Pittsburgh blew its shot at a top-25 matchup against Notre Dame when it lost to North Carolina, 26-19, last Thursday. The Panthers are 6-2, though, and first-year coach Pat Narduzzi — Michigan State’s longtime defensive coordinator — has this program trending in the right direction.
But a few stats show Pitt is a favorable matchup for a Notre Dame team coming off a four-point win over Temple and the Owls’ tough-as-nails defense.
It’s worth noting Pitt has played two top-50 S&P+ teams this year and lost to both — a three-point loss at Iowa (No. 16) and last week’s loss to UNC (No. 43). Pitt has won its six games by an average of seven points, with only one (a 24-7 win over Akron in Week 2) having a double-digit margin of victory.
Notre Dame is the best opponent Pitt will have played this year, and likely will play, ranking ninth in S&P+. Bill Connelly’s numbers project the Irish to win by 9.6 points and give Pitt only a 29 percent chance of upsetting the Irish on Saturday.
A few reasons why:
Pitt’s rush defense has been gouged by big plays, allowing seven runs of 40 or more yards, tied for the ninth-most among FBS teams. They’re decent at stopping the run in short-yardage situations, but not to the extent of Temple, which held C.J. Prosise to 25 yards on 14 carries, with 12 of those yards coming on one rush. Opponents are averaging 4.53 yards per carry against Pittsburgh, 80th among FBS teams, so it’s a good bet that Prosise’s struggles — he's still averaging 6.62 yards per carry — will only last one week.
If Narduzzi decides to load the box and try to stop Prosise at all costs, it could take away from the Panthers’ strength: pass defense. Pitt’s defense is 10th in passing S&P+ and has held opponents to only eight touchdowns through the air against eight interceptions. Sophomore Avonte Maddox has six pass break-ups and two interceptions, but unless he proves to be capable of doing what MacKensie Alexander did Oct. 3 in shutting down Will Fuller, Pitt probably would risk giving up plenty of yards through the air by selling out to stop the run.
The question is, will Pitt want to play to its strength or try to overcome its weakness?
Pitt is solid in the red zone, though, allowing opponents to score eight touchdowns in 17 attempts (23rd nationally). Notre Dame's own offensive red zone issues popped up Saturday night in Philadelphia, in which DeShone Kizer threw two interceptions and had to settle for a field goal in five trips inside the 20.
Offensively, Pitt isn’t explosive, and it operates with about average efficiency. The Panthers only have 14 plays of 30 or more yards through their eight games, which is good news for an Irish team that’s allowing two and a half plays of 30-plus yards per game.
Pitt, though, does have two things working in its favor. First, Notre Dame hasn’t played a game that’s kicked off at noon E.T. since the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, so players will have to adjust a bit to the earlier start time.
And second, nine of the last 10 Notre Dame-Pitt games have been decided by eight points or fewer. Pitt beat Notre Dame by seven at Heinz Field in 2013 and was a missed field goal (and penalty by the referees) from knocking off a then-undefeated Irish side in South Bend in 2012. It’s a trend that’s spanned four coaches — Walt Harris, Dave Wannstedt, Todd Graham and Paul Chryst. Can Narduzzi be the fifth straight Pitt coach to beat, or at least put a scare into, Notre Dame?
The numbers don’t give him a good chance, but the recent series history just might.