Nov. 12, 2009
||By Tim Prister '82
Game 10: Pittsburgh (Nov. 14)
Conference: BIG EAST
2008 record: 9-4, including a 36-33 four-overtime victory in Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 1 and a 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
2009 record: 8-1 - Claimed victories in the first three games of the season against Youngstown State (38-3), at Buffalo (54-27) and at Navy (27-14) before falling at North Carolina State, 38-31. Currently riding a five-game winning streak with victories at Louisville (35-10), Connecticut (24-21), at Rutgers (24-17), South Florida (41-14) and Syracuse (37-10). The Panthers boast a 5-0 record at home.
Location: Pittsburgh's Heinz Field
Kickoff: 8:12 p.m. ET
TV Coverage: ABC
Pittsburgh head coach: Dave Wannstedt has been affiliated with some of the most storied programs in college and pro football history. After a four-year stint (1979-82) as defensive line coach and defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State under head coach Jimmy Johnson, Wannstedt spent three years (1983-85) as defensive line coach at USC. He then joined Johnson at the University of Miami (1986-88), where he served as defensive coordinator and helped the Hurricanes claim a national championship in `87.
Wannstedt went with Johnson to the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach (1989-92). The Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII. He landed his own head-coaching job with the Chicago Bears (1993-98), where he was named 1994 NFC Coach of the Year. Wannstedt then spent one year as assistant head coach of the Miami Dolphins before taking over as head coach from 2000-04.
Wannstedt is in his fifth season as the head coach of the Panthers where he has compiled a 33-24 record, including an 18-5 mark in his last 23 games.
Series history: Notre Dame holds a 44-19-1 series mark against Pittsburgh, but just a 4-3 record in the last seven games since 1999. The series began with a 6-0 Notre Dame victory in 1909. Since 1930, the Irish and the Panthers have played each other 63 out of 80 seasons.
Notre Dame won eight straight from 1943-51, 11 in a row from 1964-74 (all under the direction of head coach Ara Parseghian), and eight straight from 1988-97.
Pittsburgh's longest winning streak against the Irish is three games from 1932-34, 1958-60, and 1983-87.
Pittsburgh has won two of the last three against the Irish - a 41-38 verdict in South Bend in 2004 and a 36-33 victory in four overtimes last year in Notre Dame Stadium. Irish head coach Charlie Weis and Wannstedt hooked up in their debuts for their alma maters in 2005 when the Irish claimed a 42-21 victory.
Darius Walker rushed for 100 yards and scored two touchdowns, including one on a 51-yard pass from Brady Quinn. Quinn was 18-of-27 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Rashon Powers-Neal scored three touchdowns for the Irish. Notre Dame had 502 yards total offense in Weis' debut.
Comeback kids: Notre Dame has come back from four fourth-quarter deficits this season to claim victory, which is the most in a single season in Irish history. Dave Wannstedt has made a habit of come-from-behind victories as well, including five such victories in '08. The Panthers overcame a three-point deficit to defeat Iowa (21-20), an eight-point hole to win at Syracuse (34-24), a one-point disadvantage to knock off South Florida (26-21), a 14-point deficit to defeat Notre Dame in four overtimes (36-33) and an eight-point hole against West Virginia (19-15).
The 14-point come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame was the largest deficit overcome by the Panthers in the Wannstedt era until Oct. 10 of this season when Pittsburgh trailed Connecticut 21-6 with 3:56 left in the third quarter. The Panthers scored the final 17 points to claim a 24-21 victory. The winning points came on a Dan Hutchins 18-yard field goal as time expired.
Common foe: Edge to the Panthers in games against head-to-head foes. Pittsburgh defeated Navy, 27-14, at Heinz Field on Sept. 19 while the Irish fell to the Mids, 23-21, last week in Notre Dame Stadium.
Pittsburgh, which never trailed against Navy, held the Mids' vaunted ground game to just 129 yards rushing for their lowest output in four seasons. The Irish, who never led against Navy, surrendered 348 yards rushing.
Navy fullbacks Alexander Teich (12 carries, 80 yards) and Vince Murray combined for 82 yards rushing against Pittsburgh while Murray (14-158) and Teich (5-52) combined for 210 yards on the ground against the Irish. In addition, Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs managed just 21 yards on 26 carries against the Panthers while Dobbs totaled 102 yards rushing on 31 carries against the Irish.
