’23 Notre Dame Game Rankings #4: Notre Dame Faces Challenge Against Run-Friendly Pitt

Irish seek to neutralize Panthers' running game and pass rush while facing familiar face Phil Jurkovec

Following the first of their two bye weeks on the season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish return to host the Pitt Panthers on October 28. The contest marks the first meeting between the two schools in three years and the Panthers’ first trip to the Golden Dome since 2018. The Irish hold a commanding 50-21-1 lead in this long-running series and have won the last three matchups.

Pat Narduzzi is set to begin his ninth year at Pitt and has managed to deliver two consecutive strong seasons for the Panthers. Last year’s 9-4 mark followed an 11-3 campaign in 2021, the two best years during his tenure. Reaching those numbers again could be a challenge and will likely depend on how well new players adapt to his system.

Pitt Offense: Running Equals Success

The Panthers are just two years removed from having Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett behind center. Last season’s addition of Kedon Slovis didn’t really pan out, so Pitt decided to cast their lot with one-time Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec. In Jurkovec’s three seasons at Boston College, he began with a strong 2020 season, but dealt with injuries the past two seasons. He needs to improve his touch after 11 touchdown passes were countered by eight picks.

In Rodney Hammond’s first two seasons with the Panthers, he’s averaged 4.6 yards per carry. This season, he figures to be toting the ball a lot more and how well he does could help determine Pitt’s fortunes. Hammond, along with other backs like former Irish runner C’Bo Flemister and Derrick Davis, need to produce since a strong running game has virtually guaranteed victory in recent years.

Among the receivers, wideout Konata Mumpfield is the top returnee with 58 catches last year. He’s a possession receiver, with Jurkovec also likely to target Bub Means and Florida transfer Daejon Reynolds, who had a huge game against Vanderbilt last season. At tight end, Gavin Bartholomew’s blocking will be important as he seeks to improve on his 21 catches from last year.

On the line, right tackle Matt Goncalves is back and figures to be a vital part of the Panthers’ offensive efforts. On the other side, Branson Taylor will be challenged to protect Jurkovec’s blind side, with the interior using Blake Zubovic and Ryan Jacoby at guard. Jake Kradel should be snapping the ball at center, though he could be challenged by true freshman B.J. Williams.

Pitt Defense: Keep on Bringing the Heat

The Panthers had a strong pass rush last season, though the top three sack men have all departed. That puts pressure on players like Davon Hayes, who has the potential to deliver a breakout season. Beyond that question marks remain with options like end Nakhi Johns and tackles Devin Danielson and David Green.

At middle linebacker, Shayne Simon is back after making 46 stops last season and also knocking away six pass attempts. Joining him at the Star position will be Bangally Kamara, who emerged last season and could make great strides in 2023. He finished with 49 tackles last year and was also effective in pass coverage. Solomon DeShields is currently the favorite at the other linebacker spot.

The trio of M.J. Devonshire, Marquis Williams and A.J.Woods make the cornerback spot the strongest and most experienced part of the Panthers’ secondary. Last season, Devonshire and Williams combined for five pickoffs and returned four of those for scores. At strong safety, Javon McIntrye is back after two interceptions, with Florida transfer Donovan McMillon set to challenge him. Finally, free safety could see Phillip O’Brien back deep.

Pitt Special Teams: Kicking Around Questions

Ben Sauls is back after a strong season in which he connected on all 47 of his extra-point attempts and 20 of his 24 field goal efforts. The potential problem is at punter, after struggles in this department last year. Caleb Junko is the likely candidate to take over as punter after limited 2022 duty that saw him average 48.7 yards on his 12 boots. For kickoff returns, expect to see Flemister and on punts, Devonshire is the top candidate to handle things.

The Last Time Pitt Played Notre Dame

On October 24, 2020, the Irish caught the Panthers in a tailspin and took advantage by routing them, 45-7. Those seven points allowed were bolstered by the mere 162 yards the Notre Dame defense gave up on the afternoon. Ben Skowronek caught two first-half touchdown passes and Isaiah Foskey’s touchdown off a blocked punt made it 28-3 at the break. Ironically, Flemister capped the scoring on a two-yard run late in the third quarter.

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One Comment

  1. Will the sixth year be the charm for the once 1st Round projected QB dubbed by many on this board.?

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