When talking about the 2020 Notre Dame football schedule the most recognizable games are matchups against Clemson, Wisconsin, USC and Stanford. The college football staff at CBS Sports has another game in mind when thinking about a possible loss for Notre Dame this season.
CBS Sports college football writer Chip Patterson has Notre Dame on upset alert when it travels to Pittsburgh on October 17.
“It's a game where survival will be the primary goal, but surviving isn't always when there's the risk of Pitt happening.
“Pitt happens. It just does. And no one should know this more than Notre Dame, who escaped with a 19-14 home win against the Panthers in 2018 en route to an undefeated regular season and College Football Playoff appearance. Of all the stops on the road to the playoff, that grinder was one of the toughest tests the Irish had to pass.”
Pittsburgh has given Notre Dame multiple scares in the last decade. Notre Dame is 5-1 against the Panthers since Brian Kelly arrived, but outside of the convincing 42-30 Fighting Irish victory in 2015, Notre Dame’s other four wins were by six points or less.
A case could be made that Pittsburgh had the best chance at ending Notre Dame’s undefeated season in both 2012 and 2018, but the Irish were able to escape. Both of those contests were at home, but this matchup will be played in Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh is coming off an 8-5 campaign, but the Panthers have been a dangerous team in recent seasons. Since head coach Pat Narduzzi took over prior to the 2014 season the Panthers have earned several impressive wins. Pittsburgh beat #5 Penn State (42-39) and #3 Clemson (43-42) in 2016, and it ended Miami’s undefeated season with a 24-14 victory on the final weekend of the 2017 regular season.
Reasons To Be Concerned
Pittsburgh has several ingredients working in its favor in 2020, especially when it comes to pulling off an upset.
1) Experience — The Panthers return nine starters on offense and eight more on defense. Those nine returning starters on offense will now be heading into year two of the Whipple system, which should result in a jump in production.
2) Strong Up Front — Pittsburgh returns four starters along the offensive line and added a graduate transfer to replace their departed right tackle. The Panthers also return three starters along the defensive line with at least 10.5 tackles for loss.
3) Sack Attack — Pittsburgh ranked second in the country in sacks, and being able to pressure the quarterback is a key ingredient to pulling off an upset. The trio of Jaylen Twyman, Patrick Jones II and Deslin Alexandre combined for 34.5 tackles for loss and 24.5 sacks, and they all return. In fact, the Panther defense returns 39 sacks from its 2019 defense.
Reasons To Be Optimistic
Despite the reasons to be concerned about the Panthers, which we addressed in a recent podcast, there are even more important reasons to feel confident about an Irish win.
1) Notre Dame Defense — Pittsburgh will be better on offense this season, of that I have no doubt, but the Irish defense should still be able to dominate the Panthers. Notre Dame should be able to do damage against the experienced Pittsburgh front, and I don’t see the kind of playmakers on offense a team needs to attack the Irish defense.
2) Notre Dame Can Neutralize Pitt’s Strengths — Pittsburgh is an aggressive defense that likes to play tight coverage and attack with its front seven. The combination of Notre Dame’s offensive line being highly effective in pass pro (and very talented), and the speed that Notre Dame has on offense, makes it very risky to run that kind of defense.
Notre Dame’s offense is built to attack a defense like Pittsburgh’s, as long as the game plan is sound and the quarterback makes good decision. Ian Book struggled against Pittsburgh in 2018, but when he finally settled in he picked the Panther defense apart.
3) More Talent — Pittsburgh has done a strong job recruiting and developing talent in recent seasons, but the talent gap between the two programs is still wide. Also, since 2017, Notre Dame has gone 31-0 against opponents that finished ranked lower than 20th in the final polls. Pitt would need quite the jump to get to that level.
My final analysis is that CBS Sports is right to point to this game as being a possible big upset, but I’m not at the point where I’m ready to put my name on it and say, “This is going to happen." There are still a lot of things working in Notre Dame’s favor, and this isn’t the kind of game that Notre Dame has been burned with in the last three seasons.
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