The first College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday, and there were, without a doubt, a good number of fans across the country who were ecstatic about where Notre Dame ranked. As the first team on the outside looking in, the Irish (7-1) are going to face all the more pressure when they travel to Heinz Field Saturday to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers. Coming off a tough loss against North Carolina, the Panthers (6-2, ACC 4-1) are hoping to rebound offensively against an Irish team that squeaked by Temple last Saturday 24-20.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line is far from being the strength of this team. Through eight games, the line has allowed 21 sacks, which is tied for 96th out of 127 FBS programs. In their two losses against Iowa and the Tar Heels, Pittsburgh allowed five and two sacks respectively. It’s clear that this offense needs quarterback Nathan Peterman to stay upright to operate the offense efficiently.
Last season, the line was anchored by Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle T.J Clemmings, who was placed on the first team All-ACC playing right tackle. This season, the line is mixed with veterans and inexperienced players. Redshirt junior left tackle Adam Bisnowaty, junior guard Dorian Johnson and redshirt senior center Artie Rowell all have multiple seasons of experience under their belt, which establishes the left side of the line as a competitive one. Last week, we all witnessed how well an experienced line can handle Notre Dame’s front seven in the trenches.
Redshirt sophomore right guard Alex Officer and redshirt freshman right tackle Brian O’Neill are carry the inexperience on the squad. Officer started 10 games last season at center after Rowell was sidelined for the season with a knee injury. O’Neill has had the pleasure of replacing Clemmings at right tackle this season, which makes him a target for every opposing defense.
Taking advantage of the youth on the right side of the Panthers’ offensive line will force Peterman to make mistakes and keep the ball away from Pittsburgh’s star player in receiver Tyler Boyd.
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Heading into the season, the Panthers were hoping to have stud running back James Connor, who rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns last year. However, in the season opener, Connor tore his MCL immediately ending his season. Fortunately for the Irish, they won’t have to worry about containing the reigning ACC pPayer of the Year. Unfortunately, they will have to game plan for three running backs that have been listed as co-starters for Saturday.
Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi is planning on using all three of his running backs against an Irish defense that has been suspect against the run this season. Notre Dame has allowed 167.2 rushing yards per game along with 12 rushing scores.
Throughout the season, freshman tailback Qadree Ollison has carried the majority of the load rushing for 716 yards and running into the end zone eight times. Sophomore Chris James and freshman Darrin Hall both have a combined 86 carries on the year, which is 42 less than what Ollison has recorded. It’s going to be interesting to see how all three running backs will be mixed into Pittsburgh’s offensive scheme, but if Notre Dame can pile up the points early, the Panthers will have no choice but to disregard the run game. If the Irish offense can’t get rolling early, the defense will need to have their heads on a swivel for three running backs and an explosive Tyler Boyd.
I’ve already mentioned Pittsburgh’s star receiver twice above, and rightfully so. Two years ago, Boyd shredded Notre Dame’s secondary for eight catches and 85 yards to go along with a pivotal touchdown to help the Panthers win 28-21. Boyd went on to become the nation’s most productive freshman receiver that season. He broke reception and yardage records for freshman at Pittsburgh. Last person to hold those records: Larry Fitzgerald.
Boyd caught 85 passes for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns his freshman year. Last season, Boyd didn’t lose a beat hauling in 78 reception for 1,262 yards and another eight scores. His elite route running ability and speed are a dangerous combo for any defensive back to have to deal with. Some scouts think Boyd could be the first receiver taken off the board at next year’s NFL Draft. NFL.com ranked Boyd as the 12th best player in college football back in August.
Halfway through this season, Boyd has already caught 63 passes for 578 yards and four scores. Talk about consistency. However, the next best receivers on the Pittsburgh roster have just 16 catches a piece. The only other receivers to score are tight ends Scott Orndoff and J.P Holtz, who have four and three receiving touchdowns respectively. It’s safe to say that Peterman will probably throw to Boyd on over 50 percent of his pass attempts, but the secondary can’t forget to take the Panthers’ tight ends seriously in the red zone.
Peterman transferred to Pittsburgh from Tennessee during the summer and won the starting job over Chad Voytik. Peterman is an efficient quarterback, but he’s what you would call a “game manager.” He’s completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions. While his touchdown to interception ratio is strong, Peterman struggles to make big plays through the air on a consistent basis, which is he ranks 86th among all quarterbacks for passing yards per game. If he sticks to his average and throws for just 171 yards Saturday, I can guarantee that Notre Dame walks away 8-1 from Heinz Field.
Yes, there is a chance that Peterman plays well enough to keep the game close, or he can erupt and have the best game of his career. I realized after calling out Temple’s quarterback P.J Walker last week that it probably isn’t best to say too many negative things about opposing signal callers, but I can confidently say that unless Peterman has a career-game, Notre Dame should handle the Pittsburgh’s passing attack well.
As we all know, anything can happen in the world of college football. Especially after the first College Football Playoff rankings placing Notre Dame at No. 5, everyone is going to play their very best against the Irish. Notre Dame just needs to play up to their ranking and take care of business. Like I’ve said before, win and you’re in.