With six games down and six to play, fifth-rated Notre Dame’s football game Saturday against Pittsburgh (3-3) officially marks the start of the second half of that venture.
Yet, in another way, it ends the first half.
Notre Dame has a week off from classes for fall break all of next week and the Irish have an open date on Oct. 20. That means the Irish players will actually have a few days off later next week before they begin their final five-game slate.
The challenge the rest of the way is that the remainder of the schedule is back-loaded with games away from South Bend. After this home contest against Pittsburgh on Saturday, Notre Dame’s lone remaining home date is Nov. 10 versus Florida State.
Meanwhile here’s what to consider in advance of the Irish-Panther matchup:
- The Panthers have been a thorn in the side of the Irish. Don’t forget that Pittsburgh defeated the Irish three times in a four-game span from 2004-09. Two of those were wild, high-scoring affairs and one (2008) went four overtimes before the Panthers prevailed 36-33 in South Bend. In fact, two of those three Pitt victories came at Notre Dame. Even though the teams no longer play regularly due to Notre Dame’s Atlantic Coast Conference scheduling agreement (the two teams next meet in 2020 in Pittsburgh and the Panthers don’t come to Notre Dame Stadium again until 2023), Pittsburgh has come to South Bend and won 10 times — and only USC and Michigan State (14 each) and Purdue (11) have done that on more occasions. The last four Panther losses to Notre Dame have come by an average of six points (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015). Even though the result has been vacated by the NCAA, Notre Dame’s 29-26 three-overtime home win over Pitt in 2012 (the last time the Panthers played in Notre Dame Stadium) marked the most dramatic Irish finish that year on its way to a 12-0 regular season.
- Keep an eye on these guys. Two Pittsburgh players are coming off ACC Player of the Week honors from the Panthers’ overtime win over Syracuse last weekend. Pitt senior running back Qadree Ollison rushed for a season-high 192 yards with a touchdown on 24 carries (8.0 avg.). He added two receptions for 15 yards for a total of 207 all-purpose yards. When Pitt fell into a 14-0 first-quarter hole, he ripped off a 69-yard touchdown run. Late in the fourth quarter when Pitt trailed 37-34, Ollison was the workhorse on the game-tying field-goal drive, grinding out 39 of the 48 yards covered. With 596 total rushing yards this season, Ollison ranks 18th nationally, while his average of 6.48 yards per carry ranks 22nd. He could become only the sixth player in Pitt history to achieve multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Junior free safety Damar Hamlin collected a career-high 14 tackles and played a critical role in helping to limit the Orange to 195 passing yards, its lowest output of the season. Hamlin is the Panthers’ second-leading tackler with 35 stops on the season.
- Point parade. Notre Dame has averaged 46.3 points over its last three victories — and if the Irish can put 38 or more points on the board against Pittsburgh they can do something no Irish team has done for a dozen years. Notre Dame currently has scored 38 or more points in three straight games — and the only other Brian Kelly team to do that was a year ago in 2017 (against Boston College, Michigan State and Miami-Ohio). The last time an Irish team scored at least 38 four weeks in a row came in 2006 (38 versus Navy, 45 against North Carolina, 39 against Air Force and 41 versus Army).
- The standards are rising. Notre Dame gained plenty of attention for its win at Virginia Tech last Saturday night, with Lane Stadium viewed as one of the more challenging road venues around. Yet Brian Kelly liked the fact his Irish were not particularly satisfied offensively, even in putting 45 points on the board. He appreciated the idea that quarterback Ian Book and his teammates felt they could have done better than the four-drive, second-period sequence in which the Irish were limited to 18 plays for 38 yards (Notre Dame punted twice, threw an interception and lost the ball on downs). That bodes well for the future. Book has throw the ball at a 70 percent clip in each of the last three games and yet he believes he should be better than that.
- The matchup to watch. Maybe the most intriguing confrontation Saturday will be Pitt’s running attack (39th nationally at 203.8 yards per game) versus the Irish rushing defense (40th at 127.8 per game). Three of the teams that rank among the top four running games on the 2018 Notre Dame slate of opponents remain for the Irish to play — Navy (2nd at 310.4), Syracuse (25th at 225.0) and Pittsburgh. On the other end of the spectrum — and somewhat surprising giving the history of these programs—the current NCAA team rushing numbers list 2018 Irish foes Florida State (92.8 yards per game), Stanford (85.7) and Northwestern (77.4) 125th, 126th and 127th in the country. To exhibit how Irish foes are flinging the football in 2018, Notre Dame already has defeated the four current highest-rated teams on its 2018 slate in passing efficiency (Michigan, Virginia Tech, Stanford and Vanderbilt). In terms of raw passing yards, the Irish in 2018 play six teams currently rated in the top 50 nationally — Northwestern (21st at 293.8 per game), Virginia Tech, Ball State, Stanford, USC (49th at 252.0) and Florida State (50th at 251.2).
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series