With this being, obviously a huge game and opportunity for Pitt, I also wanted to looked at Notre Dame this season, and get to know this week's opponent a little better. I got a chance to chat yesterday with Tim Prister, who runs the Notre Dame Rivals site, Irish Illustrated. Tim has been covering Notre Dame since the 1980s and has even written books on the program. I talked to Tim about what has gone right for Notre Dame this season, and what the keys are for them avoiding a potential trap game against Pitt this weekend. Thanks to Tim for taking the time to talk to me and providing his insight about the Irish this season...
What has allowed Notre Dame to take such a big step forward defensively with most of the same players returning from last year’s squad?
Tim Prister: Most of the attention is focused on Manti Te’o nationally, and rightfully so because he’s become a much better football player this year. He’s a spectacular linebacker. But, for me, it starts with [defensive end Stephon] Tuitt and [defensive tackle Louis] Nix. Those are two guys that you can’t move out of there, and Notre Dame wins the point of attack just about every snap due in large part to those guys and [defensive end] Kapron Lewis-Moore on the other side. [Linebacker] Prince Shembo has grown up. Danny Spond has been a real find for them at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position, and they didn’t even know whether they were going to have him or not. They didn’t have any real solutions at that position until he came back from the migraine headaches in the third week, and he’s just been outstanding.
I think it all starts up front with that front seven. Yeah, it’s pretty similar personnel, but everybody’s taken their game up a notch or two. I think the strength and conditioning program, in its third year under Paul Longo is pretty well-embedded now. I think it starts there, and then on the back end, the secondary has come of age sooner than imagined because guys like [cornerbacks] KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson have been very mature football players this year. Russell is a true freshman, he gets better every week. [Safety] Zeke Motta is playing on the level that Harrison Smith played in his last couple of years, and then [safety] Matthias Farley is just a natural football player who, again, has grown up real quickly. So it’s a lot of things converging in Notre Dame’s favor all at once.
Were you surprised watching the Oklahoma game that, even though the Sooners got yards through the air, Notre Dame was able to shut down their offense?
Prister: As far as shutting down the run, no, I wasn’t surprised by that because I felt that they could do that. The problem is that Oklahoma runs at such a fast pace, and they do what they do in the quick passing game, and then that opens things up in the running game. Notre Dame never game an inch in the ground game. Did I expect them to hold them to 15 yards? No. That was an extreme level. To me, you can’t run against that front. Even when they’re anticipating more of a passing game, you still can’t run against that defensive front seven. I thought that was a turning point for Notre Dame. That was one of about half a dozen things that had to go Notre Dame’s way, and Notre Dame dominated that area.
On offense, Everett Golson seemed to struggle early this season. How has he progressed in his first year playing?
Prister: Pre-snap is not his area of expertise. I’m sure as time goes on, that’ll become second nature to him. But pre-snap, I think, was so confusing to him that he just had difficulty dealing with everything else that went on on the field, including staying in control of his emotions and being able to bounce back from a bad play into the next play. The two weeks when he sat out against BYU, I think that was a great move on Brian Kelly’s part because if you can’t beat BYU with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, you’re not going to beat Oklahoma without Everett Golson. And if Golson takes one hit in that BYU game coming off a concussion, you’re not going to have him against Oklahoma. You take it one game at a time, but I thought Brian Kelly played that really, really well, went with his veteran quarterback, gave Golson a chance to not only clear the concussion, but also step back a little bit. When Golson has had a chance to step back, re-evaluate, go back to practice, get the reps that he needs, he usually comes out and plays pretty well. He’s had so many injuries — he’s had a shoulder, he’s had a toe, he had a concussion — he’s had so many injuries that he hasn’t been able to practice all the time during the week. When he gets a chance to practice and step back and evaluate things, he takes a step forward. Last week’s performance, hopefully that kind of keeps him locked in to the kind of performance he had against Oklahoma.
In the two games Notre Dame has pulled away from teams this season — Navy and Miami — they’ve run the ball really well. What happened there versus other games, aside from the opponents?
Prister: I think it’s the coming-of-age of this offensive line, which kind of struggled in the first four games after the Navy game. When they played Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, they didn’t run the ball very well. They are more of a zone-blocking scheme this year than they were last year. Even though you have a fairly veteran crew, you did have [Mike] Golic, Jr. as a first-time starter at guard, you had [Christian] Lombard as a first-time starter at tackle, but I think it was more just getting accustomed to the blocking scheme. Anybody can run on Miami, that wasn’t the real test, but when they had success running the ball against Stanford, and then great success running the football against BYU, I think it’s kind of a coming-of-age of the offensive line in the last four games more than anything.
And then [running back] Theo Riddick just pounds the line of scrimmage, and Cierre Wood, if you give him an inch, he can take it the distance. But I think more than anything, I’d point to the offensive line just growing up and coming of age as a unit.
For whatever reason, Notre Dame seems to have struggled a bit at home this season. Is there anything to that or is it just a weird scheduling quirk?
Prister: We’ve asked Brian Kelly about that, particularly as it pertains to Golson, because Golson’s best games have been on the road. Now, the first couple were Navy and Michigan State, where he only completed around 43 percent of his passes, then Miami, which isn’t a very good defense. You’re thinking, ‘OK, well, he’s having success against lesser teams on the road.’ But the performance against Oklahoma, again, could be a huge breakthrough for him. I think that their performance at home and on the road has been dictated by the quarterback play and whether or not Golson’s been sharp or not. He’s been sharp on the road and not so much at home, so this is the next step in the challenge for him if he can put together a solid four quarters against a decent Pittsburgh defense. A Pittsburgh defense that, if they have enough healthy bodies, can make this into a low-scoring game.