Brian Kelly Previews Pittsburgh
After going 8-5 in each of Pat Narduzzi’s first two seasons at the helm, Pittsburgh took a little bit of a step back in 2017 with a 5-7 mark.
Though the team has yet to take the step forward to a 10-win season, the Panthers have somewhat earned the reputation as a “giant killer.”
In 2016, Pittsburgh took down the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers 43-42 on the road. The following year, Narduzzi’s group defeated then-No. 2 Miami 24-14 at home to derail the Hurricanes' chances at a College Football Playoff berth.
Notre Dame enters Saturday as the No. 5 team in the country. The last time the Irish took on Pittsburgh while ranked in the top five was back in 2012, when they needed three overtimes to escape with a 29-26 win in South Bend.
Pittsburgh enters Saturday at 3-3 and is coming off a 44-37 overtime victory over Syracuse. With two top-25 opponents already under their belt, the Panthers will be aiming for different results against the Irish. Narduzzi’s group has faced Penn State and Central Florida already this season, and lost both games by an average margin of 48-10.
“When we talk about Pittsburgh, Pat Narduzzi is somebody that I’m very familiar with as a former Michigan State defensive coordinator,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly stated on Tuesday. “We’ve had many battles with him, and now as the head coach, we know the style of football — physical, hard-nosed, run the football, aggressive defense. We’re going to get that again.
“They beat a very good Syracuse team last week, coming off a great victory, a lot of momentum.”
On defense, Pittsburgh is led by fifth-year senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis, who has 41 tackles, seven stops for loss and three sacks this season. Fellow fifth-year senior linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu is right behind him with 27 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack. Redshirt sophomore end Rashad Weaver leads the Pitt up front with six tackles for loss and two sacks.
“Really like the way they’re playing,” Kelly said of the Panthers. “Their middle linebacker [Wirginis] … is a guy that really helps them defensively, structurally, really get things going with their front seven.
“Defensively, again, it’s a structure that’s similar to what we’ve seen in the past with Michigan State, aggressive corner play, aggressive third-down pressures. So again, something that we’re familiar with, but one that you have to be really in tune, and we’ll have to do a very good job of picking up their pressures.”
Pittsburgh’s strength on the offensive end through six games has been its rushing attack. The group ranks No. 39 nationally, averaging just more than 200 yards per game. Fifth-year senior Qadree Ollison is the featured back with 596 yards and five touchdowns on 92 carries. Senior Darrin Hall is second with 48 carries for 314 yards and four scores.
“Offensively, they’re running the ball very, very well, as well as anybody that we’ve seen this year,” Kelly said. “This is an offense that wants to control the line of scrimmage. I like their offensive line. It’s a veteran group. They play exceedingly well together as a group.
“The running back situation, Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall are contributing, both of them, at a high level. They’re big, physical backs; they play with a fullback, so it's good old-fashioned, get-after-it football, which is synonymous with Pittsburgh in terms of who they are and what they've been as an identity.”
Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett has had an up-and-down campaign with 880 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions while completing 61.3 percent of his passes. Redshirt sophomore Taysir Mack and junior Maurice Ffrench have emerged as the top options at wide receiver through the halfway point. Mack has 12 receptions for team-high 265 yards, while Ffrench has a team-best 16 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
Kelly and company are looking for a complete game against the upset-minded Panthers.
"Again, we have a great deal of respect for our opponents, but really this is much more about how we prepare," Kelly noted. “We’re not pleased with the way we played for four quarters last week, and our emphasis will be on our performance and playing much better.”