In 2012 Pittsburgh had Notre Dame against the ropes for the first three quarters. They pushed around Notre Dame’s All-American defensive front and suffocated Everett Golson. Notre Dame eeked out a victory in the 4th quarter and overtime through some incredible (and lucky) plays. After two straight nailbiters (Notre Dame won on a late touchdown in 2011), Brian Kelly and Co will have the Irish prepared for tough matchup in 2013.
Offensively, Notre Dame needs to keep the chains moving against a very tough Pittsburgh defense. The Panther’s front seven will bring pressure and close gaps along the Irish’s offensive line, while their secondary suffocates TJ Jones, Davaris Daniels and Troy Niklas. In order to win Notre Dame must stick to their game plan and establish a power running game with George Atkinson III, Will Mahone and Greg Bryant. If the Irish bail early and attempt to force the ball with Tommy Rees, turnovers will ensue.
Defensively, the Irish will smother the Panther’s offense. Last season Pitt relied on its talented trio of Graham, Sunsieri and Shanahan, but their departure has left large voids at three skill positions. The offensive tackles will struggle with the athleticism, speed and strength of Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams and Sheldon Day. Nix will cause his normal troubles in the middle, while Pitt scrounges for yardage against the Irish defense. Pitt has speed at receiver and could attempt to catch Notre Dame sleeping but they may not have the opportunity against the pressure of the front seven.
With two tough defenses, expect a low scoring event that forces both head coaches to play a game of field position. Special teams will matter and Pitt has a slight edge with returning punter Matt Yoklick, but I expect Notre Dame’s kick return team to improve in 2013 and reach their 2011 production.
In the end, the game will come down to turnovers. If Tommy Rees forces the ball against Pitt’s excellent defensive backs and gives the Panthers a short field, it’s only a matter of time before they break a big play or sneak in a field goal which could make the difference between a win and loss. I have consistently expressed doubts about Rees and I firmly believe that at this time in the season Malik Zaire will have earned his role as a part-time starter. Zaire’s mobility will prove the difference in the same way Golson’s did in 2012. Notre Dame wins a close, low scoring game.