The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are hosting the Pittsburgh Panthers, and things have already started badly for Pitt. Three Pitt Panthers were arrested for assault on Thursday stemming from an incident that occurred on the October 21st. Ray Graham, Pitt's top running back, is among those charged. While Graham and his two teammates will play against Notre Dame, his presence will not outcome the game.
There are two reasons for this: One, Graham has not really rebounded from the ACL tear he suffered last year when first year (and only year) Panthers' head coach Todd Graham basically turned Pitt's offense into "spread the field and hand it off to Ray 30 times." The entire Pitt offense has struggled to run the ball, and and this point Pitt's ground game exists to give them something to do between play action passes.
The second reason Graham won't matter is that no running back has done anything against Notre Dame this season. Only one running back has managed to go over 100 yards in a game against Notre Dame (Stanford's Stepfan Taylor), and he managed only 102 yards on 28 carries.
Basically, unless Paul Chryst is a wizard who could magically turn Ray Graham into 1976 Tony Dorsett, Pitt wasn't going to have a ground game anyway.
Pitt's chances at victory begin and end with senior quarterback Tino Sunseri. Sunseri is the classic star crossed college quarterback who has had such horrible luck during his college career that we'll never know what he could have been. If Sunseri had spent years playing for Nick Saban and Alabama, he'd probably be a Heisman candidate and looking forward to being a 4-7th round draft pick and a profitable career as a backup in the NFL.
Instead, he was forced onto the field as a sophomore with the goal of saving former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt's career. He failed, but ya know, he WAS just a sophomore. He spent his junior year being the most ill-fitting spread offense quarterback since Rich Rodriguez's doomed first season at Michigan. He never seemed comfortable operating the offense, and became known for both his penchant for turnovers and for getting himself killed.
But now, in a dropback passing offense that eschews the complicated pre snap decisions that Wannstedt's pro style offense forced him to make, he has had a career year. He has thrown only two interceptions, thrown 13 touchdowns and averaged 9.4 yards per attempt. Considering head coach Paul Chryst's stellar track record of churning out quarterbacks with similarly high levels of efficiency at Wisconsin (and considering how Wisconsin's offense has fallen apart without him), Pitt fans can probably expect to see this kind of production for years to come.
The caveat, obviously, is that all this has come against a gaggle of FCS and Big East teams, with a game against Virginia Tech (also known as Texas Jr. due to how quickly it's falling apart after a long period of dominance) thrown in there. They haven't faced a defense even remotely at the level of Notre Dame's, and yet still found themselves suffering from a complete offensive meltdown two weeks ago against lowly MAC punching bag Buffalo. If they can't get more than 300 total yards against BUFFALO, they are probably in for a long day against Notre Dame.
A lot has been said about Notre Dame's offense. They haven't exactly blown the doors off anyone not named Miami or Navy this year. That's what was so surprising (to other writers, anyway) about Notre Dame's 400+ yard and 30 point performance against Bob Stoops' Oklahoma last week. As we told you, Notre Dame hasn't played well, but they've also played a number of teams with very strong front sevens. Against soft/poor defenses, Notre Dame has had a great deal of success running the ball.
They have done nothing to prove they can throw the ball with consistency, but it is clear that unless you have an elite defense, Notre Dame is going to run the ball on you. And given some of the horrible performances Pitt's defense has had this year against the run (mind, they are transitioning to a 3-4 after last year's wasted year spent trying to run a 3-3-5 stack, which itself was a transition from a 4-3 under), Notre Dame figures to chew a lot of yards on the ground.
And if anyone could get Notre Dame's passing game going, it's Pitt. VTech, Louisville and Cincinnati all blew giant sized holes in the Pitt secondary, and even teams with horrifyingly bad passing games like Temple managed to get close to 200 passing yards. The Panthers just are not very good against even decent offenses. You can't expect much out of a unit that has had to transition back and forth to wildly different styles of play in their last three seasons. As we wrote in the picks column, there are "transition costs" to changing a head coach, and there is what Pitt has gone through.
Billy Connelly's F/+ rankings say Notre Dame wins this by 27.9 points tomorrow. You have to be really optimistic about Pitt and/or have no faith in Notre Dame's ability to handle prosperity to think this is going to be close.
The game will be on your local NBC affiliate at 3:30pm EST.
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