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Notre Dame Football

Scouting Report | Pitt

October 21, 2020
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There were a few media members on the Pitt bandwagon heading into the season. With an elite defense and a veteran quarterback, things were set up well for this to be the year when Pat Narduzzi finally won more than 8 games in a season.

Six games in and that is already off the table.

After a 3-0 start, the Panthers have dropped three straight and are looking at a losing record if they fall to Notre Dame this weekend. The record is a bit misleading given that two of the losses were by a combined two points. The third loss might have looked different if their starting quarterback was available.

But like Bill Parcells would say, you are what your record says you are. They are a 3-3 football team with a strong defense and not nearly good enough offense.

Pitt is ranked 38th in SP+ and Pitt is an 11 point underdog at home against the Irish.

Injuries and Opt Outs

There are two big ones, but they have a lot of injuries.

The first is defensive tackle Jalen Twyman opting out before the season. Their defensive line is great and he would have made them even better. He had double digit tackles for loss last season.

The second is an injury to starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. An ankle injury kept him out of the Miami game. He may be back this week, but if he is back, will he be as mobile as he typically is? One of his greatest strengths is his ability to scramble and make plays with his legs.

Starting cornerback Damarri Mathis is out for the season with an injury he suffered in the summer.

Linebacker Cam Bright has missed some time, but returned last week against Miami. He is expected to be 100% this week against Notre Dame.

Defensive end Nate Temple, a rotation player, is out for the season. Defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado is a good pass rusher. He’s missed several games and it’s unknown when he’ll return to the lineup. Defensive tackle Keyshon Camp has missed a couple of games, but he may be available to play this week. He’s struggled to stay healthy, but was in line to be a starter last season.

They are very thin at the tight end position with multiple players missing games. They’ve had close to 20 guys miss time with injuries this season, which is a contributing factor to them losing three in a row.

Offense

They are 90th in SP+ on offense, which is actually higher than where they were predicted to be before the season. And if Pickett isn’t available, they are worse than this ranking.

There is maybe one player on their offense who could start on Notre Dame’s offense. It will be surprising if they put up a lot of points without the help of turnovers.

Expected Strengths

The one reason they have been slightly better than many thought they would be has to do with the passing game. They have produced more big plays through the air than expected and are tied for fifth in the country in receptions of 20 yards or more.

True freshman Jordan Addison has already emerged as a star for them. He has double the amount of receptions of the second leading receiver and he’s coming off of his best game of the season (eight catches for 147 yards). Eight of his 13 receptions on 3rd down have gone for first downs. He’ll be a tough matchup in the slot.

Pitt has another slot receiver who has made big plays as well. Maryland transfer DJ Turner can get deep and the Irish need to be aware of both of them running slot fades when matched up one on one with safeties.

Pickett has improved and is taking more chances in the middle of the field. His yards per attempt have gone up by 1.1 and he’s really good at escaping the rush. He’s not an elite quarterback, but he can hurt Notre Dame as a dual-threat.

Potential Weaknesses

Their running game has been atrocious. That might not be strong enough to describe how bad it’s been. They are averaging 2.65 yards per carry against ACC opponents and less than 100 yards per game. Their starting running back is under 3.0 yards per carry so it’s not just lost yardage on sacks holding them back.

The offensive line is bad. Even their best player, center Jimmy Morrissey, has struggled. In a conference with a lot of below average offensive lines, they are right near the bottom. They are 65th out of 74 teams in Stuff Rate (runs that go for zero yards or less).

They aren’t good in protection either. Pickett helps them out with his movement so the sack numbers are misleading. Him and backup Joey Yellen have been pressured on 31.4% of drop backs.

This team struggles to convert on 3rd down. They are 61st in that statistic and with so many long yardage situations, Pickett and Yellen have both had a tough time. When you can’t run the football at all, it makes it almost impossible to be successful on offense.

They are third in total red zone attempts, but score touchdowns less than 60% of the time.

Yellen really struggled against the blitz versus Miami. Pickett has been better this season when teams rush three or four and play zone, but in the past he has settled for check downs in those situations.

Scheme

Former UMASS coach Mark Whipple is the offensive coordinator and he’s really good at designing combinations in the passing game. That’s been his specialty for many years while coaching in college and the NFL. He’s very good at scheming guys open and frequently installs new plays each week for the opponent that they might not have seen.

They will go uptempo and try to catch teams off guard and it helped them create some big plays against NC State. They are 11th in the country in plays per game run on offense. Notre Dame has to be prepared for everything.

