Notre Dame-Pittsburgh Preview
(AP) - Notre Dame is at the same place it was a year ago: 7-1 and ranked No. 8 with its only loss coming in the closing seconds to an undefeated team.
Last year's team was hobbled by injuries and lost its final four regular-season games. The Fighting Irish, who already have overcome a series of injuries this year, are hoping for a drastically different finish.
That quest begins Saturday when they visit Pittsburgh.
"This team is a different group, different personalities, a little bit different offensively in terms of what we're doing, as well," coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday, hours before his team was fifth in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
Kelly, who is fond of saying "October is for pretenders and November is for contenders," is 13-7 in November at Notre Dame - his worst monthly record. That's mainly because the Irish were 1-4 last year after going 2-2 the season before. His record was 10-1 in November through his first three seasons in South Bend.
The Irish have a favorable schedule after Pittsburgh (6-2), finishing with games against Wake Forest (3-6), Boston College (3-6) and No. 9 Stanford (7-1).
Kelly believes this year's team already has shown in the past four games that it has what it takes to be contenders. Notre Dame lost 24-22 to No. 3 Clemson, which leads the CFP rankings, beat rival USC and handed Navy and No. 23 Temple their only losses.
"Their mettle has been tested over the last four weeks," Kelly said. "Let's use that to our advantage in the way we play."
While the Irish have played solidly overall, there are concerns. Notre Dame ranks 98th in red-zone offense - worst among Top 25 teams - scoring on only 78.8 percent of its chances and getting touchdowns on only 58 percent of their red-zone possessions.
DeShone Kizer threw two picks inside Temple's 10-yard line last week and Torii Hunter Jr. fumbled at the 3-yard line against USC in the previous game. The Irish have just two TDs on five red-zone chances in each of their last two games as a result.
"It's certainly a number that we're aware of, that we have to really clean up the turnovers and converting field goals into touchdowns," Kelly said.
Kelly said his staff will take some extra time this week to review its play-calling to see if they can put players in better position to score. He also said the coaches have discussed bringing in a more physical running back than C.J. Prosise or using the tight ends more, among other changes.
After falling out of first place in the ACC Coastal Division and the national rankings with a 26-19 loss to North Carolina on Oct. 29, coach Pat Narduzzi gave the Panthers extra time to recover and prepare - but the time for rest is over.
"They bring in a great football team," Narduzzi said of the Irish. "Obviously very well-coached, a top 10 football team that's probably one of the most talented teams that will walk into Heinz Field this year."
The last four meetings have been decided by an average of 4.5 points. Notre Dame last visited Pittsburgh in 2013, when the Panthers beat the No. 23 Irish 28-21.
A year earlier, an unranked Pitt team took No. 2 Notre Dame to the wire in South Bend before losing in triple overtime.
"We've got to focus on us," Narduzzi said. "It's not about what North Carolina did Thursday, it's about what we didn't do."
One thing Pitt didn't do was wrap up dynamic Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams, who threw for two touchdowns and evaded four or five sacks in Narduzzi's estimation. The Panthers led the ACC in sacks after five weeks but have only one in their last three games while facing mobile quarterbacks.
Defensive lineman Darryl Render noted the need for Pitt's defense to focus back in on the little things as it prepares this week. Kizer is next in line and Narduzzi hopes his team learned its lesson from the previous three weeks.
"You're going to have to put your chest on him," Narduzzi said, "not just your hands. When you have an opportunity, you've got to take advantage of it."