5 things to keep in mind for the Pitt-Notre Dame game
If Pitt loses to Notre Dame on Saturday, no one can pin it on a failure to prepare.
As we learned this week, plenty of time, effort and bodily trauma go into every practice.
And the common explanation from Pitt players and coaches after a loss — “little things here and there” — won’t fly, either.
This is a game in which one team has superior athletes. It happens sometimes.
Take, for example, the four- and five-star recruits (per Rivals.com) in the Notre Dame and Pitt classes of 2015 and ’16 that are made up of players in their fourth and fifth seasons.
Notre Dame had 26, and 19 remain on the roster; Pitt had seven, and only Damar Hamlin, Darrin Hall and Amir Watts are still on the team.
By itself, that doesn’t mean Pitt will lose. Upsets happen every week in college football, and Pitt has been in the middle of many of them through the years. It just means the margin for error is greatly diminished.
Here are five thoughts to keep in mind while watching the national telecast (NBC’s Mike Tirico and Doug Flutie on the call):
1. Don’t call this an upset
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi sounded insulted when a reporter asked him to describe the elements that go into an upset. Acknowledging that term would be accepting the fact that Notre Dame is a better team. Good coaches don’t think that way.
Players reacted in a similar manner, evidence that they’re paying attention to their coach. Center Jimmy Morrissey said he prefers to be the giant, not the giant killer.
“It’s a great opportunity to show people what Pitt football is,” running back Qadree Ollison said. “You respect all, fear none. You don’t want to settle for, ‘We put up a good fight.’ ”
Without that attitude, Pitt has no chance. With it, almost anything can happen.
2. Speaking of Ollison …
The senior from Niagara Falls, N.Y., has an opportunity to complete a rare achievement in college football – run for 1,000 yards in two seasons separated by three years. He did it as a redshirt freshman in 2015 (1,121), and needs 404 in the next six or seven games to do it again.
He said he learned his bruising style of running from James Conner.
“I try to use my size (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) to my advantage,” he said. “That came from watching James, taking a backseat to him, studying his tape and how he runs. It hasn’t changed. He runs the same now (with the Steelers) as he did here.
“Not a lot of people want to tackle somebody who is 230 pounds running full speed. He did a great job showing me that.”
Ollison said he doesn’t know where he stands on Pitt’s all-time rushing list. So, we’ll tell him:
If he gets those 404 yards, he’ll pass Pro Football Hall of Famer Curtis Martin (2,643) and move into 10th place.
3. Do what you do best
Pitt’s offensive line prefers to run block. “They like that attitude stuff,” Narduzzi said.
But it also is necessary.
“People have been blitzing us even more,” he said. “They see a little weakness. We’re going to see some pressure at Notre Dame, and we’ve got to react to it.
“We’ve got to give (quarterback) Kenny (Pickett) a chance to sit in the pocket and make a decision, and we haven’t done a great job of that.”
Pitt has allowed 13 sacks, fourth-highest in the ACC.
Leaning on the ground game is the best way to slow down Notre Dame’s pass rush, which has produced 15 sacks.
The problem: Pitt’s ground game is ranked 39th in the nation (203.8 yards per game), but Notre Dame’s run defense is also 39th (127.8).
4. Pitt can’t win without causing turnovers.
When Pitt lost to Notre Dame in triple overtime in 2012, the Irish turned the ball over three times.
When Pitt beat Syracuse last week, the Panthers intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble.
Without Saleem Brightwell’s interception in 2016, Pitt doesn’t defeat eventual national champion Clemson.
Sense a pattern?
Pitt’s turnover ratio is minus-1 this season, and that must improve. Opponents have fumbled 13 times while Pitt has recovered only five. Meanwhile, Pitt has fumbled nine times and lost six.
There’s a reason they conduct ball drills in practice.
5. The loss of Quintin Wirginis.
A good argument could be made that Pitt lost its best player when Wirginis went down with a season-ending knee injury. Actually, there’s a reason Pitt won only five games without him last season.
But it’s also a chance for Narduzzi to show off his recruits. Wirginis will be replaced by linebackers Chase Pine and Elias Reynolds, players who were among the top players in their respective states (Virginia and New York) in 2015.
Narduzzi brought them to Pitt. Now, it’s time to reap the benefits.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.