Lewis starts fast: Freshman running back Dion Lewis is threatening to eclipse records set by well-known past Panther standouts such as Tony Dorsett, LeSean McCoy and Curvin Richards.
Lewis, who has rushed for 1,139 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 5.6-yard average, is two touchdowns shy of the Panther freshman record of 14 set by McCoy. Lewis has rushed for at least 100 yards in six of nine games, including a 190-yard effort at Buffalo, 180 yards at Rutgers and 158 yards at home versus Connecticut.
"(Lewis has) great quickness," Charlie Weis said. "He can make you miss. He has good balance. He catches the ball out of the backfield. He's been very impressive."
Lewis joins the legendary Dorsett, who also needed just eight games to reach 1,000 yards rushing his freshman season. Lewis compiled 1,029 yards rushing in his first eight games while Dorsett had 1,142 yards after eight games. The NCAA record for a freshman reaching 1,000 yards the soonest is seven games.
"He's not a real big guy, but for his size, he runs with a whole heck of a lot of power," said Irish free safety Kyle McCarthy, who leads the team in tackles with 72. "He has great balance and shiftiness to his running.
"He certainly doesn't look like a freshman. He's definitely one of the top backs if not the top back we've faced this year."
Pittsburgh's rushing attack has been solid in general. The Panthers have rushed for at least 200 yards in five games this season, including each of the last four against Connecticut (221), Rutgers (223), South Florida (214) and Syracuse (247). (Notre Dame has just one game above 200 yards rushing this season--255 versus Washington State.)
Pittsburgh's 187.0-yard rushing average per game ranks 26th nationally. The 5.15 yards per carry makes the Panthers just one of 17 FBS teams to average at least 5.0 yards per carry. (Future Notre Dame opponent Stanford, at 5.12, is another.)
Bringing heat: The Panthers lead the nation in sacks with 38 in nine games (4.22 per game). Junior defensive end Greg Romeus paces the pass rush with seven sacks, followed by senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn with five.
All told, the Panthers have five players with at least four sacks, including sophomore nose tackle Myles Caragein, sophomore defensive end Brandon Lindsey and sophomore defensive tackle Chas Alecxih. Plus, defensive tackle Mick Williams has a team-leading 13 tackles for loss and three sacks.
"Unlike a lot of teams that bring pressure, pressure, pressure, they (blitz) 10, 15 percent of the time," Weis said. "They just tell those big bad muchachos up front to get after the quarterback, and they do a very good job."
Notre Dame's leading sack men are Darius Fleming and Ethan Johnson with three apiece.
Pittsburgh's defense in general has done a tremendous job this season, yielding just 310.9 yards per game. Since its Oct. 2 victory over Louisville, no opponent has gained more than 305 yards total offense. The Panthers have held their last three opponents to 286 (Rutgers), 212 (South Florida) and 285 (Syracuse) yards total offense.
Protecting the football, quarterback: Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are among the nation's leaders in fewest turnovers, despite the three by the Irish last week against Navy. Both teams have turned it over just nine times, which is tied for seventh nationally.
Notre Dame has five fumbles lost and four interceptions, as does Pittsburgh.
In addition, the Panthers protect their quarterback, Bill Stull, on the same level that their defensive line gets after the opposing quarterback. Pittsburgh's offensive line has allowed just nine sacks in nine games, which is 12th in the country. Notre Dame has allowed 19 sacks in nine games.
Wannstedt on Clausen: "He's making better decisions. You can tell that his maturity level as a person and as a player has really gone to another level. Most of the time, I'll watch tape on quarterbacks and try to determine what throws this guy can make and what throws he has difficulty with. We try to create a game plan around that.
"Well, he can make all of the throws. There are no holes in this guy. He'll be playing on Sundays. There's no doubt about that."
Key match-ups: Notre Dame's offensive line will have its hands full against the Pittsburgh pass rush.
"They've got the athletes," said Irish offensive tackle Sam Young of the Panther defensive front. "The two guys on the end (Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard) have long limbs, high motors, high talent and are really technically good rushers.
"As far as comparing them to USC, just like USC's line, they don't give up. They fight to get home."
"I don't think it would be a stretch to say that they're as good as USC's defensive line," said offensive guard Trevor Robinson. "It's not a knock on the guys from USC. But we have a lot of respect for these guys."
