After Pitt was outscored 96-20 by Penn State (51-6) and Central Florida (45-14) earlier this season, it might be natural to overlook the Panthers as a viable upset threat.
Nevertheless, there are at least four reasons — not including Notre Dame’s relatively hard fought 24-16 win versus perceived sacrificial lamb Ball State Sept. 8 — to not mark down this weekend’s contest with the 3-3 Panthers, a three-touchdown underdog, as an automatic “W” for the Irish.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly can appreciate and respect each of those four reasons, but each time he countered with a rebuttal on why his Fighting Irish should equally be up to the task this Saturday.
Reason 1: Pitt has a proclivity to play up or down to the level of its competition.
In 2016 the Panthers upset Big Ten champ Penn State and national champ Clemson — in Death Valley no less.
Last year, it toppled No. 2 Miami (the same Hurricanes who thumped Notre Dame 41-8), which made their defeats to 4-8 Syracuse and 3-9 North Carolina all the more frustrating for them.
Kelly Rebuttal: Everyone is well aware of Pitt’s track record, but far more important is taking care of your own business.
“It’s not even part of our conversation,” said Kelly of Pitt’s recent reputation as giant killers. “We have a great deal of respect for our opponents, but really this is much more about how we prepare. We’re not pleased with the way we played for four quarters last week, and our emphasis will be on our performance and playing much better.”
Reason 2: Notre Dame will be coming off back-to-back marquee games, first having hosted No. 7 Stanford and then traveling to No. 24 Virginia Tech.
Staying on an emotional high three consecutive weeks can be a tall order.
All one has to do is look back to 2012 and what was maybe Kelly’s most surprising or marquee win, 30-13 at No. 8 Oklahoma, which was a double-digit favorite in some circles. That game started to make the nation believe that 8-0 Notre Dame was now a legitimate national title contender.
Guess what happened the next week? A 4-4 Pitt came into Notre Dame Stadium and entered the fourth quarter with a 20-6 lead. The Irish eventually needed three overtimes — and a botched officiating call — to survive a 29-26 outcome.
Kelly Rebuttal: This is not a “trap” game this time because the Irish actually were blasé, by their standards, in last Saturday’s 45-23 win at No. 24 Virginia Tech.
“We weren’t very emotional,” he said. “I think we didn’t play with enough passion at times in that game. One of the things that we talked about is that that wasn’t our best performance in a lot of ways, and we have to play with more energy. We have to play with more passion, and that is going to be the emphasis this week in terms of how we need to play against Pittsburgh.
“This is really about going back to the practice field, having much more of a focus on how we prepare. We have a great deal of respect for Pittsburgh and how they’ll come out to play us. We know that this is a big game for them.”
Reason 3: This is mid-term exams week at Notre Dame.
There has been a long history of the Irish not coming out at their sharpest after so much concentration on the scholastic end, although some exams might have been taken last week. Either way, this can add to the degree of difficulty to any student-athlete.
In years past, this has been a go-to card in case of a flat performance.
Kelly Rebuttal: Not this year. Not this time.
“It’s Notre Dame,” said an animated Kelly. “Let’s go. Bring it on! I told our guys … you can say this is a tough week, and I’ve got three exams — and that’s not going to do you any good.
“Let’s go at it like warriors. Let’s get after this. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s get up early for the exam. Let’s be positive about what we’re doing.”
The exams can even be taken as a positive because they don’t allow anyone to look too far into the future, which is essential when the conversation outside the Notre Dame football walls centers on “Playoff Fever.”
“Just staying in the moment,” responded Kelly of what will be essential to his 6-0 Irish moving forward. “Once you start to get outside of your process and your day-to-day, then that’s where things can obviously come apart.
”It’s a mindset. Everybody in the world has got to take exams. You want to use it as an excuse? It’s not going to help you. So let’s be positive about it, let’s get our work done, let’s get through Tuesday, and we’ll be fine.”
Reason 4: Pitt has a history of competing well against the Irish.
Since the 1950s, Pitt, USC, Michigan State and Purdue are the lone teams to defeat Notre Dame in each decade.
Since 2002, nine of the 11 meetings between the Irish and Panthers were decided by only one score.
Kelly Rebuttal: Notre Dame has a pretty good doggone history of its own — and it’s time to live up to it more consistently. This goes back to the team being more upset with their three-touchdown win at No. 24 Virginia Tech instead of gloating about it.
“We all have a standard within these walls,” Kelly said. “ … To be the best defense, to be the best offense, you set a standard. And we’re able to visually show them what that standard looks like because they set it by the kind of play that they’ve had at times.
“When they can visually see that and then you take clips from the game this past week and show them what it looks like when they don’t, it’s easy to be critical of where they are.
“They’re still winning football games. They’re still showing resolve. They’re still doing a lot of really good things — but it’s nice to know that after six weeks that there’s still plenty of room for growth.”
Case closed … from at least the Notre Dame perspective.