Next up in our Notre Dame pre-spring opponent preview series are the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Irish will be facing Pittsburgh for the sixth consecutive year this fall, and eleventh time in the past 13 years.
The two teams staged a triple-overtime classic last season in South Bend, as Notre Dame needed two late touchdowns, a missed field goal by Pitt and an uncalled illegal participation penalty to survive the pesky Panthers.
After a 6-7 finish in Paul Chryst's first season, Pitt opens spring practice on Tuesday as it prepares for its inaugural season in the ACC. Let's take a look at what the Panthers will be looking to settle over the coming weeks of practice.
For previous Notre Dame opponent previews, click the links below:
Date: Nov. 9
Site: Heinz Field (Pittsburgh, Pa.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26 (3OT) (2012)
Last Meeting in Pittsburgh: Notre Dame 15, Pittsburgh 12 (2011)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame - 3
Record: 6-7 (3-4 Big East)
Bowl: BBVA Compass Bowl (lost to Ole Miss, 38-17)
Leading Passer: Tino Sunseri (Sr.) - 256-of-393, 3,288 yards, 21 TDs, 3 INTs
Leading Rusher: Ray Graham (Sr.) - 222 carries, 1,042 yards, 11 TDs
Leading Receiver: Mike Shanahan (Sr.) - 62 receptions, 983 yards, 6 TDs
There will be a competition in the Steel City to replace three-year starter and oft-criticized quarterback Tino Sunseri. While he protected the football well, Sunseri took too many sacks, a few of which helped contribute to Notre Dame's comeback victory last season.
Chad Voytik, who redshirted in 2012, will battle junior Trey Anderson and well-traveled transfer Tom Savage for the vacant role. The call here is for Voytik—a Tennessee native who stuck with his commitment to the Panthers even after Todd Graham left for Arizona State—to win the job, barely edging out Savage.
Despite being a bit undersized at 6’0”, Voytik is fast enough to get outside of the pocket, where his stature is less of a detriment. A benefit for Pittsburgh is that Notre Dame doesn’t come to Heinz Field until Nov. 9, giving Voytik or whoever emerges from the quarterback derby plenty of time to develop before facing the Irish.
37 years ago, a running back from Aliquippa, a blue-collar suburb of Pittsburgh in the heart of the old steel mill country, captured the Heisman Trophy and led the Panthers to their only national title in the modern era of college football.
Sophomore Rushel Shell may not match Tony Dorsett's 1976 season, but the prized recruit has drawn comparisons to the NFL Hall of Famer with which he shares a hometown. Shell ran for over 600 yards and scored four touchdowns as a freshman backing up the since-departed Ray Graham.
Graham was the only running back to score a rushing touchdown against Notre Dame during the regular season in 2012.
Junior Isaac Bennett will be the primary backup after receiving 29 carries last season. Chryst wants the Panthers to be a run-first team, but the transition has been a slow one, as the team averaged only 133 yards per game on the ground last year.
The return of Devin Street saved the Panthers from having to replace their top four pass catchers from last season. The tall, lanky Street led the team with 73 receptions last season, including a pair of games with double-digit catches. The losses are significant, however, as in addition to Mike Shanahan, the speedy Cameron Sadler also must be replaced.
Notre Dame has allowed touchdowns to Pitt tight ends in both of the past two meetings. Hubie Graham (2011) is gone, but J.P. Holtz (2012) returns.
While Alabama came into western Pennsylvania and lured 5-star recruit Robert Foster to Tuscaloosa, Pitt was able to keep 4-star receiver Tyler Boyd close to home. Boyd should make an immediate impact and could crack the starting lineup by the time Notre Dame arrives at Heinz Field in early November.
Three starters are gone, but Pitt might actually have new starters at all five positions. Both of the Panthers 2012 starting tackles—Corey King and Matt Rotheram—are expected to move to guard, at least through the spring.
The center position was vacated by Ryan Turnley, who was an All-Big East performer last season in his second year as a starter. Sophomore Artie Powell is next in line in the middle for the Panthers.
With King and Rotheram shifting inside, both tackle positions are open. Adam Bisnowaty redshirted last season, but could be the opening-day starter on the left side.
5-star recruit Dorian Johnson, who signed with Pitt after decommitting from Penn State following the announcement of its NCAA sanctions, arrives in the summer. He may be the Panthers' best option at right tackle.
This should be the strength of the 2012 Panthers. All-Big East defensive tackle Aaron Donald anchors an experienced and talented group, many of which are still are Dave Wannstedt recruits, who was fired following the 2010 season.
Pitt plays a 4-3 alignment, but has specific roles for the two tackle positions. 300-pound nose tackle Tyler Ezell is also returning, giving the Panthers a formidable interior front.
Both end positions appear to be open, even with junior Bryan Murphy a returning starter at rush end. Sophomore Devin Cook also is back and could pluck the starting job away from Murphy. Ohio State transfer and converted fullback David Durham appears to have the edge at the other end spot after sitting out last season.
The Panthers return all three of their linebackers who started in the bowl game. Senior Shayne Gordon battled injuries last season, but still finished sixth on the team in tackles. He'll anchor the unit at middle linebacker.
Junior weakside linebacker Todd Thomas had a season-high 11 tackles against Notre Dame last year. He also was slowed by injures in 2012, missing the first four games. Sophomore E'Juan Price missed last season with a pectoral injury, but should be back in the two deep this fall.
The strongside linebacker spot is where there could be some competition. The primary starter from last season, Eric Williams, has been shifted to safety. Redshirt freshman Deaysean Rippy, one of the top linebackers in the 2012 class, should figure into the mix.
Pitt was very effective against the pass last season, holding opponents to under 200 yards per game through the air. The Tommy Rees-Everett Golson combination struggled against the Panthers, each throwing an interception and completing just 29 of 53 attempts.
Last year's secondary coach, Matt House, was promoted to defensive coordinator last month. Three starters are back this season, with strong safety Jared Holley the only loss. Leading tackler and All-Big East performer Jason Hendricks returns. His six interceptions ranked sixth nationally.
K'Wuan Williams appeared to have squelched Notre Dame's national title hopes last season with a fourth-quarter interception of Golson, but the Irish were able to overcome the turnover. Williams returns at one cornerback spot, with Lafayette Pitts back on the other side. This unit should be one of the best in the ACC.
If Notre Dame needs another miracle this season to defeat Pitt, Kevin Harper won't be around to help them. The Panthers placekicker, who missed a short field goal in double overtime in last season's meeting, departs. Junior Drake Greer, the next in line, has yet to attempt a kick at the collegiate level.
The Panthers do get punter Matt Yoklic back for a third season. He averaged 42 yards per punt last year, third in the Big East.
Pitts was the primary kick returner last season, averaging 24 yards per return. The punt returner role is up for grabs with Saddler's departure. Ronald Jones had four returns last season, but Pitts could expand his role to include both punt and kick returns.
In a division without a clear-cut favorite, Pitt should be able to make some noise in its first season competing in the ACC Coastal. The Panthers have one of the more attractive home schedules in the country. In addition to the game with Notre Dame; Florida State, Miami (FL) and North Carolina will visit to Heinz Field.
The first issue, of course, is settling on a quarterback. Sunseri was serviceable, but the Panthers would like more from that position. The running game must get better, with Shell looking to ease the loss of Ray Graham.
Like the NFL team with which Pitt shares a stadium, this team will be driven by its defense. Eight of the past nine meetings between Pitt and Notre Dame have been decided by eight points or less. Notre Dame does not have to play Oklahoma the week before this season's meeting, which should have the Irish a bit more focused this time around.