Greetings from lovely South Bend, Indiana. It actually did get a little sunnier here since I've arrived. Obviously, the big story of the day is that Ray Graham, Devin Street and Lafayette Pitts will all play tomorrow after being charged with simple assault and conspiracy last night. I'll continue to keep tabs on this story as it develops, and the most important date right now is Jan. 9, when their preliminary hearing is scheduled for. We'll see if they or coach Paul Chryst have any comments on the topic after tomorrow's game, and I think it's interesting to note that, according to the statement released by Pitt today, all three deny their involvement in the incident.
That said, there's also a football game tomorrow. I thought I'd do one last preview for what matchups to look for on both sides of the ball before the big clash tomorrow...
Pitt offense vs. Notre Dame defense
At this point, the Irish defense really needs to introduction. It has played at an SEC-caliber level this season, and has shut down some offenses much more prolific than Pitt's. Notre Dame has excelled at stopping the run this year, thanks in large part because their defensive linemen have done a good job occupying blocks and allowed the linebackers (notably Manti Te'o) to make plays. Louis Nix is a monster in the middle, and almost demands multiple blockers on every play. For the Panthers to run the ball effectively, they may have to use some draws and counters early just to get the defense on its heels a little bit. Also, if they can mix it effective playaction in the passing game, that can help the run, too. Given just how dominant Notre Dame's run defense has been, it would be unrealistic to expect Pitt to replicate last week's performance on the ground. Still, if they can just move the ball and pick up three or four yards on most plays, that will at least keep the Irish defense honest.
As far as the passing game is concerned, this is one area where I think Pitt can have some success, although, as Notre Dame showed against Oklahoma last week, it may not mean much. The biggest variable in this area is how much time Tino Sunseri has to throw the ball. He has shown this year that, if given time, he can make reads and make really good and smart throws. This is also a game, though, where his struggles with pocket awareness could come back to bite him. Notre Dame is not a team that likes to blitz a lot, but its four-man rush (notably linebacker Prince Shembo, who plays with his hand down sometimes, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt) can definitely create some pressure. Pitt has struggled containing athletes on the edge this season, and Tuitt might just be the most athletic defensive end in college football not named Jadeveon Clowney. I think Pitt will have to keep its tight ends and backs in on most passing plays to help with protection, leaving Sunseri with fewer options to throw to. For as much as Notre Dame's cornerbacks have grown up this season, though, Street and Mike Shanahan will be the biggest receivers they've had to deal with this season. Irish corners KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson are 5-11 and 6-0, respectively, so it might not be a bad idea for Pitt to take some chances on jump balls and let Street and Shanahan go up and make a play.
Pitt defense vs. Notre Dame offense
This is probably the matchup that will decide whether or not Pitt can pull off the upset. It's not realistic to expect Pitt to put up buckets of points against Notre Dame's defense, but could Pitt limit Notre Dame's offense to manageable score? Under the right circumstances, I think so. This is also an area where I think Pitt might have to get a little bit lucky with a subpar performance from Irish quarterback Everett Golson, but that wouldn't totally be out of the blue. Golson has struggled in games at Notre Dame Stadium this year, and has been pulled, either for performance or injury, in all three of his starts there this season. As is usually the case in big upsets, turnovers will play a big role. I think Pitt needs to force a couple in Irish territory to make the offense's assignment easier against the stout Irish defense. Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert is a major physical threat, but he doesn't seem to have developed the same chemistry with Golson that he had last year (and this year) with Tommy Rees. Still, he has the most raw talent of any of Notre Dame's pass-catchers, so it will be interesting to see how Pitt plans to defend him.
As far as Pitt stopping the run, I think this may be the most important single aspect of the game. If Notre Dame can run the ball at will, they have enough talented running backs to go all day long on the ground. In their 41-3 win over Miami, for instance, the Irish passed just twice and in the second half and ran for 270 yards in that span. Brian Kelly wants to make the game easy for Golson by relying on the rush, so it's up to Pitt to disrupt that running game and put the game in Golson's hands. It's a lot to ask of likely first-time starter Joe Trebitz at middle linebacker to be ready to call all the assignments, so he and weakside linebacker Todd Thomas need to communicate well on every play. One snap with a guy out of position could result in a big play à la the first play of the Cincinnati game.
Alright, that pretty much covers it, I think. If you have any further questions about the matchup, I'll be around on Twitter. Safe travels to everyone heading out to South Bend this weekend, and I will see you all tomorrow.