Irish hit the road for first time in 2020 to visit reeling Panthers
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will hit the road for the first time this season when they head to Heinz Field to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers. Pittsburgh returns home after two straight losses on the road, which have set the Panthers' record back to an even 3-3 (2-3 in ACC) after three straight wins to open the 2020 season.
Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) finished its stretch of four consecutive home games with a too-close-for-comfort 12-7 win against Louisville on Saturday. The Irish took a 6-0 lead into the half on a pair of field goals by Jonathan Doerer, but the Cardinals found the end zone in their opening drive after halftime. The Irish responded with their only touchdown of the game just four minutes later and hung on through a scoreless fourth quarter to secure the win.
Of Pittsburgh's three losses, two have been by a single point (one in overtime), though the Panthers fell 31-19 last week at Miami. The Hurricanes opened with the game's first two touchdowns and held the Panthers to just one touchdown and four field goals, which wasn't enough to keep up with Miami's offense.
In a series that began more than 100 years ago — with the first game ending in a 0-0 tie in 1911! — Notre Dame leads 48-21-1. The Fighting Irish and Panthers have seen quite a bit of each other in recent years, with Pittsburgh winning three of four meetings between 2004 and 2009 and Notre Dame winning five of the next six, up to and including a 19-14 home win in 2018 as part of the Irish's undefeated regular season and inaugural College Football Playoff appearance.
Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -10.5
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Quarterback Ian Book threw for just 106 yards against Louisville — his lowest passing total since last October's loss at Michigan — adding 47 yards and the team’s only touchdown on the ground. While he was sacked four times, he did complete his third straight game — and seventh in his last eight — without throwing an interception.
After rushing for 185 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Florida State, running back Kyren Williams posted his third 100-yard game of 2020 with 127 yards against Louisville. He was highlighted earlier this week when he was tabbed the ACC's Rookie of the Week, his second weekly honor from the conference. He now ranks second in the ACC and sixth in FBS in rushing yards per game (121.5), as well as third (ACC) and eighth (FBS) in all-purpose yards (151.2). Wide receiver Ben Skowronek led the Irish receiving corps with two catches for 28 yards, with Avery Davis and Chris Tyree also tallying two receptions apiece as part of a group of eight different pass catchers on the other end of Book’s 11 completions.
Despite the Panthers' 3-3 record, Pittsburgh has had one of the top defenses in the nation thus far. Randy Bates' unit leads the ACC in sacks (4.83 per game) and tackles for a loss (11.2 per game), ranking second and third, respectively, nationally in those categories. Defensive end Patrick Jones II stands atop the conference — and 11th in FBS — with seven sacks in 2020, including three against Boston College two weeks ago. The Panthers also are tied with Syracuse for the ACC lead with eight interceptions this season after collecting a pair against Miami last week.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
Quarterback Joey Yellen started against Miami in place of Kenny Pickett, who missed the game due to a left ankle injury. It's not yet clear if Pickett will be healthy enough to play on Saturday against Notre Dame, but head coach Pat Narduzzi has expressed confidence in the redshirt freshman's ability to lead the offense once again. Against the Hurricanes, Yellen completed 22 of his 46 passes for 277 yards and the Panthers' only touchdown while staying turnover-free.
The Panthers will need all they can get out of whoever ends up starting at quarterback because their run game has been very quiet in 2020. Pitt enters with the eighth-lowest rushing average in FBS at just 107 yards per game, a mark that wasn't helped by the 22 yards the team finished with against Miami. If Pickett remains out and Yellen starts again, it will be interesting to see if he spreads the ball around as much as he did against Miami. Yellen found nine different receivers for his 23 completions last week, with Jordan Addison catching eight passes for 147 yards to lead the way.
Notre Dame enters this weekend ranked atop the ACC and fourth nationally in scoring defense at 11.5 points per game. The Irish also rank 11th in FBS in both rushing (193.3 ypg) and total (300.8 ypg) defense. Notre Dame failed to pick up a sack against Louisville but still managed eight tackles for a loss, including a pair by linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who ranks 20th overall with 1.5 TFLs per game.
Saturday's matchup will pit strength against strength, as Notre Dame's offense has gotten into a nice rhythm — despite a step back against Louisville — but hasn't yet seen a defense as strong and opportunistic as Pittsburgh's. The difference might be the Irish's ability to limit the Panthers when they have the ball, as Notre Dame's veteran group will pose issues for whoever starts at quarterback for the Panthers on Saturday.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Pittsburgh 20
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.