NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Just saying the words “Pittsburgh football” conjures up the images of a tough, physical and hard-hitting style of gridiron play. That physicality has been attributed more to the NFL’s Steelers over the years, while the Pitt Panthers have had an identity crisis from time to time over the years.
Recognizable names like Jackie Sherrill, Johnny Majors, Foge Fazio, and Dave Wannstedt have graced the Pitt sideline over the years. Dave Wannstedt tried to bring Steel City toughness back to the program, but had only moderate success in his six-year tenure. After a year under carpetbagger Todd Graham, Pitt is back to playing old school football under Paul Chryst as is prepares to play at Notre Dame this weekend.
“They’re gonna be physical with us running the ball,” Fighting Irish linebacker Carlo Calabrese said of the Panther offense. “That’s what we like. That’s what I like.”
“They’re a tough team. They have two great running backs (and) their quarterback is doing great this season. We’re focused on everything with their offense. Their receivers are good too. We’re just focusing on it all.”
The running backs Calabrese referred to are senior Ray Graham and freshman Rushel Shell. Graham leads Pitt with 622 yards and seven TDs rushing. He also has 22 receptions for 244 yards and two more scores through the air.
“He’s good,” Calabrese, a New Jersey native, said of Graham. “I’m actually good friends with him. He’s from Jersey. I played in an all-star game with him. I know he’s good and they have another good running back too. We gotta control them.
Shell has rushed for 441 yards on 87 carries with four touchdowns. He was rated as the No. 3 back in the nation coming out of high school last year.
Pitt finished with a 6-7 record after losing to SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl at the end of last season. That game took place on Jan. 7, well after Todd Graham had pulled the rug from under the Panthers and bolted for ASU. Graham held the position for less than a year after leaving Tulsa.
The Panthers played Notre Dame tough in a 15-12 loss to the Irish last year at Heinz Field, but their offense was a mess in its only season running Graham’s spread. Chryst came to Pittsburgh from Wisconsin, where he ran a traditional smash mouth offensive attack.
“Pittsburgh’s Pittsburgh,” Fighting Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said of this year’s Panthers. “They’re gonna run it at you and they’re also gonna try to stretch us vertically down the field and everything.”
“We’ve gotta be ready for whatever they bring out. (It should be) another physical game. We’ve got to win at the offensive and defensive line of scrimmage and we’re expecting a physical game. It’s gonna be fun.”
The offense is led by Pittsburgh native Tino Sunseri, whose father, Sal Sunseri, was an All-American at Pitt while playing for Sherrill. Sunseri passed for 2,616 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year, but he already has 2,199 yards with 13 TDs and just two interceptions through eight games this season.
“Tino Sunseri is playing a lot better than he was last year,” Lewis-Moore complimented. “He’s throwing the ball down the field well. He’s gotten a lot better and we have to bring our game this week.”
Sunseri’s top two targets are Devin Street and Mike Shanahan. Street leads the Panthers with 50 catches for 695 yards and four touchdowns, while Shanahan has 37 grabs for 631 yards and three scores. They also stand 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5, respectively. The Irish have seen their share of solid receivers in the last few weeks, but cornerback Bennett Jackson says Street and Shanahan are unique.
“They’re a different group,” Jackson assessed. “They’re probably more of a bigger (and) more physical group (than the Irish have seen this year). They are well balanced with skill – quick skill and bigger skill. I think we’ve done a great job in practice this week to handle them.”
“They have great hands. (It’s a) nice physical group. The quarterback’s doing a great job getting the ball in a good spot. You’ve just gotta be locked-in (and) read our keys and the main thing is to attack the ball in the air.”
While Pittsburgh is not a mirror image of Stanford, Jackson says the Cardinal offense is the closet of Notre Dame’s opponents in the way they run their offense.
“That would be a pretty good comparison,” Jackson said. “They’re just a hungry group. They’re a group of scrappy kids that just try to push the ball down your throat, but that’s what we like so it should be a fun game.”
Pittsburgh wants to be physical on the defensive side of the ball as well, but they rank just 42nd in the nation in run defense while allowing 141 yards-a-game on the ground. That is good news for a Notre Dame offense that has rushed for an average of nearly 253 yards over its last four games. Pitt’s front seven will pose a unique challenge to ND’s offensive line this week.
“They throw a lot of stuff at you,” Irish center Braxton Cave said of the Panthers. “They like to mix it up and blitz and change fronts. Last week against Oklahoma – they are who they are. They’re gonna line-up their personnel and try to just physically outplay you, so it’s a totally different week and a totally new challenge and we’re looking forward to it.”
“There’s a lot of movement up there,” left tackle Zack Martin said of the Panther front. “It’s difficult sometimes to block movement. They have a very talented defensive tackle, who’s been everywhere. We’ve watched tape and he’s been all over the place. He’s gonna give us a nice challenge. They’ll just kind of throw us different looks with blitzes and stuff like that.”
With the ground success they have had lately, the bar is set high for Cave and Martin and the rest of the Irish offensive line. Notre Dame has failed to surpass 100 rushing yards just twice this season and they are coming-off a game that saw them eclipse 200 rushing yards for a second consecutive week.
“Each team presents a new challenge and obviously we want to run the ball on everybody,” Cave said. “The preparation this week has been to block their different looks and different blitzes and I think we’ve done a good job thus far.”