Pittsburgh, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Back in the Top-25 thanks to a four-game win streak, the 24th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish head to the Steel City for a game against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday night.
Notre Dame, a team that ran the table during the 2012 regular season before being pummeled by Alabama (42-14) in the BCS National Championship Game, has had some close calls this year, in addition to setbacks against Michigan and Oklahoma. Last weekend, the squad hosted Navy and was nearly upset by the Midshipmen before pulling out a 38-34 victory.
The win was the 10th straight decided by a touchdown or less for Notre Dame.
"USC/Notre Dame was a defensive effort that certainly we could talk about all year in terms of the way our defense played, and then today we had to be flawless in the second half offensively," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said after the win against Navy. "That's the way you win football games, as a team. You don't win them on one side of the ball or the other."
As for the Panthers, they again struggled on offense last Saturday as they suffered a 21-10 loss to Georgia Tech on the road in ACC play. The defeat was the second in a row and the third in the last four outings for a program that is just 1-3 away from home this season.
In a series that dates back more than a century, Notre Dame owns a 47-20-1 advantage over the Panthers, thanks in part to a three-game win streak that continued last season with a 29-26 triple-overtime triumph.
The Fighting Irish ran a mere 56 plays against the Naval Academy and still produced an impressive 506 yards, marking the first time in more than a decade that the program has averaged at least nine yards per snap. A big reason for that was quarterback Tommy Rees who turned his 12 completed passes into 242 yards and two touchdowns, although he was also picked off twice.
TJ Jones caught four of those passes from Rees and turned them into 111 yards and a score, while Tarean Folston ran the ball 18 times and finished with 140 yards and a TD as well. Overall, the Irish produced 264 rushing yards and three TDs on 36 attempts.
In a back-and-forth game, Notre Dame had to make the most of almost every opportunity, especially since the Midshipmen were able to control the ball for close to 38 minutes, a fact not lost on Rees and the rest of the Irish offense.
"Yeah, it's a little frustrating. Like I said, they do a great job controlling the clock and limiting your touches offensively. That's how we knew they were going to play. When you don't take advantage of early opportunities, it's tough."
Through nine games, at least on the average, the Irish have had the ball less than the opposition, ranking 90th in the country in that department. While it is not a massive shift in possession, over the course of time it can add up for a team that continues to play close contests.
When UND does have the ball, Rees is the one who sets the offense in motion with his 242.9 ypg and 22 touchdowns, against eight interceptions. Jones, one of only four players to have double-digit catches, has a team-best 48 grabs for 742 yards and seven scores.
On the ground, George Atkinson (455 yards, three TDs) has been overtaken by Cam McDaniel (469 yards, three TDs), but neither is setting the world on fire right now.
The Pittsburgh offense was vastly out-played in the first half by Georgia Tech, as the unit failed to record a single first down in the opening period and produced a mere 55 yards through the first 30 minutes of action. Quarterback Tom Savage converted 25-of-37 passes for 233 yards and a score, but he was picked off once and sacked five times, bringing the squad's rushing production down to minus-five yards. The team finished with a mere 228 yards of total offense on 58 snaps
A semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, Aaron Donald posted a season-high 11 tackles versus the Yellow Jackets, with six coming behind the line of scrimmage. Donald was also credited with one sack and a pair of forced fumbles, but still the Panthers could not capitalize on his performance.
Over the course of eight games, Donald has been an absolute beast for Pitt, making 19.5 of his 36 overall tackles in the backfield, while accounting for a team-best nine sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Donald is also responsible for three forced fumbles, half of the unit's total.
Unfortunately, even with Donald spearheading the defensive attack, Pittsburgh has found wins hard to come by and that's because the offense has been rather ordinary. Specifically, the rushing attack which is putting up only 122.5 ypg and that has the group ranked 104th in the country. Savage is converting 60.7 percent of his passes for 14 TDs and just seven picks, but still the unit as a whole has holes.
"We're going to have to prepare ourselves for a kid that likes to throw the football and has some weapons." coach Kelly said of this matchup.