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And in that corner... The Pitt Panthers

It’s hard to believe that a little over eleven months ago, the No. 8 ranked Pitt Panthers were welcoming in a Charlie Weis-coached Notre Dame squad that had just lost to Navy without ever punting the football. It was the beginning of the end for Weis and the 2009 Fighting Irish, as Golden Tate’s heroics and the trio of Michael Floyd, Jimmy Clausen and Tate’s fourth quarter rally weren’t enough to spring the upset in Heinz Field.

One coaching change, two star players, and a season later, Brian Kelly’s Irish welcome Dave Wannstedt and company to South Bend. The Panthers’ 2010 season has already hit two speed bumps, with an overtime loss to Utah opening the season and a 31-3 pasting at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes giving Pitt two early losses in the first four games of the season. Alex Oltmann, the sports editor for the student run Pitt News, has been there every step of the way covering the Panthers.

He was nice enough to answer some questions for me as the Irish prepare to take on Pitt this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Inside the Irish: Obviously, Pitt fans knew that the opening four games had two tough opponents: Utah and Miami. The loss to Utah was a heartbreaker, the Miami loss, disheartening. Where does the psyche of this team and its fanbase site after a 2-2 start?

Alex Oltmann: After starting 1-2, both the team and the fans were very disappointed. The team had two primetime Thursday night games with a lot of anticipation building up for both and they ended up as losses. The team was embarrassed after its 1-2 start, but the win last Saturday over FIU gave them and the fanbase some confidence heading into South Bend this week. But even with the win, there’s still plenty of pessimistic fans around the city and on campus.

Most people expected big things from Dion Lewis this year. Yet after four games its another sophomore, Ray Graham, leading the team in rushing, while getting less touches than Lewis. Is there a running back controversy at Pitt? How will Wannstedt distribute carries on Saturday?

There’s no real controversy over who will start at running back, Dion Lewis ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year, was a front-runner for the Heisman trophy going into this season and will start when the offense takes the field against the Irish. But with that being said, Ray Graham has earned more carries and coach Dave Wannstedt said he will get more going forward. So look for Lewis to still get more carries than Graham on Saturday, but still expect to see Graham heavily involved in the offense.

Notre Dame fans remember the bludgeoning that Jonathan Baldwin gave to Darrin Walls and the ND secondary last year. Obviously his production has suffered with Tino Sunseri at the helm of the offense. What is Pitt getting out of their passing game this year?

Sunseri has struggled at times this season, but he hasn’t gotten much help from his offensive line. Without much time to stand in the pocket, it hasn’t allowed Baldwin’s routes to develop downfield. Fans know what they’re going to get from the future first round pick Baldwin, but fellow receiver Mike Shanahan has been a pleasant surprise. Pitt’s No. 2 receiver has stepped up this season with 14 catches for 190 yards after being a reserve last year. Sunseri has a strong arm and a good grasp of the offense and with more game experience and added confidence, has all the tools to be effective with those receivers and the others as well.

Pitt’s defense suffered a big loss with injuries to Greg Romeus and Dan Mason. Brian Kelly is obviously familiar with Pitt’s defensive scheme and personnel. How do you stack up the battle between the Irish offense and the Pitt defense.

Losing Romeus and Mason definitely hurt, but the defense is forced to move on without them and has. Romeus’ backup, Brandon Lindsey, has performed well and is very quick off the edge. Dom DeCicco was moved from starting safety to weakside linebacker to provide more speed there, but it’s essentially the nickelback position right now. They will need that speed and athleticism if they’re going to have a linebacker covering Kyle Rudolph. Pitt’s defensive backs could struggle to cover Michael Floyd much like they struggled in the second half against him and Golden Tate last season. Both starters, Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary are capable of having big games, but are first year starters.

Put into words the Dave Wannstedt era so far, from a Pitt fan’s perspective.

The Wannstedt era at Pitt has had mixed reviews with two schools of thought. The first is that he’s helped to turn the program around, beating West Virginia in the huge upset in 2007, winning 10 games last year for the first time since 1981 and serving as a great recruiter especially in Western Pennsylvania. But the other side of the argument would say that he hasn’t won enough big games like the ones against Cincinnati the last two seasons and against West Virginia last year, and that he’s mismanaged some games with questionable play calling like in their 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl in 2008. There’s always going to be pessimists, so I would say that the majority of fans are pro-Wannstedt.

What’s your gut feeling about Saturday. What does Pitt have to do to win the football game?

My gut feeling says the game will be close on Sunday. In order to win Pitt has to get pressure on Dayne Crist which will fall primarily on the defensive line since defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is not a big proponent of blitzing. Secondly, Pitt has to establish the running game with Lewis and Graham early. This will take some pressure off Sunseri and set up the play-action pass.

Check out Alex’s coverage of Pitt football at the Pitt News as the game approaches this weekend.