The following is a guest post written by Stephen Kahn.
In order to save his Notre Dame coaching career, Charlie Weis might have to pull off an upset victory at Heinz Field — the site of his college coaching debut. At about 8:00 pm on September 3, 2005, the Fighting Irish ran onto the turf at Heinz Field with an unproven quarterback in Brady Quinn and an inexperienced head coach in Charlie Weis. By midnight, ND Nation, and a large population of sports writers around the country, were hailing Charlie Weis as a genius.
Funny how things come full circle. Like in 2005, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish make the trip to Pittsburgh as underdogs. That being said, I think this could simply come down to who has the ball last.
There is no doubt that this matchup should be very high scoring. I will start by breaking down the Pittsburgh offense versus the Notre Dame defense. I see something different than most — most people would expect the Panthers’ sensational freshman running back Dion Lewis to run all over the Irish; I do not. With the exception of last week, the Notre Dame front seven has been very strong when it comes to stopping the run. That leads me to believe that junior nose tackle Ian Williams was speaking some truth when he implied that the Irish were “out-schemed” against Navy. I expect the Notre Dame defense to return to form and limit Lewis, quite possibly keeping him under 100 yards.
The key for the Panthers offense will be sophomore WR Jonathan Baldwin. On the season, Baldwin has 35 catches for 698 yards and four scores. He lacks explosive speed, but at 6’5″ 225 lbs, I’m not sure he needs it. The average height and weight of the four cornerbacks in the Irish rotation is 6’0″ 190 lbs.
In last season’s four overtime classic, Pitt threw four straight fade routes to Baldwin from the five-yard line. Note that in order to run the same play four times, it must have failed the first three, yet the Panthers were not afraid to try again; the fourth attempt was successful. Do not expect things to be any different on Saturday night. Baldwin has matured as a receiver and the Notre Dame secondary has done nothing to prove that they can stop a legitimate playmaker.
I now move on to the Notre Dame offense versus the Pittsburgh defense.It is important to note the injury status of several players. All-America TE candidate Kyle Rudolph will not play and is most likely out until a potential bowl game. I do not expect his absence to affect the Fighting Irish on offense. The Irish have failed to utilize Rudolph as of late and with Mike Floyd back, he is no longer as necessary in the red zone as he once was. Second, he probably would not have caught many passes. Rudolph caught just three balls per game against Michigan and USC. The reason: Teams with a legitimate pass rush force the Irish offense to use a tight end to block, with the tight end essentially serving as a third offensive tackle. Pittsburgh has the most sacks in the nation this season with 39, a whopping seven more than USC, which ranks second. For this reason, I do not expect Notre Dame TE’s to do anything but block and Mike Ragone and Bobby Burger should have no problem stepping in for Rudolph in that regard.
On a more positive note for Irish fans, junior running back Armando Allen and sophomore right guard Trevor Robinson are both expected to return from injury and play this week. Aside from that, no more analysis of the Irish offense is necessary because they have three consistent performers in Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Mike Floyd. The Irish will throw early and often and put up a lot of points; assuming Clausen has time to throw.
All things considered, my prediction is as follows: without a doubt the game will be high scoring. I give the edge to Notre Dame because they have been pushed to the brink on a weekly basis and Pitt has yet to be tested. The Irish will battle for sixty minutes, fighting for their coach’s career with a chip on their shoulders after a crushing loss to Navy. Pitt might be looking ahead to its Big East battle with Cincinnati, which is likely to crown the conference champion and award an automatic BCS bowl bid. When the clock hits all zeros and probably not a second earlier, the score will be:
Notre Dame – 45
Pittsburgh – 42