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Notre Dame 15 … at Pitt 12
Posted Sep 24, 2011

Week 4 CFN Fearless Prediction & Game Story - Notre Dame at Pitt

2011 Predictions & Game Story 

Week 4 - Notre Dame at Pitt

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Sept. 24 Notre Dame 15 … Pitt 12
CFN Analysis: In many ways, Notre Dame needed a game like this just as much as it needed a blowout win over Michigan State. The offense didn’t work, Tommy Rees was awful for about 45 minutes, and Michael Floyd was kept under wraps catching just four passes, but there wasn’t any panic as Rees came through with a gut-check drive when he had to. The defense continues to be terrific, keeping Pitt’s Ray Graham to just 89 yards while not allowing too many big plays through the air. The mistakes are still a problem with eight penalties and two picks, while the defense didn’t come up with any takeaways. The only way the Irish lose to Purdue is by screwing up, and after four games, there’s no sign of the mistakes stopping.

Pitt played its heart out over the last two weeks and didn’t have a win to show for it. The collapse against Iowa last week was bad, but not being able to hold up after playing so well defensively will really hurt. Pitt outplayed the Irish in several ways with Tino Sunseri sharp and the defense stuffing the Notre Dame passing game for three quarters. Allowing the 79-yard Jonas Gray touchdown run hurt, but that was about it for giving up big plays. The team is playing well enough to be 4-0, but all of a sudden the game against South Florida next week is for more than just getting off to a good start in the Big East. 2-3, no matter how it happens, won’t look good.

(AP) PITTSBURGH -- Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees shrugged off a miserable first three quarters to hit tight end Tyler Eifert for a 6-yard touchdown with less than 7 minutes to go and lift the Fighting Irish to a 15-12 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Rees finished 24 of 41 for 216 yards, but was a perfect 8 for 8 on the game-winning drive as the Irish (2-2) won their second straight. Jonas Gray scored on a 79-yard touchdown run for Notre Dame, which overcame eight penalties and two costly turnovers.

It wasn't pretty. The Irish failed to muster any momentum for long stretches against the Panthers (2-2), but found enough to win their second straight following an 0-2 start.

Tino Sunseri threw for 165 yards and a score for Pitt (2-2), but was sacked twice on the Panthers' final drive to snuff out a late rally.

Pitt was looking to end an eventful week by giving coach Todd Graham his first signature win with the program and prove it wasn't distracted by the school's announcement that it's bolting the Big East for the ACC in three years.

Instead, the Panthers ended up letting a second-half lead slip away for the second week in a row. Last weekend a 21-point advantage at Iowa turned into a 31-27 loss.

This time the collapse wasn't as dramatic, but just as painful.

The Panthers spent 45 minutes pushing the Irish around, shutting down Rees and keeping wide receiver Michael Floyd in check.

Yet when Notre Dame needed it, Rees found a way by consistently looking to Eifert.

The junior caught four passes on the game-deciding drive, including an 18-yard gain that gave Notre Dame a first down at the Pitt 9. He landed hard on the play but brushed off the trainers and immediately caught a 3-yard pass and followed it up by hauling in a laser from Rees, who split a pair of Pitt defenders and found Eifert just past the goal line.

Pitt drove to Notre Dame 40 before going backward.

Aaron Lynch sacked Rees on first down and Prince Shembo racked up Notre Dame's fifth and final sack on third down, setting the Panthers up with a fourth-and-26.

No chance.

Sunseri's pass to Mike Shanahan was incomplete and Rees came on to lead the Irish to one more first down and run out the clock.

Ray Graham ran for 82 yards and added 43 yards receiving for Pitt, but the Panthers could do little else. Sunseri, who has struggled getting the ball downfield, didn't complete a pass longer than 18 yards.

Rees wasn't much better against the nation's 119th-ranked pass defense. Pitt sacked him twice and gave him little time to throw.

Floyd caught three passes on Notre Dame's first drive but managed just one the rest of the way. Eifert stepped in to finish with a career-high eight grabs for 75 yards.

Cierre Wood ran 23 times for 96 yards for Notre Dame but it was Gray who provided the big play. The senior sprinted 79 yards down the sideline in the second quarter for his first career score, the school's longest rush since Terrance Howard darted 80 yards against West Virginia in 2000.

