November 06, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) Notre Dame insists it wasn't surprised when the initial College Football Playoff rankings put the one-loss Fighting Irish fifth above five unbeaten power five teams and on the cusp of the coveted top four.

The Irish believe they're worthy of consideration. They also know getting caught up in the hype about who's in and who's out with a month to go in the regular season isn't a great idea, particularly when Pittsburgh looms on the schedule. The Panthers took Notre Dame to three overtimes in 2012, nearly ruining the Irish's shot at the BCS title game. Pitt finished off the upset in 2013, pulling away for a 28-21 win.

If the Panthers (6-2) can do it again on Saturday, Notre Dame (7-1) won't have to worry about getting into the national semifinals because the opportunity will be gone.

''You really have to focus on the task at hand,'' running back C.J. Prosise said. ''Pitt's never an easy challenge. We don't ever just blow out Pitt.''

Nine of the last 10 meetings between the two schools have been decided by eight points or less, a trend that figures to continue considering the way the Panthers are going about their business under first-year coach Pat Narduzzi. The average margin in Pitt's last six games is 4.5 points. The Panthers are just fine playing in tight situations thanks to a fearless confidence instilled by Narduzzi, who wants his defense to blitz frequently and his offense to hog the ball. If that means going for it on fourth down, so be it.

''I think it's fun, how aggressive he is,'' linebacker Mike Caprara said. ''It feels like we have every chance to grab momentum, to get things going.''

Maybe, but Pitt's early mojo came to a halt in a 26-19 loss to North Carolina last week. The Tar Heels blew past the Panthers with their speed, and Notre Dame might have one of the most explosive offenses outside of the defense-optional Big 12 thanks to quarterback DeShone Kizer and wide receiver Will Fuller, who hauled in the game-winning touchdown last week against Temple.

The victory capped off a rugged October in which the Irish faced three unbeaten teams and USC. While the Irish haven't been dominant, they also understand it doesn't matter.

''November is for contenders,'' defensive lineman Sheldon Day said. ''We definitely want to be a contender. We have to make sure we win out.''

Some things to look for as the Irish try to stay in the increasingly jumbled playoff mix while Pitt tries to give Narduzzi his first signature win.

RED ZONE ISSUES: Notre Dame already has 10 touchdowns of 50 or more yards this season, as many as the 1988 team that won the national title. The big plays have overshadowed a troubling inability to make small ones. The Irish are 99th in the country in red zone scoring percentage and have found the end zone just 19 times in 33 trips inside the opponents' 20. Kizer placed most of the blame on his shoulders.

''To be able to fully go through a progression to a fourth, fifth read to try to get the ball out of my hands is something I need to work on,'' Kizer said.

UNDER WRAPS: Pitt star wide receiver Tyler Boyd's 63 receptions are easily tops in the ACC. Yet the junior is averaging just 9.2 yards per catch, well below his career average of 14.9 entering the season. Boyd is facing constant double teams, forcing him to run routes underneath hoping he can turn a short pass into a long gain. It hasn't happened yet, though he remains undaunted.

''The more and more I get frustrated in myself, the more and more energy I feel like I lose,'' Boyd said. ''I don't want to beat myself up because guys are doubling me.''

BOOM OR BUST: Notre Dame's offense has taken some of the heat off a defense that is still sorting itself out. The Irish are 23rd in first downs allowed but 46th in yards given up, proof that the chances they take are also leading to surrendering more splash plays than they'd like. Finding a balance is key.

''We always want to be disruptive,'' linebacker Joe Schmidt said. ''We want sacks. We want tackles for loss. We want negative plays for the offense. We want turnovers.''

NEW TUNE: Caprara's uncle Joe played for Notre Dame in the 1950s. Still, he's kind of over the hype that comes when you play the Irish.

''Having the high reputation, I give them credit,'' he said. ''That's really something that's unique. Being an opponent, it just gets old. I want to get out there and just silence everything.''

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AP Sports Writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Indiana, contributed to this report.

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AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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