Notre Dame did not play to its potential against Louisville last week. The No. 3 team in the country, a program with College Football Playoff aspirations that is just two weeks away from welcoming a juggernaut Clemson team to South Bend, needs a better performance than a 12-7 victory over a 1-4 opponent.
The Irish are well aware of how lackluster their win over the Cardinals was. Although coach Brian Kelly has praised his team's ability to focus in practice this season, he said there has been an emphasis on having a little more fire as Notre Dame gets set to play Pittsburgh on Saturday in its first road game this season.
“They're extremely confident in their ability,” Kelly said. “The preparation is outstanding. I mean, it's really good. They understand our process. They have to play with a bit more sense of urgency.
“We probably lacked a little bit of the intensity necessary last week, and that has been the focus this week in practice,” Kelly added. “It's been clicking up the intensity level in everything that we do, and that attention to detail. We didn't have the attention to detail ... and the intensity necessary to put our opponent away.”
Notre Dame shouldn't need much extra motivation to get prepared for the Panthers – the fact that seven of the last eight meetings between these teams have been decided by seven points or less should be fuel enough. That's not to mention that Pitt has already toppled two top-5 opponents during coach Pat Narduzzi's six-year tenure.
“I wish I could tell you I had my magic wand underneath here,” Narduzzi said of upsetting highly ranked opponents. “It's not here today. I mean, there's no magic to it. It's getting your guys prepared mentally, physically. That's my job every week. ... We face a great Notre Dame team, No. 3 in the country, coming into our house, coming to Pittsburgh. We know it's always been a good game, a game our kids will look forward to.”
The Panthers will try to snap a three-game losing streak that followed a 3-0 start. Their most recent defeat was a 31-19 loss to No. 13 Miami last week in which they surrendered four touchdown passes to Hurricanes quarterback D'Eriq King. The two previous losses – to Boston College and North Carolina State – were by a single point each.
Pittsburgh's strength is in stopping the run. The Panthers are No. 1 in the country in rush defense, surrendering only 61.5 yards per game and just 1.9 yards per carry. The Hurricanes came into their matchup against Pitt averaging more than 5 yards per rush, and the Panthers held them to 109 yards on 42 attempts (2.6 per carry).
Defensive ends Patrick Jones II and Calijah Kancey, who have already combined for 14 tackles for loss, lead a defensive front that will be the toughest test yet for an Irish offensive line that is ranked No. 1 in the country by Pro Football Focus and a ground attack that is No. 6 nationally in yards per rush at 5.8.
“They're a pretty faced up defense, gritty guys,” left guard Aaron Banks said of Pittsburgh. “They're kind of similar to our defense in the fact that they just play really hard. I think it'll be a good test for us to come out and play very physical. It's going to be a hard game. Going to be a fist fight.”
The Panthers' offense has not been nearly as formidable as its defense this season and will probably be without starting quarterback Kenny Pickett, who missed the Miami game with an ankle injury.
In his place will be redshirt freshman Joey Yellen, an Arizona State transfer. Yellen completed just 47% of his passes against the Hurricanes for 6 yards per attempt. Narduzzi has expressed confidence in him, but Davis Beville, another redshirt freshman, has also taken snaps this season.
“I was very impressed with the way he played as a young player going in there,” Kelly said of Yellen. “The moment didn't look too big for him. He pushed the ball down the field and had escapability.”
The Pittsburgh quarterback, whomever it ends up being, will have the luxury of throwing to freshman Jordan Addison, who has hauled in 38 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns.
Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
Records: No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC), Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3)
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM
Hometown heroes: Notre Dame has a sizable contingent of players who will be making a trip home this weekend. Five players on the Irish roster are from the Pittsburgh area, and all five of them work in the trenches: offensive linemen Robert Hainsey, Andrew Kristofic, Josh Lugg and Michael Carmoday and nose tackle Kurt Hinish. Hainsey, an Irish captain, will be facing off against three of his high school teammates when Notre Dame takes on the Panthers.
Red zone offense: Notre Dame and Pittsburgh have both struggled to finish drives when they get close to the goal line. The Irish had just one touchdown in five possessions inside the Louisville 20 last week and improving in that area has been a focus of practice in the lead-up to facing Pitt. The Panthers, meanwhile, kicked four field goals in five trips inside the red zone against Miami last week, letting a chance for an upset of the high-flying Hurricanes slip away.
Familiar stakes: Notre Dame is undefeated and ranked in the top 5, looking to keep a drive to the College Football Playoff alive against an unranked Panthers team bent on spoiling the Irish's national title hopes. Does that sound familiar? It probably does to the Irish, who faced a similar situation in 2018. No. 5 Notre Dame came into the matchup against Pittsburgh that season 6-0. Pitt led 14-6 after returning the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown and only a highlight-reel 35-yard touchdown catch from Miles Boykin late in the fourth quarter saved the Irish from a disappointing loss. Notre Dame won 19-14 and completed an undefeated regular season six weeks later.
Prediction: No. 3 Notre Dame 17, Pittsburgh 9