On the eve of facing its toughest opponent of the season the Pittsburgh football team is facing its own toughest turmoil of the year. Three Pitt players were charged with assault and conspiracy Thursday night for their alleged part in an Oct. 21 incident in Pittsburgh.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, police say running back Ray Graham, wide receiver Devin Street and defensive back Lafayette Pitts surrounded a man near the Pittsburgh campus last month and Street allegedly punched the man in the head after Graham allegedly uttered a racial slur. The three men are all scheduled for a Jan. 9 preliminary hearing.
Graham is Pittsburgh’s leading rusher with 622 yards and seven touchdowns through eight games. Street leads the Panthers with 50 receptions for 695 yards and four touchdowns, while Pitts is averaging 27.8 yards on 17 kickoff returns this season. He also has 21 tackles and five pass breakups defensively.
As of this report it is not known if the team will take any disciplinary action against the trio prior to their game at Notre Dame this weekend.
Going Against The Irish
If Graham and/or Street are not available on Saturday it would be a big blow to Pitt’s offensive efforts against the Irish. The Panthers average 150 yards-a-game rushing and Graham accounts for more than half of that average. They would still have highly touted freshman Rushel Shell to carry the ball though. Shell has totaled 457 rushing yards and four TDs.
No matter who Pitt (4-4) has in the back field head coach Paul Chryst knows the task of trying to attack the Irish defense will be a tough one.
“They play fast,” Chryst said this week of the ND defense. “It looks like they play smart. They’re doing things that they want them doing. I think they tackle extremely well and they’re opportunistic when the ball is in the air. They’ve got a number of guys with good ball skills.”
At the top of the “ball skills” list for the Irish is obviously Manti Te’o. Chryst knows No. 5 must be accounted for on Saturday, but he also knows the Notre Dame defense is about more than just him.
“He’s sudden (and) he’s powerful,” Chryst appraised of Te’o. “He’s leading their team in interceptions. That’s pretty unique for a linebacker. I think you’ve got a great player and he makes those around him better, yet they make him better because there are a lot of good players on that defense.”
“When he’s got a chance to make a play – and great players do this – he makes it. Looks to me like he loves playing the game – all aspects of it. (I) certainly (have) got a lot of respect and admiration for how he plays it.”
Te’o leads the Irish with 80 tackles this season, while second-leading tackler Zeke Motta has 42 tackles. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s leading tackler is Jason Hendricks with 54. Jarred Holley is next for the Panthers with 51 tackles. Those two have combined to equal Te’o’s five interceptions this season.
Pittsburgh’s defense is allowing 21.8 points through eight games. The only team they have faced that is currently ranked is Louisville (8-0). The Cardinals, ranked 10th in this week’s BCS standings, beat Pitt 45-35 back on Oct. 13, while scoring the most points the Panthers have allowed this season.
Chryst was not glowing in his praise of the Irish offense this week, but he was at least outwardly complimentary.
“What do they bring,” he asked rhetorically at his press conference. “They bring good football. They can hurt you running the ball (and) they can hurt you throwing the ball. They’re just a good team all around and they’ve got good players. They have depth.”
Chryst also mentioned Tyler Eifert as “one of the best in the country” at his position. Pittsburgh is allowing an average of 141 yards on the ground and nearly 199 passing yards this season.
A Rivalry or Not A Rivalry?
Saturday’s game will mark the 68th meeting between Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. It’s a series that dates all the way back to 1909. While it was more of a “rivalry” in the 1970s – a decade that saw both schools win national championships – it is probably more contentious when the game is played in Pittsburgh due to the strong Notre Dame fan base in Western Pennsylvania.
Even Chryst is not really sure whether it should currently be considered a rivalry or not.
“I understand and appreciate the history of it, but you’re talking to a guy that hasn’t been a part of one (ND-Pitt game) yet,” Chryst said this week. “I remember watching games on TV. I think our guys are really excited to play Notre Dame. I really do believe that. Whether that means rivalry or not - I don’t know that answer. You have to ask them that. I appreciate the history of it with Pitt and Notre Dame.”
While Chryst claims no personal feel for the Notre Dame – Pittsburgh series, he does have a family tie to Notre Dame. His brother, Rick Chryst, played baseball for the Irish from 1979-’83 and was later the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference from 1999-2009.
The game may or may not be a rivalry, but Pittsburgh does have the chance to play spoiler to Notre Dame’s possible national championship hopes this weekend. That would be an easy motivational ploy for Chryst, but he does not see it that way.
“We never approach those games different than any other one,” Chryst said of playing the third-ranked Irish. “I don’t think that’s the way to go about it. I may be different and others disagree, but I think you approach every game consistently. What it takes to beat Notre Dame is the same thing that it takes to beat other teams on your schedule – that’s playing good football (and) being the best you can be.”
Who Do You Play For?
One of the oldest coaching clichés goes: “You play for the name on the front of the shirt, not the back”. Chryst made that point when he took over the Pitt program prior to this season. Pittsburgh has traditionally displayed players’ names on the back of their game jerseys over the years, but has gone without them this season.
“The initial reasoning was we wanted to make sure they understood the most important thing is the team,” Chryst said this week of his rationale for removing the names. “Truly we’ve got some guys doing some real unselfish acts for this team.”
Chryst made a deal with his players before last week’s game though. He told them he would put the names on the jerseys if they beat Temple. They accomplished that goal with a 47-17 victory over the Owls.