One week prior to the only bye on the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule, the Irish will be hosting the Pitt Panthers, marking the first time in three years that the two teams have met. This long-running series dates back to 1909, though this will mark the Panthers first trip to South Bend since 2012.
Pitt head coach Pat Natduzzi’s team failed to be bowl-worthy last season with a 5-7 record, though they pulled one of the bigger upsets of the year when they jolted the Miami Hurricanes in the season finale. That postseason shutout marked the first time in 10 years that the Panthers failed to reach a bowl game, an omission they hope to rectify this season.
Pitt Offense: Steps in the Right Direction
One of the chief contributors to that stunning Miami victory was then-freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett, whose future was bright enough to cause two challengers to transfer. That brief glimpse of success against the Hurricanes is what Panther fans are hoping is a resurgence of an offense that struggled last season.
All of the burden won’t be placed on Pickett’s shoulders, with the running back tandem of Darren Hall and Qadree Ollision right behind him. The duo combined for over 1,000 yards on the ground and scored 14 touchdowns, with Hall especially prolific late in the season when he ran for nearly 500 yards over the course of three games.
Speed on the receiving unit might not in abundance unless some of the raw talent available breaks through for solid campaigns. However, Pickett will have Rafael Araujo-Lopes to haul in his passes, with the rest of this contingent presumably on the road to recovery from spring injuries that kept five of the wideouts out of the spring game.
Protecting Pickett will be a job that’s led by award-winning lineman Alex Bookser and center Jimmy Morrisey. However, the Panthers lost four members of this group and also had a change of the position coach. Bookser can play at multiple position, but given the uncertainty with the other three starting slots, his expected role at tackle may end up changing.
Pitt Defense: A Look to Improve
Narduzzi’s background is on the defensive side of the ball and he has a new defensive coordinator in Randy Bates to mold the nine returning starters with a trio of new additions to the lineup. The key players here are Dewayne Hendrix and James Folston Jr. at end and Shane Roy on the nose, though there’s a definite need to improve after the pass defense was routinely torn apart by opposing quarterbacks. That’s due in part to the scant 23 sacks collected by Panthers.
The team’s leading tackler in linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu returns, which is vital since he also stood atop the team leader board when it cames to sacks and tackles-for-loss. Joining him will be two backers that combined for 122 tackles an 10 tackles-for-loss last year: Elijah Zeise and Saleem Bridewell. For good measure, Quintin Wiginis should provide a boost after being unavailable in 2017.
Another new coach, Archie Collins, will be tutoring the defensive backs, with safety Damar Hamlin the key player here. Once a top recruit, Hamlin has battled injuries throughout his Pitt career and has been shifted from his normal corner slot. The entire unit needs to be more aggressive in forcing turnovers.
Pitt Special Teams: Navigating Uncertain Terrain
There’s both good and bad in the return of kicker Alex Kessman. The good news is that he’s got a powerful leg, but the bad news has to factor in his inconsistency. On the punting front, replacing Ryan Winslow will be the challenging task of Kirk Christodoulou. The return units will have to find one or more replacements for the contributions of Quadree Henderson.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Pitt
As part of the 2015 Notre Dame football schedule, the Irish traveled to Pittsburgh and never trailed in their 42-30 victory. DesShone Kizer threw for 262 yards and five touchdowns, with three touchdown grabs going to William Fuller, who finished with seven catches for 152 yards. Josh Adams paced the running game with 147 yards on 20 carries.