Excluding Notre Dame's performance against Navy's exotic triple option attack, the Irish had been doing an excellent job against the run. USC, Boston College and Washington State combined for just 293 yards rushing. Dion Lewis will attempt to become the sixth player to rush for at least 100 yards against the Irish this season. Others include Nevada's Vai Taua (114), Michigan's Brandon Minor (106), Washington's Chris Polk (136), and Navy's Vince Murray (158) and Ricky Dobbs (102).
Under Wannstedt, Pittsburgh has blocked 20 kicks since 2005, including a school-record and national-best 10 last season. The Panthers recorded their first blocked kick of the 2009 season when defensive tackle Chas Alecxih swatted a North Carolina State field goal attempt on Sept. 26. Six current players on the Pittsburgh roster have blocked a kick during their careers.
For all the criticism that has been levied against Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull, who had to win the starting job over freshman Tino Sunseri in the pre-season, his numbers are strikingly similar to Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, who is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate. Because the Panthers have run the football so well, Stull has not been required to throw the football nearly as much as Clausen. (Clausen has 909 more yards through the air on 89 additional attempts.) But their completion percentages (Stull 67.6, Clausen 67.9), interceptions (Stull four, Clausen three), pass efficiency (Stull 161.61, Clausen 162.88) and touchdown passes (Stull 17, Clausen 20) are nearly identical.
The Irish are going to have their hands full with 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin and 6-foot-2, 230-pound tight end Dorin Dickerson. Baldwin has caught 35 passes for 698 yards (19.9-yard average) and four touchdowns while Dickerson, who has wide receiver skills, has caught 39 passes for 450 yards (11.5-yard average) and 10 touchdowns. Notre Dame currently ranks 88th in the country in yards passing allowed per game (237.44).
Fighting Irish/Panther facts - Sam Young is expected to start his 48th straight game for the Irish this weekend in Pittsburgh. Young would tie the Notre Dame record set by Tom Zbikowski and tied by Maurice Crum, Jr ... Notre Dame's top six offensive linemen - Sam Young (47), Eric Olsen (28), Paul Duncan (21), Chris Stewart (19), Trevor Robinson (11) and Dan Wenger (19) - have combined for 145 starting assignments ... Golden Tate ranks first among wide receivers in the FBS with 12 total touchdowns (10 receiving, two rushing) and has scored at least one touchdown in five straight games ... Notre Dame is 54-4-1 since 1985 when it does not commit a turnover. The Irish are 14-4 in turnover-less games under Charlie Weis. Two of Notre Dame's six victories (Nevada and Boston College) this year saw the Irish go turnover-free ... Notre Dame has totaled at least 20 first downs in each of its first nine games this season. The Irish have not opened a season with nine consecutive games of 20 or more first downs since 1992 ... Notre Dame's offense has had just 11 three-and-out series this season, which ties for second in the country with Nevada and Arizona, and is one more than Idaho's 10. The Irish have had four games this season without a three-and-out.
Pittsburgh's 8-1 start is its best since the 1982 Panthers, led by quarterback Dan Marino, began the season 8-1. (That one loss was a 31-16 Notre Dame victory over No. 1-ranked Pittsburgh on Nov. 6 ... The Panthers' final three opponents are a combined 20-5 (.800), against FBS competition, giving them the fourth toughest remaining schedule, according to the NCAA. Notre Dame is 6-3, Nov. 27 opponent West Virginia is 7-2, and Dec. 5 foe Cincinnati is 9-0 ... Pittsburgh is converting 47.83 percent on third down (55-of-115), which ranks 15th nationally ... The Panthers have held five of nine opponents to 106 yards rushing or less in '09 ... Pittsburgh has limited seven of nine opponents to 21 points or less, and five of nine foes to 14 points or less ... The Panthers have out-scored their opponents in all four quarters. They hold a 71-38 scoring advantage in the first quarter, a 93-39 edge in the second, an 81-28 advantage in the third and a 66-49 edge in the fourth ... Only 15 defenses in the FBS are holding opponents to fewer yards per carry than Pittsburgh's 3.10 mark ... During Dave Wannstedt's five seasons (67 games) as head coach at his alma mater, the Panthers have had a 100-yard rusher in 25 of those games, including 20 since 2007. Four players have rushed for at least one 100-yard game: Rashad Jennings (1), LaRod Stephens-Howling (5), LeSean McCoy (13) and Dion Lewis (6).
Tim Prister - Notre Dame's starting third baseman in 1981-82 - is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he had attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games--every one since Lou Holtz's first in 1986.