PITTSBURGH — The cliche du jour around South Bend these days is that November is for contenders, while October is for pretenders. For a Notre Dame team ranked fifth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings — and one that went 1-4 in November of 2014 — that banal phrase carries a little more weight inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
Notre Dame can’t afford to find itself looking ahead to that regular season-ending date with Stanford, one that promises to have critical playoff implications — but only if if the Irish win their three games before it.
That push begins Saturday at Heinz Field with a noon kickoff — Notre Dame’s first regular season game to start at that time since 2011 — against a 6-2 Pitt side that’s given the Irish fits in recent years.
Consider the final scores in the Brian Kelly era: 23-17, 15-13, 29-26 and 28-21. Pitt, quarterbacked by Tino Sunseri, took that 29-26 game to triple overtime and was a missed field goal — and a penalty missed by the officials when two Notre Dame players wearing No. 2 were on the field at the same time — away from knocking off the undefeated Irish. A year later, Notre Dame played one of its worst games in Kelly’s tenure, failing to overcome Stephon Tuitt's targeting ejection and making a string of mind-numbing mistakes in a seven-point loss at Heinz Field.
“It’s not a magic trick or anything like that,” Pitt senior defensive lineman Darryl Render, who played in those 2012 and 2013 games, said in a phone interview. “I don’t know, it’s one of those weeks where guys get more pumped up about and are ready to go. It’s one of those games that has so much history behind it.”
Notre Dame players are keenly aware of that recent history.
“These are always games where it's a 15-round heavyweight match,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “And Pitt, they're always going to play you tough. Doesn't matter what game they're playing, they're going to come to play. That's just how that team has always played us.”
“It’s always a close game when you play Pitt no matter who’s on the roster,” linebacker Jaylon Smith added.
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This is a different Pitt team from the ones that scared and defeated Notre Dame in the last few years. It starts with first-year coach Pat Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator, who’s molded a Panthers defense short on talent into a respectable group. Opponents are averaging 22.1 points in eight games against Pitt, which has racked up 22 sacks, 53 tackles for a loss, eight interceptions and eight forced fumbles — not elite numbers, but certainly solid.
Pitt still is prone to giving up big plays — it’s allowed six rushes of 50 or more yards, tied with New Mexico’s two lowly programs for the third-highest total at the FBS level — and is the only team to allow opponents to score on every red zone possession they’ve had (though they’ve only allowed eight touchdowns in 17 attempts).
“You can see the same kind of (Narduzzi’s) signature defense, physical offense, aggressive special teams,” coach Brian Kelly said, “and he's gotten his football team off to a very good 6-2 start.”
With Pitt firmly taken seriously by Notre Dame, the Irish turned this week to figuring out how to improve a few areas that were deficient in last week’s 24-20 win over a top-25 Temple side in Philadelphia. Red zone efficiency is at the top of the list, followed closely by re-booting C.J. Prosise after the explosive running back only gained 25 yards on 14 carries against the Owls.
Defensively, Notre Dame will in the first half be without safety Elijah Shumate, who was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter of the Temple game and will serve the requisite suspension for the first 30 minutes of Saturday’s game. The Irish defense is very much a boom-or-bust group, one that generates plenty of three-and-outs but also gives up a torrent of big-chunk plays.
Notre Dame, though, has proven able to rely on big plays from Prosise, quarterback DeShone Kizer and wide receiver Will Fuller to buoy its playoff bid. It’s developed a certain, difficult-to-quantify mental toughness Kelly believes will carry it through these next three games and into Stanford, where if all goes according to plan (and the odds) Notre Dame will have a chance to secure an 11-1 season and solid shot at the College Football Playoff in Palo Alto.
“November is for contenders. We definitely want to be a contender,” defensive tackle and captain Sheldon Day said. “We have to make sure we win out and are at our best towards the end of the season.”