Opponent outlook: Is this another dangerous Pittsburgh team?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The last time an undefeated Notre Dame football team hosted Pittsburgh, the 2012 game took three overtimes for the Irish to escape.

The No. 5 Irish (6-0) are once again heavily favored against the Panthers (3-3). Since 2012, Pitt has upset five ranked teams, including a 28-21 win over Notre Dame in 2013.

Pat Narduzzi’s squad did not defeat a ranked team in Syracuse last week. But the 44-37 overtime victory suggested the Panthers have returned to their dangerous ways.

Running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall combined for 299 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries. Kicker Alex Kessman was a weapon, drilling 3-of-3 field goals. Kessman’s first two field goals were of 54 and 55 yards, and the final 45-yarder with eight seconds remaining sent it into overtime.

No one on Notre Dame’s schedule is as good as Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech. But if the Irish take anyone lightly — like they did against Ball State — a team like Pitt could make it interesting.

Will the Panthers present a challenge, or should the surging Irish handle them? We caught up with Jerry DiPaola of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for more insight on the Panthers.

Pittsburgh was blown out by Penn State and UCF but earned an impressive win over Syracuse in inclement weather. What changed for the Panthers and what did you learn?

DiPaola: “First of all, Pitt didn’t play a ranked team. The Panthers just can’t compete against such teams without some major breaks. The defense is experienced, deeper than in the past, but still challenged from a talent standpoint when it meets top teams (such as Notre Dame).

“Pitt can only keep the game close if the running game moves the sticks, keeps possession and takes pressure off the defense and young quarterback. Three more turnovers from Pitt’s defense wouldn’t hurt, either.”

Ollison and Hall took advantage of their 43 combined touches, which is 12 more than their second-highest total this season. Do you expect them to receive a similarly heavy workload going forward?

DiPaola: “Even down 14-0 against Syracuse, Pitt was able to lean on its running game. Two backs getting over 100 — and Ollison approaching 200 — is the key to success the rest of the season. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett is talented and confident, but he hasn’t played a full season yet. He can’t do it by himself, especially with a weak pass-catching group and the best, Taysir Mack, nursing an ankle injury.”

Notre Dame’s run defense continues to near elite territory. Should Ollison and Hall be ineffective, what should people expect from quarterback Kenny Pickett?

DiPaola: “If Pitt can’t run, maybe coaches allow Pickett to make some plays with his feet. He was doing that earlier in the season, but it didn’t translate into points. Coaches want him to sit in the pocket as much as possible, read the secondary and make good, safe throws. Don’t be surprised if he takes a few shots downfield, too. That’s been a point of emphasis since training camp.”

Backup nickel back Therran Coleman was the hero last week. Who are the key players and strengths to the Panther defense?

DiPaola: “The front seven has the best players. DE Rashad Weaver has been a good pass rusher and the two tackles in the middle, Keyshon Camp and Amir Watts, are getting better by the week. Middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis is the heart of the defense and he is surrounded on the outside by seniors Elijah Zeise and Seun Idowu. The linebackers have to make plays and not make the wrong reads — that’s been a problem, too — for Pitt to have any chance Saturday.”

It was Penn State and Clemson in 2016. Pitts also upset Miami in 2017. What would it take for the Panthers to knock off the Irish on Saturday?

DiPaola: “Pretty much a flawless game, big plays on defense, a couple bombs in the passing game and an effective running game. And maybe Notre Dame taking Pitt lightly, which I think, is what the Irish did in 2012.”

Quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s 44-37 overtime victory over Syracuse last Saturday.

Who: No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. Pittsburgh (3-3)

When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 20½