It looked for the game's first 50 minutes that it wouldn't be enough to prevent Todd Graham from getting his second big win over the Irish in the last year.

Graham coached Tulsa to a 28-27 win in South Bend in 2010, a victory that helped bring him to Pitt. He's spent the last nine months trying to makeover the program. He preaches constantly about the virtue of speed and likes to call his style of play "high-octane football," but the Panthers used a decidedly low-grade approach to take the lead.

Pitt went backward on its first possession of the second half, punting after a sack and a false start. The Irish, however, roughed punter Matt Yoklic and the Panthers took advantage with a grinding 19-play drive that ended more than 8 minutes later with Sunseri finding tight end Hubie Graham for a 3-yard touchdown to put Pitt up 12-7.

For a while, it looked like it would be enough thanks to a Pitt defense that made life uncomfortable for Rees.

The sophomore, who took the starting job away from senior Dayne Crist three weeks ago, has teased the Irish much of the year, switching between flashes of brilliance and youthful mistakes.

The miscues were there once again. Rees fumbled in the second quarter to set up a Pitt field goal and threw an interception at Pitt's goal line to end another threat.

No matter. He stayed patient and eventually picked apart the Panthers in the end.

Notre Dame (1-2) at Pittsburgh (2-1) Sept. 24, 12:00, ABC

Here’s The Deal … In a rivalry that’s heated up in recent years, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh meet on Saturday with starkly different mindsets. The Irish got off the mat to defeat ranked Michigan State, 31-13, the first step to getting beyond painful losses to South Florida and Michigan to begin the season. Can head coach Brian Kelly’s team parlay that victory into a mini-run? If it can, the schedule is conducive to an extended winning streak that will put a very different outlook on the 2011 season.
The Panthers are coming off one of their most emotional weekends in recent memory. On the same day it was learned the program was exiting the Big East for the ACC, it blew a 17-point lead at Iowa just as Todd Graham was on the verge of his first big victory as the head coach. It was an epic collapse that, along with everything else that’s swirling around the Steel City, is going to force the staff to keep the players focused on the task at hand this weekend.

Why Notre Dame Might Win: The Irish are finding ways to get it done on both sides of the ball. The offense is balanced, getting steady play from QB Tommy Rees and the running tandem of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. Pitt’s biggest concern, though, will be containing Notre Dame’s receivers. Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones, in particular, will revel at the opportunity to match skills with a Panthers secondary that ranks 119th nationally in pass defense. The Irish might want to turn loose some of its top defenders, like LB Manti Te’o, CB Robert Blanton and DE Kapron Lewis-Moore on a suspect Pitt O-line that’s been absolutely whipped by lesser competition in September.

Why Pittsburgh Might Win: As long as Notre Dame continues to treat the ball like a grenade, no game is safe. The Irish are last in the country in turnover margin, and have already coughed the ball up 13 times. The Irish don’t want to give more opportunities to Panthers RB Ray Graham, who leads the Big East in rushing and has already scored six touchdowns. Wood and Gray will realize that running lanes close quickly when facing the Pitt front seven. The unit is very tough and physical at the point of attack, serving up a steady diet of linemen Chas Alecxih, Brandon Lindsey and Myles Caragein. The balance that ND covets will be a little harder to achieve this weekend.

What To Watch Out For: When Notre Dame had a quarterback controversy in the opener, Kelly settled on Rees, who has played relatively well. Graham, on the other hand, is still waiting to get comfortable with his hurler, Dave Wannstedt recruit Tino Sunseri. Over the last two games, the junior has thrown four interceptions and just a pair of touchdowns, raising concerns about his ability to adequately manage the offense. With the Irish in town, the scrutiny is certainly not going to fade. If he can’t get the ball off a little quicker, while making better decisions, the calls for one of his backups will only grow louder.

What Will Happen: Although Pitt came very close to a pivotal win in Iowa City, the program is struggling. The offense, specifically the line, lacks consistency, and the defense needs to find a way to better defend the pass. Notre Dame will come into town and exploit the Panthers’ weaknesses, crafting a gameplan to isolate the linebackers in coverage, and perforate Sunseri’s blockers. With a bit of momentum, the Irish will reach .500 in a clear sign that this season is gradually beginning to turn around.

CFN Prediction: Notre Dame 31 … Pittsburgh 17
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