Continuing their methodical move upward, the fifth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter this week’s home clash against the Pittsburgh Panthers with a still-spotless 6-0 mark. The Irish began the season ranked 12th in the AP poll and have been inching their way up while vanquishing their opponents.
One of the chief issues this week will be to avoid a letdown after two emotional wins. Notre Dame enters this game as three-touchdown favorites in front of a friendly home crowd against a Pittsburgh team that’s split their six contests and is coming off a wild overtime victory. That could be a recipe for complacency, something the Irish can’t afford if they want to compete in the college football playoffs.
Some of the pivotal matchups to watch in Saturday’s game include:
QB Ian Book vs. Pittsburgh Defense
In what will mark his fourth start of the season, Book is looking to continue his prolific output that’s seen him throw for 874 yards and eight touchdowns over the past three games. He did hit a brief rocky patch against Virginia Tech, throwing his first pick of the year, but could have a big day against a shaky Pitt defense.
That’s because the Panthers have had trouble keeping opponents out of the end zone, allowing an average of 40 points per game in their last three matchups. Pitt’s rushing snd passing defense have been equally porous in 2018, with the passing side allowing 224 yards per game and only collecting five interceptions for the season.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Kenny Pickett
One of the major reasons why the Irish still have a spotless mark is because of the continued strong effort delivered by the defensive unit. While they’ve given up plenty of yardage, this side of the ball has delivered when crunch time arrives. Against Virginia Tech, they allowed just a single score in the second half, allowing the Irish to blow the game open.
Pickett is a sophomore who’s thrown for 880 yards to a host of different teammates. His six touchdown passes are countered by the five interceptions he’s tossed, with the majority of his throws in the intermediate range. While Pitt will likely rely on their running game, getting any level of pressure on Pickett should neutralize him.
RB Dexter Williams vs. LB Quintin Wirginis
Since emerging from the shadows after a four-game suspension, Williams has put up huge numbers in his first two games. After scoring on a 45-yard run the first time he touched the ball against Stanford, he followed that up with a dramatic 97-yard scoring dash against Virginia Tech. A game-breaking back is just what the Irish will need down the stretch and Williams definitely fits that category.
Wirginis is the Panthers’ leading tackler and has also found his way into enemy backfield seven times this year. While he’s aggressive when it comes to getting to the quarterback, Williams needs to be aware that Wirginis has also forced a pair of fumbles this season, which means that the Irish line needs to keep a close watch on him.
LB Te’von Coney vs. RB Qadree Ollison
Coney has been a model of consistency all season long and leads the Irish in tackles with 48 on the year. Last week, he collected nine in that category, including a couple behind the line of scrimmage. He’ll likely work in tandem with Drue Tranquill, who is playing with a broken hand, to keep the main component of the Pitt offense in check.
Ollison has gained 596 yards and reached the end zone five times this year, gaining 192 of those yards last week against Syracuse. The senior has slowly progressed during his Pitt career, but appears to be getting better reads and combining that with more speed. Shutting him down would effectively silence a good portion of the Panther offense.
T Robert Hainsey vs. DE Rashad Weaver
Hainsey has grown more comfortable in his slot, which has helped open up holes for the running game and, more recently, give Book enough time to find his receivers. In just his second year, his continued development helps solidify an integral portion of the Irish line.
One thing that Weaver has been able to accomplish this season for the Panthers is getting into opposing backfields at least once during the game. Even though Pitt was routed by Penn State, Weaver found a way to contribute by forcing one fumble and recovering two.
DE Khalid Kareem vs. T Stefano Millin
Having been a constant pass rushing threat during the six wins so far, Kareem showed last Saturday that relentless pursuit pays dividends. That came when a missed sack eventually resulted in a forced fumble that Julian Love returned for a touchdown. This week, frequent harassment, especially against Pitt’s young signal caller, would shut down their passing attack.
Millin is a graduate transfer from Kent State who has the size at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds to offer the requisite protection. While the Pitt line has allowed 13 sacks so far, it’s doubtful that Millin’s been matched up against someone of Kareem’s caliber.