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2013 Notre Dame Opponents: Pitt

Pitt (6-7)
Nov. 9 at Pitt
Dating back to 1909, the Panthers have played Notre Dame 68 times, the fifth-most among Irish foes. Notre Dame has a commanding 47-20-1 lead in the series, but Pitt has given the Irish, and head coach Brian Kelly, everything they can handle the past several years.

Rushel Shell is in line to become Pitt's next top back after rushing for 641 yards as a freshman last season.

In Kelly’s last five games versus Pitt, he has squeaked by with 28-21 and 45-44 victories at Cincinnati in 2008 and 2009, and then 23-17, 15-12 and 29-26 (in triple overtime) at Notre Dame.

The latter was the most talked about game of the 12-0 Irish regular season after Notre Dame rallied from a 20-6 fourth-quarter deficit to put the game into overtime and then came back from what appeared to be imminent defeat in the second OT.

The previous year, the Irish trailed 12-7 in the fourth quarter at Pitt when quarterback Tommy Rees completed all eight of his passes during a lengthy touchdown drive in the 15-12 victory.

Each of the last five games with Pitt saw the victor win by six or fewer points, including two multiple overtime results.

Top Offseason Note
Although head coach Paul Chryst was considered a top candidate for the Wisconsin job —where he had been the offensive coordinator prior to getting hired as the Panthers head coach in 2012 — Pitt didn’t have to search for its fifth head coach in four years.

However, a notable addition arrived this winter when John Palermo was hired to coach the defensive ends and linebackers. Palermo was the defensive line coach at Notre Dame during the school-record 23-game winning streak in 1988-89, and he later was a mainstay for Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez (also at Notre Dame from 1987-89 as defensive coordinator) from 1991-2005.

Another former Notre Dame assistant on the Panther staff is running backs coach Desmond Robinson, who held the same position under head coach Bob Davie from 1997-2001.

Prime Assets
The Panthers return the most defensive starters (nine) on the 2013 Irish slate, highlighted by tackle Aaron Donald, an All-America candidate who totaled 18.5 tackles for loss last season (12th most in the nation). The unit took Notre Dame to the wall last year and finished 17th in total defense.

Elite running back recruit Rushel Shell is in line to become Pitt’s next bellcow back — defined by Lou Holtz as one who carry the ball 20 times productively on Saturday and not come to practice on Monday with a doctor, lawyer or agent — after rushing for 641 yards as a freshman behind the departed Ray Graham (172 yards on the ground at Notre Dame last year).

Running back has been Pitt’s strength for the past decade with future pros such as Brandon Miree, LaRod Stephens-Howling, LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis. Chryst is the ideal fit for that ground-oriented culture at Pitt after having similar running game success for an extended period at Wisconsin.

Prime Concerns
The offense will be in a state of flux after graduating Graham, three-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri and revamping the line.

Pitt began spring practice this week (March 5) and one of the top story lines was the movement along the offensive line, beginning with replacing graduated All-Big East center Ryan Turnley.

The starting tackles last year, Corey King and Matt Rotheram, moved to guard to make room for redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty and Juantez Hollins, who has started seven games but served a season-long suspension in 2012. T.J. Clemmings, who lettered the past two seasons at defensive end, was shifted to the offensive line.

The assumed front-runner at quarterback is the nomadic Tommy Savage, a Freshman All-American at Rutgers in 2009 when he passed for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns. He transferred to Arizona, where he did not see action, before returning East to suit up for the Panthers. Chad Voytik also is expected to be in the mix at QB.

This is a dramatic transition year at Pitt with its maiden voyage into the ACC that will commence with a Labor Day matchup against defending league champ Florida State. The two weeks prior to the Notre Dame game, the Panthers will play triple option teams at Navy and at Georgia Tech.

Even though the Panthers generally can’t recruit at the level Notre Dame does, Pitt has played the program enough times and stood toe to toe with it, and then some, to not be awed or intimidated. Like a Boston College, Purdue or Michigan State, you know one of Pitt’s quota of “flat” games will not occur against Notre Dame.

Maybe this will be the first time in six meetings the outcome won’t be decided by six or fewer points, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it did, especially in Pitt’s backyard.

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