Notre Dame marched to an impressive victory over Oklahoma this past Saturday vaulting the Irish to the No. 3 spot in the BCS. This week they take on an easier opponent on paper, but the Pitt rushing attack may put fear into the eyes of the Irish by the end of this weekend’s showdown.
Notre Dame has played impressive defense through the first half of the season, holding its opponents to just 95.25 yards per game on the ground giving the Irish the No. 9 rushing defense in the country.
Pitt is bringing only the No. 77 rushing attack to South Bend, but the Panthers will field two very good running backs—one of whom is a rising star freshman.
Ray Graham and Rushel Shell have become a very dangerous tandem from the Pitt backfield. Graham is the leading carrier for the Panthers, gaining 622 yards on 134 carries so far this season. He has also added seven rushing touchdowns and 244 receiving yards to his credit.
Graham is a major dual threat force from the backfield that has not yet been witnessed by the Notre Dame defense.
Shell will add another dimension to the game for the Panthers. He is a much bigger back for Pitt, bringing a tough downhill rushing style to the offense. He has accounted for 441 yards on the ground on 87 carries.
Against Virginia Tech the freshman had his highest output of the year, gaining 157 yards on the ground in the contest. The big game brought out big production and it should do the same this week.
For Notre Dame this is a win that should come easily. The Irish defense is playing better than anyone outside of the SEC against the run and they have earned their way into the national title discussion.
While they are very strong defensively against the rush this year, the competition has not been very strong running the ball. The best rushing attack the Irish have faced was Navy who is ranked No. 6, but they are a one dimensional team.
No other team that Notre Dame has faced will bring this type of tandem to the field. The next best rushing attack was Michigan currently at No. 27 and the Wolverines gained 161 yards on the ground. Without Denard Robinson's three sacks losing big yards, Michigan was close to 200 yards on the ground against the Irish.
Michigan is the closest comparison to the tandem runner approach that will come with Pitt.
This is a game that could sneak up on this Notre Dame team if they are not prepared. The way a surprise will happen is with the Pitt rushing attack.
Oklahoma has a talented backfield, but they only ran the ball 22 times against the Irish while throwing the ball 52 times. There was no balance in the Sooners' attack and it showed.
Should the Irish fear the 1-2 punch of the Panthers?
Tino Sunseri is a strong player and will add a solid passing threat to the Pitt attack. Sunseri has been more productive this season than Landry Jones of Oklahoma, so this Notre Dame team has to take notice of the Pitt offense.
The Panthers will use their backs to control the clock and grind out tough yards as often as possible. Add in a few big throws from Sunseri and this could be a much tougher game than the Irish are expecting.
This is a letdown game waiting to happen for the Irish and it all starts on the ground. Stop the Pitt ground attack and the win will come.
*All Stats confirmed with NCAA.org