Friday, October 31, 2008

LeSean is the Real McCoy, But Panthers are the Pitts

How's THAT for a trite, cheesy, yet catchy headline? I was just trying to come up with something better than "Pittsburgh Preview." The only problem is that the headline, while perhaps true, may not very accurately describe this post by the time I'm done with it.

The Pitt Panthers visit Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow, and I am already really pissed off at them. Through their shocking display of ineptitude last week (losing to Rutgers by 20 points at home), Pitt has cost the Irish a chance to finally beat a ranked opponent! Before getting torched by a heretofore ineffective Rutgers offense to the tune of six passing touchdowns, Pitt was actually ranked #20 in the USA Today Top 25 poll. But noooooooooooo! They had to go and lose (badly) to the Scarlet Knights, drop out of the rankings (below the Irish, no less) and rob Notre Dame of the chance to beat a ranked opponent with a very nice 6-2 record. Nice.

But, the Panthers do come to town offering the Irish the chance to get a win against an opponent with a winning record. Here are the won-loss records for Irish opponents to date (with current Sagarin ranking):

  • San Diego State (W) is 1-7 (135th)
  • Michigan (W) is 2-6 (92nd)
  • Michigan State (L) is 7-2 (19th)
  • Purdue (W) is 2-6 (72nd)
  • Stanford (W) is 4-4 (54th)
  • North Carolina (L) is 6-2 (16th)
  • Washington (W) is 0-7 (114th)
Notre Dame has had just two shots at opponents with winning records (MSU and UNC), and lost both games. The five Irish wins have come against four teams with really crappy records (5-26 combined), and Stanford at .500.

The point? Notre Dame is improving, and it's been exciting to see the progress, but we need to check ourselves because we absolutely have not beaten an opponent of any real quality. Yet.

As noted above, the Panthers come to South Bend licking wounds suffered at the hands of the Scarlet Knights, which, besides depriving the Irish of a ranked opponent, probably also has them really fired up. They were embarrassed last week, and they will be eager to redeem themselves on national TV versus Notre Dame.

But I think they'll head back to Pennsylvania an even more dejected 5-3. The odds makers have Notre Dame favored by anywhere from 4 to 5.5 points, and that's not far off. If you look at the Sagarin rankings (and I do), the Irish at home against the Panthers probably ought to be favored by six points. The fact that the line is lower than that says that Vegas still isn't buying into Notre Dame.

Before last night, Pitt had two quality wins to their credit. They had beaten South Florida (26-21), who, coming into this week's games was #23 in the BCS poll. But South Florida got whipped by the Cincinnati Bearcats last night, 24-10. Heading into that game, USF was 6-2 against the 92nd-toughest schedule in Div-I, and had gotten up to #23 based entirely on the human polls, as Sagarin had USF at #52 (using the ELO-Chess ranking that the BCS incorporates). The loss to unranked Cincinnati will cost USF dearly in the rankings, and really takes the shine off Pitt's victory over South Florida.

Pitt's other quality win was a 21-20 home win over the 5-3 Iowa Hawkeyes, who are currently unranked but who are actually getting a fair amount of respect from many of the computer rankings, including Sagarin. On that note, check out this link for a web page that compares the rankings from 98 different computer models. Very cool.

Notre Dame has improved to the point that winning and losing games against mid-tier opponents depends more on how Notre Dame plays than on how the opponent plays. The North Carolina game is the perfect illustration of this point. The Irish were clearly capable of beating UNC, but lost the game because they made mistakes that caused them to perform below their ability. That is a giant stride forward from last season, when Notre Dame wasn't going to beat a good team if the opponent's plane made it safely to South Bend.

Pittsburgh is exactly the type of opponent that Notre Dame should beat if they show up and play well. The match-ups favor the Irish. Notre Dame's real talent on offense is in the passing game, matching up nicely with the Pitt secondary which gave up six passing TDs to Rutgers last week. Pitt's offensive strength is on the ground, riding the legs of LeSean McCoy, who has had 140 or more yards in four straight games. That running game (4.2 yards per carry) matches up pretty well against Notre Dame's weakness against the run, which has been allowing 4.0 ypc this season. But this all benefits Notre Dame, as the Irish can get bigger chunks of yardage and score points faster through the air than the Panthers can on the ground. In my view, the Pitt ground game will not be able to keep up the scoring pace with the Notre Dame offense.

The other HUGE factor in this game is that Pitt's starting quarterback, Bill Stull, was carried off the field last week on a stretcher after suffering a concussion. He is "questionable" for the game tomorrow. If he plays, I would expect Pitt to look after his health by putting the ball in McCoy's hands as much as possible, which will pretty much make the Panther offense one-dimensional and predictable, allowing the Notre Dame defense to stack the box to stuff the run. If Stull is asked to throw the ball, you have to wonder how effective he'll be coming off a concussion, and how susceptible he'll be to leaving the game again if an aggressive blitzing defense gets to him. If Stull does not play, or has to leave the game, then the Irish will face Pat Bostick, who was the starter last year but who, logically, is not as good as Stull and would therefore be less likely to hurt the Irish through the air.

So, will Notre Dame show up tomorrow? They are undefeated at home this season, and it appears as though these young players are getting very comfortable in Notre Dame Stadium, and have begun to really feed off the energy of the home fans. Notre Dame has had two road games and the bye since they defeated Stanford at home, and I fully expect them to build on the confidence gained from last week's dismantling of the Washington Huskies and play high-energy football tomorrow. There is a small chance that the "looking ahead" factor creeps in, as the Pitt loss to Rutgers diminishes them a bit and the team travels to Boston College next week. But I think this young team learned last year that opportunities to win games have to be seized when they present themselves, or they will painfully slip away.

I expect a confident, fired-up Irish squad to bring it tomorrow against a Pitt team with a concussed quarterback and a bruised ego and get that first win against a quality opponent. Notre Dame 31, Pittsburgh 20.

Go Irish! Beat Panthers!

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