the year statistically that he had last year — Van Noy has 11 tackles for loss and four sacks this year after recording 22 TFLs and 13 sacks a year ago — but he’s still menacing.

lþWeaknesses: There don’t appear to be a lot. The Cougars aren’t great on third down, converting at a 34-percent clip. The team ranks 83rd in passing efficiency. And it poorly in penalties, committing nearly eight per game for 65 yards.

What helps ND is that it will have a bye week going into this game, and with the injuries plaguing the Irish, it will come at a good time.

At Stanford

Nov. 30

lþStrengths: There are all sorts of them.

Statistically the Cardinal rank 23rd overall in defense, and they’re a tough, wear-you-down unit. Granted, the pectoral injury that will sideline star defensive end Ben Gardner for the rest of the season hurts, but there seems to be an assembly line of physical and smart defensive linemen and linebackers at the school.

Return man Ty Montgomery is the nation’s best at his craft, and he’s a guy that the Irish will need to neutralize. The best way to do that is to put the ball out of the end zone.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan, who had not yet taken over the job last year when ND beat Stanford, isn’t Andrew Luck, but he’s pretty good. Entering Thursday night’s game against Oregon, he ranked 27th nationally in passing efficiency, nine spots ahead of Irish QB Tommy Rees. Hogan isn’t asked to carry the offense, but he had an efficient 13-5 TD-interception ratio.

The running game drives the Stanford offense as former ND target Tyler Gaffney, who made an official visit to Notre Dame the same weekend as Manti Te’o, is back after a stab at pro baseball, and powering the rushing attack behind a physical line. Going into the Oregon game, he was averaging 110 yards and had 12 rushing TDs.

lþWeaknesses: There aren’t a lot. The Stanford passing game doesn’t wow you statistically, but it’s still effective with Hogan running the show.

The Cardinal, Thursday night’s game, were allowing 250 passing yards per game, but that may have been a byproduct of opponents playing catch-up.

With this being the most complete team the Irish face all season, there is little margin for error.


Twitter: @BobWienekeNDI

Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney (25) holds off Army linebacker Thomas Holloway (29) during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in West Point, N.Y. Gaffney was penalized for face masking. Stanford won, 34-20. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)