After surviving an uncomfortable home win over Louisville, the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish head to Pittsburgh to face a team looking to break a three-game losing streak. The Irish have been able to get by against weaker competition at home, but they need momentum as they start to focus on their Nov. 7 showdown with Clemson.
The Notre Dame running game currently appears to be at peak efficiency, so getting the wideouts more involved in the offensive gameplan is something to consider for Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch on Saturday:
QB Ian Book vs. Pittsburgh Defense
Book had a quiet day on the passing front against a surprisingly tough Louisville defense. He also came close to tossing a pair of red-zone interceptions that conceivably might have spelled the difference between winning and losing in the tight 12-7 win. His tendency to take off on the run resulted in 48 yards on the afternoon, but he’s likely hoping this time to exploit the Panthers’ weaknesses in the passing department.
After only allowing 30 points in their first three games, the Pitt defense has struggled since then. The Panthers’ run defense has been one of the team’s strong points, but even though they continue to get a solid pass rush, they’ve allowed 10 touchdown passes in their last three contests. The fact that two of their three leading tacklers are in the secondary is usually not a good sign for any defense.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Kenny Pickett
Limiting a weak Louisville offense to 219 total yards helped the Irish avoid what would have been a devastating upset. The Notre Dame defense was aided by the team’s offense eating up huge chunks of time, with the lone breakdown being a touchdown drive by the Cardinals to start the second half.
Pickett sat out the Panthers’ loss at Miami after suffering a twisted ankle in the previous game, which could potentially keep him out of this game as well. If he does play, he’s likely to spend the afternoon targeting receivers, given the team’s weak running game, though he offers Pitt mobility at this spot. If he’s unable to go, Arizona State transfer Joey Yellen will start again.
TE Tommy Tremble/Michael Mayer vs. SS Paris Ford
Tremble currently sits atop the leader board for Irish receivers with 10 grabs on the year, primarily making his catches for short gains. He’s only six behind his season total from last year, though he’s yet to cross the goal line in 2020. Working in tandem with Tremble is Michael Mayer, who has scored a touchdown and is in a three-way tie for second on the team with seven receptions.
In his third season at Pitt, Ford has developed into one of the team’s most consistent tacklers. He’s on pace to match his production in that area from last year and has already surpassed his skills at making stops behind the line, with three tackles-for-loss on the year. In addition, he’s already tied his 2019 total of three interceptions, including one in Saturday’s loss at Miami.
CB TaRiq Bracy vs. WR Jordan Addison
Bracy has only played in three of the Irish’s four games this season but has still managed to compile 18 tackles on the year. Two of those have been behind the line, but he figures to get tested this week, primarily because he’ll presumably be facing the Panthers’ top receiver. He’s got the cornerback mentality and can bring opponents down, but this should be a challenge.
Addison has 38 catches during his first season with Pitt, with the true freshman having his best day yet against Miami. In that contest, the newcomer grabbed eight passes for 147 yards, a rapid rise for someone who arrived at the start of the year and has quickly made an impact, even with the chaos caused by the pandemic.
LT Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Patrick Jones
Eichenberg continues to provide leadership to a strong Irish line and continues to make his case for being an early pick in next year’s NFL draft. The trouble that Notre Dame had during the first half against Louisville was mostly on the other side of the line, but Eichenberg’s play will help protect Book’s blindside against an effective rusher.
Jones has shown that he can make stops behind the line, with eight this season, including seven sacks. Such numbers aren’t an aberration, considering that he had 8.5 sacks last year. His 2020 production has generally come in bursts, with a trio of sacks in both the Lousiville victory and Boston College loss, so shutting him down for the day figures to offer big dividends for the Irish.