Opponent outlook: Pittsburgh to challenge Notre Dame, Book with nation's top run defense

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Ian Book will likely face his toughest test to date this season in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

And No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) will need its quarterback to be sharper than he has been when it meets the Panthers (3-3, 2-3 ACC) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC).

Book enters the matchup coming off one of the worst performances of his 27 collegiate starts. The graduate senior completed 11 of 19 passes for 106 yards with a 13-yard rushing touchdown in a 12-7 win over Louisville last week. He recorded the fourth-lowest pass-efficiency rating of his career that game (104.8), dropping him to No. 44 among the 71 quarterbacks who qualify nationally at 133.9.

The Irish running game, featuring sophomore Kyren Williams and freshman Chris Tyree, has picked up the slack and carried the offense. Notre Dame ranks No. 6 in yards per carry (5.83) and No. 7 in rushing yards per game (261). Williams has recorded just over 150 all-purpose yards per game.

That Pittsburgh enters the week No. 1 in run defense (61.5 rushing yards allowed per game) means Book may need to make more plays through the air. He will need to be more efficient in the red zone and on page with the three wide receivers still looking to produce after returning from injuries: Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy and Ben Skowronek.

What does this matchup look like from Pittsburgh’s perspective? We caught up with Jerry DiPaola of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for more insight on the Panthers.

Notre Dame’s elite rushing offense faces an elite rushing defense in Pitt. How do you feel they match up?

DiPaola: “Pitt has a strong front seven. Its defensive ends, Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones II, are two of the best and will be looking to put on a show for the NFL. Losing tackles Jaylen Twyman (opt-out) and Keyshon Camp (injury) hurts, but the replacements are young and eager. They are high on Calijah Kancey, Deandre Jules and Tyler Bentley, but they are redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Their best linebacker might be sophomore SirVocea Dennis, a really smart and athletic guy who stepped into the starting lineup when Cam Bright, another linebacker who can run, was hurt. Phil Campbell III is also capable of making splash plays at the other outside linebacker position. He’s a former safety. I think Pitt can keep the Irish run game from dominating the game.”

How confident are you that starting quarterback Kenny Pickett will play after missing last week with an ankle injury? If Pickett is unavailable, what would you expect from backup Joey Yellen?

DiPaola: “Trying to think along with head coach Pat Narduzzi is like trying to cross-examine a witness in court. He talked about Pickett last week as if he was going to suck it up and play on an injured ankle. But he knew all along Pickett was injured too badly and wouldn’t play. He admitted he was being untruthful so he could keep Miami head coach Manny Diaz guessing. This week, he sounded like Joey Yellen was his guy, and he would let Pickett sit against Notre Dame and then use the off week Oct. 31 to get him well for the final four-game push. That would be the prudent thing to do because Pickett needs to think about his future. Whatever he (Narduzzi) does, he doesn’t want Brian Kelly to have a clue. Yellen looks calm and cool in the pocket, but I don’t think he’s especially athletic (certainly not as athletic as Pickett). And that’s a problem because Pitt’s quarterback needs to make his own plays. The line can’t run block, the receivers drop too many passes and the running backs look indecisive at times. Other than that, the offense is in good shape.”

The Panthers come in averaging 107 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 70. Why has that been such a struggle for them?

DiPaola: “Their offensive line gets no push, and there are few options on the bench. All-ACC center Jimmy Morrissey is very good, but the others are mediocre at best — and some not that good. I also don’t see the backs running with a purpose. Narduzzi needs to upgrade his recruiting at those two positions.”

This will be the first home game Pitt is allowing fans in its stadium this season (capped at 5,500 fans). What do you anticipate the atmosphere will be like?

DiPaola: “It won’t be as vanilla as the first four home games, but Pitt doesn’t have much of a home-field advantage when there are 40,000 people in the stands. Pitt’s players need to create their own energy, which is often the case. There is a lot of apathy toward Pitt in the region because the team never has been a dynamic winner. They have lost at least three games for 39 consecutive seasons. Because it’s Notre Dame, this game would have been a sellout.”

Which players on both sides of the ball are capable of making a difference? And what will be the keys for Pitt to make this game interesting?

DiPaola: “If Weaver and Jones can get to Book, either with sacks or hurries, Pitt can stay in the game because that will keep down Notre Dame’s point total. Pitt’s wide receivers, especially Jordan Addison, D.J. Turner and Taysir Mack, can help Yellen by getting open more often or just making some tough catches in traffic. Pitt receivers never get a lot separation from opposing defensive backs when they’re playing a good team.”

Score prediction: Notre Dame 24, Pitt 16.

DiPaola: “The Irish should be able to at least double their point total from the Louisville game, and I wonder if Pitt can match the Irish with an inexperienced quarterback. Pitt’s defense is good enough to keep it close, but the offense’s best weapon these days is kicker Alex Kessman (four field goals vs. Miami).”

Pittsburgh Panthers linebacker SirVocea Dennis (32) and defensive lineman Devin Danielson (95) tackle North Carolina State running back Zonovan Knight (7) on Oct. 3.
Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Rashad Weaver (17) and defensive lineman Keyshon Camp (10) sack Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham during the Sept. 26 game at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won 23-20.

NO. 3 NOTRE DAME (4-0) vs. PITTSBURGH (3-3)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m EDT

Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh


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

Line: Notre Dame by 10 1/2