The undefeated, third-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish host the Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday afternoon. The Fighting Irish, coming off what could be a season defining 30-13 victory over then-No. 8 Oklahoma, look to extend their undefeated streak to 9-0 for the first time in 19 years.
The Panthers pose a problem for the Fighting Irish, though.
Notre Dame isn’t the only team that had an outstanding game last week. Pittsburgh reached a new high when it beat Temple by a score of 47-17.
Notre Dame is again faced with the threat of a team capable of putting up big numbers. The Panthers aren’t the first team to post over 40 points prior to playing the Irish, but they may be the squad to finally rise up to the challenge presented by Notre Dame’s defense.
The Irish defense, which is second only to No. 1 Alabama, has allowed an average of just 9.9 points per game over the course of the season. However, the Panthers’ passing game just might be able to stand up to Notre Dame's stingy D.
The Panthers are averaging 281.5 passing yards per game. Granted, the Irish have been giving up less than 200 passing yards per game. Even so, Tino Sunseri and the Panthers’ passing game has the potential to break through the Irish’s top-tier defense.
Sunseri, who has been recognized as one of the NCAA’s best quarterbacks, has a nearly 70-percent completion rate. He has thrown for 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
A game-changing factor could be the Pitt receivers’ ability to get open for Sunseri. If Mike Shanahan and Devin Street—Pittsburgh’s two best receivers—can get open downfield and Sunseri takes advantage of the opportunities they make, the resulting momentum could be invaluable.
He is, however, relatively prone to getting sacked. With a defensive line as big and experienced as Notre Dame’s, Sunseri might have trouble getting the ball to his receivers. If he can handle the pressure from the Irish defense and not turn the ball over, Sunseri should be able to do his part in keeping the game close.
If the Panthers’ running game, which hasn’t been very impressive, can carry over the momentum from the game against Temple, they would be in a much better position.
Running back Ray Graham was a standout player against Temple. He had his best game of the season against the Owls, rushing for 109 yards and two touchdowns. It’s worth the risk to let Graham challenge the Irish defense.
The Panthers need to play a sound all-around game. They can't give the Irish anything to exploit. Even a crucial turnover or two is enough to greatly tip the scale in Notre Dame's favor.
The Panthers are not to be counted out, though. The last time they played a Top-Five school was West Virginia in 2007. Despite being 28.5 point underdogs, the Panthers came out on top with a 13-9 victory.
The Panthers can definitely be problematic for the Irish and the warpath they’ve been on. Expect Pitt to take the field Saturday and play with plenty of fire and determination.