With the injuries at tight end, they run a lot of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end).

This would be classified as more of a pro-style offense because it’s multiple. With the running game as it is, they are a pass-heavy team who throws the ball 53.94% of the time (12th).

Key Players

QB Kenny Pickett - He’s their second leading rusher on the team even with lost yardage for sacks. 

QB Joey Yellen - He threw the ball 47 times last week against Miami. Nine of those throws were deep passes. He’s not a runner and will look to move to pass rather than run.

WR Jordan Addison - He’s their go-to guy and will be used in the running game as well.

RB Vincent Davis - A back who deserves a much better line. He can break tackles and make people miss, but has to do it far too often.

Key Matchup for Notre Dame

Addison versus Shaun Crawford -

I often write that Notre Dame fans should not take Clark Lea for granted and the same goes for Crawford as well. He has another difficult player he will be up against with Addison, but I suspect that Lea will provide him with plenty of help on 3rd downs.

Defense

It’s weird to say this defense has underachieved because they have been very good, but Pitt is 17th in SP+ on defense. This feels like it’s closer to a top-10 group to me and they are currently fourth in yards per play given up (4.25).

They have lost some key pieces with injuries during games and have had breakdowns that have allowed teams to score. But when you look at the talent on the field, there are a lot of these guys who are going to be playing on Sundays.

Expected Strengths

The run defense has been awesome. It’s by far the best Notre Dame will have seen this season. They are giving up only 2.05 YPC against ACC opponents. No one has been able to run on them.

They are really good at all three levels stopping the run and have only given up three runs of 20 yards or longer in six games. They are consistently putting teams in long yardage situations and are third in the country in Stuff Rate.

The defensive line is...really, really good. Even without Twyman, they are great across the board. Rashad Weaver has been the best defensive end I have seen in the ACC this season. Patrick Jones II a great pass rusher. They are formidable.

Pitt leads the country in sacks and tackles for loss. They are third in sack rate. The Havoc Rate is a ridiculous 25.8%.

That Havoc comes from all three levels. They are strong at linebacker and the safeties are very good. Paris Ford is one of the best in the country.

The red zone defense is elite (fifth). The third down defense hasn’t been as good in the last two weeks, but they are still very good. There aren’t many holes to pick at with this defense.

Potential Weaknesses

The one glaring weakness for Pitt has been big plays in the passing game. They’ve given up 21 passing plays of 20 yards or more. They’ve given up nine passes of 30 yards or more. Those are both near the bottom in the nation.

A lot of that is the scheme on defense. They dare teams to beat them over the top and teams have at a decent rate. The corners are good even without Mathis, but they can only hold up so many times a game. But they’ve also had some breakdowns where they have blown assignments, which is surprising for a veteran group.

NC State and Miami beat them a couple of times with blown assignments.

Scheme

There hasn’t been a lot that has changed with Narduzzi since his Michigan State days.

They have tweaked some things, but they still play quite a bit of quarters coverage and rely on the corners to play one on one a lot. The safeties are activated in the run game and play downhill. The linebackers attack with blitzes on early downs, with some cross dog, and are engaged pass rushers.

Teams have to take shots on the outside when they get them against Pitt. They need to attack the middle of the field off of play-action against them. They have to take advantage of the aggression from the linebackers with leaking backs out of the backfield, like Miami did. They have to throw screens to slow them down.

I would expect more RPOs from Notre Dame in this game than we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Key Players

DE Patrick Jones II - Leads the nation in sacks and when he wins, he finishes. A very good speed to power rusher.

DE Rashad Weaver - A complete end that wins equally against the pass and the run. He has looked unblockable at times.

S Paris Ford - Not many holes in his game. Great ball skills (three interceptions) and a strong tackler.

LB SirVocea Dennis - Having a breakout season. Tied for the team lead in tackles and has 6.5 TFLs.

DT Calijah Kancey - A very disruptive player inside against the run and the pass.

Key Matchup for Notre Dame

Pitt’s defensive line versus Notre Dame’s offensive line -

Why pick an individual matchup when there are great matchups across the board? This should be a heck of a battle, though, I am particularly interested in watching Liam Eichenberg go up against Weaver.

Special Teams

They are 11th in SP+ on special teams. Punter Kirk Christodoulo is averaging over 45 yards per punt and kicker Alex Kessman has a big leg (made a 58-yarder). He has been inconsistent from 40+ yards, though. He’s 5 of 9 from that distance.

Narduzzi is always looking for opportunities to call a fake in the kicking game so Notre Dame has to be on high alert at all times.

 
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