SOUTH BEND – Before the game, I wrote that Pittsburgh would try to shorten the game and control the ball with its rushing offense. If Notre Dame could stop the run by stacking tacklers near the line of scrimmage, I figured the Irish could foil that strategy and force Pittsburgh to throw, an area where it struggles.
Indeed, the Panthers have gone with that ball-control game plan and Notre Dame has put plenty of defenders in the box on most plays. Despite that, however, Pittsburgh has been able to run the ball effectively, especially in the first quarter, when the Panthers embarked on a drive that took close to 10 minutes and traveled 88 yards for a touchdown. 11 of the 17 plays on that drive were runs.
Notre Dame has a couple of run stuffs and has largely held top back Qadree Ollison in check, but the Irish have struggled often to get a push up front and Darrin Hall has a couple of big runs. In addition, the Panthers have been able to stay ahead of the sticks for the most part and have avoided third-and-long plays, which allowed them to extend that first drive. They've struggled running the ball up the middle, where Jerry Tillery stops everything in his path, but outside rushes and tosses have been more effective. The Irish did a better job of stopping the run after that first drive, but Pitt doesn't need many of those long drives to put an upset in play.
When Notre Dame has had the ball, Pitt has been aggressive with its pressure and has forced Ian Book to think quickly. That hasn't always gone well for the Irish: Book took a sack for a 16-yard loss and threw a bad interception on a broken play, killing Notre Dame's first two drives. After that first sack, Book seemed to lose confidence in the pocket and got "happy feet", scrambling far too early out of clean pockets and not keeping his eyes downfield. So far at least, this is a different player than the one that led the Irish offense with confidence the last three weeks.
Another issue for the Notre Dame offense is the relative lack of a rushing attack. After two straight huge games Dexter Williams has gained all of one yard, on a total of four carries. Tony Jones Jr. has a had a couple of tough runs, but other than that the Irish have gotten nothing from their running backs. Book is partially struggling to find open receivers because Notre Dame doesn't have a credible rushing threat.
The Irish defense had three straight three-and-outs to end the half, so it's only a one-point deficit. If Notre Dame can start moving the ball, it could take the lead early. The Irish have been a second-half team recently and halftime adjustments will once again be pivotal this week.