NCAA FOOTBALL: PITT vs. NOTRE DAME -- Panthers get another shot at Irish
PITTSBURGH — The kick went up, and Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin couldn’t look.
Instead, Martin just listened to the crowd to learn whether the 33-yard field goal attempt by Pittsburgh’s Kevin Harper in the second overtime last October would end the Fighting Irish’s chance at an undefeated season.
When the stadium roared, Martin relaxed. So did his teammates. Notre Dame recovered to win 29-26 in the third overtime, preserving its perfect record on its way to a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
“We kind of stole one there,” Martin said.
A year later, and things haven’t changed much.
Though 24th-ranked Notre Dame (7-2) is out of the national title mix, if the Irish can win out, they’re in the hunt for a BCS bowl bid. The Panthers (4-4), meanwhile, continue to search for an identity in coach Paul Chryst’s second season.
Close games have been the norm over the last five meetings. All five have been decided by six points or less, including two in overtime. That would seem to favor the Irish, who have a way of finding a way under coach Brian Kelly. Notre Dame has won 10 straight games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 38-34 escape against Navy last week.
It wasn’t dominant, to be sure, but that hardly matters to Kelly.
“There is a lot of pressure at Notre Dame, a lot of scrutiny,” Kelly said. “There were nine lead changes in that game against Navy. They were down in the fourth quarter. They had to come back in the fourth quarter and they had to hold the lead. Those kids can take that with them because that takes a lot to do those things.”
Five things to look for as the Irish look to keep rolling while the Panthers look for the first signature win of Chryst’s tenure.
DOMINANT DONALD: Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald put together a stat line for the ages in a 21-10 loss to Georgia Tech last week. The senior recorded 11 tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a sack. He is the heart of a defense that has made significant strides over the last six weeks, even if Pitt’s overall play hasn’t followed suit.
“He will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down,” Kelly said. “He’s in the backfield, very active. I think for him, you know, you have a powerful guy, but he’s also extremely quick at the point of attack.”
Donald stressed he’s a “different person” when he’s on the field. If Pitt is going to pull off the upset, he needs to be a difference maker.
DISAPPEARING OFFENSE: The Panthers appeared to have things figured out when they lit up Duke for 58 points back on Sept. 21. Pitt has managed just 54 points combined in their last four games against FBS opponents. Quarterback Tom Savage has spent most of the season under heavy duress. The 29 sacks he’s endured are the fifth-most in the nation.
The lack of a consistent running game hasn’t helped. Pitt was held to minus-5 yards last week against the Yellow Jackets.
“These are correctable things,” Chryst said. “We’ve got to find a way to get it right.”
ROLLING REES: Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees has thrown seven touchdowns over his last two games, benefiting from newfound balance in the offense.
The Irish ran for 264 yards against Navy, including 140 yards and the game-winning touchdown by freshman Tarean Folston. If Folston can find some consistency, Rees will have more freedom to go to work.
“We found a pretty good rhythm offensively over the last few weeks,” Kelly said. “We want to build on that.”
‘COCKY’ IRISH: Pitt sophomore tight end J.P. Holtz was recruited by the Irish and even made a visit to Notre Dame. Ultimately, however, he settled on Pitt. Scoring a touchdown in last year’s loss at Notre Dame Stadium was sweet, though Holtz is eager for his team to take the next step and drop the Irish down a peg.
“Personally I don’t like Notre Dame at all,” Holtz said. “It’s going to make me play harder ... I just think they’re really cocky and their coaches are really cocky so I just don’t like that.”
BACK TO NORMAL: Pitt and Notre Dame each spent their previous two games dealing with the unconventional triple-option offense. Both teams faced Navy while the Panthers faced Georgia Tech and the Irish played Air Force. In a way, facing something a bit more familiar will be a relief.
“I’m ready to get back to a regular offense,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said.
And with good reason. The last time Notre Dame played a traditional attack, it held USC scoreless in the second half of a 14-10 win.