With just four regular season contests remaining, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish can’t afford any more slip-ups as they cling to the slim hope of a possible playoff berth. To make that happen, they’ll need help and avoid focusing on next week’s opponent, Clemson. That means taking care of business this week, which on Saturday translates into a home clash against the Pitt Panthers.
The Panthers knocked off Louisville just two weeks ago, then dropped a close decision at Wake Forest. The Panther starting lineup has evolved since the start of the 2023 campaign, most notably at quarterback with former Penn State signal-caller Christian Veilleux now handling those duties. He managed to succeed in his starting debut at home against Louisville but this matchup will take place on the road, upping the challenge
Running Away with It
In his weekly press conference on Monday, Marcus Freeman offered the obligatory praise toward the Pittsburgh running game. Those remarks may have been something of an exaggeration, considering that the entire Panther ground unit has only gained 111.6 yards per game in their seven contests. By comparison, Audric Estime has averaged just over 98 yards per game by himself.
Entering this matchup, Pitt’s leading rusher is a familiar face in C’Bo Flemister, who played with the Irish for four seasons from 2018 to 2021. Prior to his 105-yard performance, Flemister had gained just 177 yards this season, surpassing the previous leader, Rodney Hammond, who has only 247 for the year. In contrast to the 5.0 yards on every carry that the Irish have enjoyed, Pitt has only managed a 3.4 average.
Working in the Trenches
Both offensive lines have been effective when it comes to protecting their respective quarterbacks, with Pitt allowing just 14 sacks on the season, compared to the 11 given up by the Notre Dame offensive front. In the latter case, two games accounted for the bulk of the sacks for Irish foes.
That group will be up against a Pitt sack attack that has 22 on the season, five more than the Irish defense. In the case of the Panthers, no player has more than three sacks, while no Notre Dame player has more than two. The Irish total was heavily bolstered with six sacks in the rout of USC, with hopes that a repeat performance is in the offing.
When looking at the two teams’ second-quarter performances on the season, a relatively glaring difference can be seen and will be something to look for on Saturday. That’s because the Irish have largely dominated their 2023 opponents in the period before the halftime break, holding a 90-20 collective scoring advantage during those 15 minutes of action.
In contrast, Pitt’s worst quarter has been the second quarter, getting outscored 73-41. For the season, the Panthers have allowed the same number of points that they’ve scored: 172, with those other three periods affording Pitt a cushion of just over 4.5 points per quarter. Notre Dame looks to score in every quarter on Saturday, but can hopefully exploit those second-quarter stumbles.
Stopping the Run
The struggles that Pitt has had with its offensive running attack don’t appear to be evident when looking at the Panthers’ run defenders. That group has only allowed an average of 126.4 yards per game, which is slightly better than the 129.9 yards allowed by the Irish.
With the exception of Cincinnati’s 5.1 yards per carry on September 9 and last week’s 4.2 average for Wake, Pitt has largely been able to hold teams in check when it comes to this particular department. Estime and his fellow backs have the potential to put their own dent in that defense, though Freeman may be forced to lean on the Irish passing game if that doesn’t end up happening.
Cracking the Code
Whether Veilleux’s insertion into the Pitt lineup played a role in the upset of Louisville is open to debate, simply because of his final numbers in that contest. He threw 26 times for 200 yards and two scores, but only completed 46.2 percent of those tosses. That conservative approach changed last Saturday when he put the ball up 45 times for 302 yards and two more touchdowns in the loss at Wake Forest.
What Saturday’s gameplan for the Panthers is remains a mystery, though the Irish will undoubtedly look to force them into third-down situations. Over the past three games, Notre Dame has thrived in this area, stopping 29 of 38 conversion attempts. Pitt has only converted 37.2 percent of those opportunities, so avoiding such situations is a necessity if they have any hope of winning as three-touchdown underdogs.