Five keys for Notre Dame against Pittsburgh: Book, wide receivers need to improve

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Here are five keys for No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) when it faces Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3) at Heinz Field on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC).


The Panthers will present the Irish offensive line and quarterback Ian Book their toughest challenge to date this season from a pressure and run-stopping standpoint. Pitt ranks No. 1 in run defense (61.5 yards per game) and No. 2 in sacks per game (4.8). Last week, Louisville pressured Book on only five of his 27 dropbacks. But the Cardinals made use of those opportunities, generating four sacks. Book will need to be decisive with the football this time. Avoiding third-and-long situations will be a key for this Irish offense.


Top-ranked Clemson awaits the Irish on Nov. 7. Book has not shown the progression needed to fuel optimism in Notre Dame’s chances against the Tigers. He sharply regressed in the 12-7 victory over Louisville, posting his fourth-lowest pass-efficiency rating across 27 career starts. This Irish offense taking the next step requires Book to be more efficient and completing more passes downfield. They sit at last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference in completions of at least 15 yards (16). The Tigers have 45 such completions, ranking first in the ACC. With two weeks before Clemson, Notre Dame’s passing game must start trending upward on Saturday.


Not all of the blame should fall on Book. His wide receivers have been hurt and unreliable this season. Graduate transfer Ben Skowronek missed more than half of the season opener against Duke and sat out the following game against South Florida after tweaking his hamstring. Speedy junior Braden Lenzy also missed Duke (hamstring) and did not record a catch against Louisville. A broken foot suffered in preseason camp sidelined junior Kevin Austin Jr. for the first two games. Graduate senior Javon McKinley (seven catches for 121 yards), Lenzy (six receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown), slot receiver Avery Davis (five catches for 56 yards and a score), Skowronek (two receptions for 28 yards) or Austin (one catch for 18 yards) will need to produce more after their uninspiring starts to this season.


When Book and the passing game struggled against Louisville, Notre Dame adopted a ball-control strategy. The Irish dictated the game flow by dominating the time of possession. The Cardinals finished with just seven possessions, which is nearly half as much as the norm. Should Book’s woes continue, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will similarly have to concoct another backup plan. Relying on a heavy running game has worked so far for the Irish. They are pegged No. 7 in yards per game (261) and No. 6 in yards per carry (5.83).


Stopping the run should not be much of a problem for this Irish defense. Pitt has recorded just 107 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 70 in the country. The Panthers will have to inflict their damage through the air. Their passing game revolves around freshman phenom Jordan Addison. The former Notre Dame cornerback target and current star wide receiver tops the ACC in receptions and trails only Boston College’s Zay Flowers in receiving yards (444 with three touchdowns). Whether starting quarterback Kenny Pickett has recovered from his ankle injury and will earn the nod on Saturday remains unclear. Backup quarterback Joey Yellen and Pickett both would likely target Addison often. He is hitting his stride and caught eight passes for 147 yards against Miami last week.

Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy (25) tries to outrun Boston College’s Brandon Sebastian (10) on Nov. 23, 2019.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) carries the ball on an end-around play as Syracuse defensive back Andre Cisco (7) defends on Sept. 19.

At Heinz Field (5,500), Pittsburgh

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. EDT


Series history: Notre Dame leads 48-21-1

Betting line: Notre Dame by 10 1/2