Thursday, November 11, 2004

ND Football 2004

Issue 10: Pittsburgh

Pitt Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Rush offense? Pitt doesn't have much of one. Leading rusher Raymond Kirkley isn't Tony Dorsett. Heck, he isn't even Brandon Miree. Kirkley, averaging 65.8 of Pitt's 107.8 yards per game, is listed at 5'10", 225 lbs. That means he's one tough little back. The number two rushing threat is QB Tyler Palco at 17 yards per game. Of his 88 rushing attempts (that's an average of 11 per game), 22 are sacks. That means this kid likes to scramble, so the Irish will have to keep an eye on him.
ND's dominant front seven is bad news for the Panther rushing attack, as the Irish come in giving up only 95.2 yards per game on the ground. With an active quarterback, I'm looking for a big game from the linebackers. Leading tacklers Mike Gooslby and Brandon Hoyte can lay the big hits, while Derek Curry has the ability to chase Palko down. Don't be surprised if Palko has more than 17 rushing yards, though, as ND proved in the BC game its trouble with mobile QBs. However, with a dominant line lead by Justin Tuck's 13 TFL, the rest of the Pitt run game won't get very far.

ND Rush Offense vs. Pitt Rush Defense

It was last year against Pitt that Julius Jones put his name on the NFL draft radar. Can senior Ryan Grant do the same this season? Or will Darius Walker return to the national spotlight, a la the Michigan game? I for one wouldn't bet on it. Walker, Grant, and Marcus Wilson have been consistent to a fault as of late. Walker is averaging 70.9 yards per game, Grant 59, and Wilson 14.1. With ND averaging 121 yards per game total, and Pitt giving up 125 per, look for another average day from these three.
As stated above, Pitt is giving up 125 yards per game on the ground - 125.6 to be exact. And, just like ND, their top two tacklers are linebackers. HB Blades (perfect name for a runstopper) has 76 tackles, 10.5 for loss. Right behind him is Clint Session with 59 tackles. Of Blades's 10.5 TFL, only 2 are sacks. So, that tells you he gets in the backfield and makes the stop, no matter who has the ball. It will take good blocking from Rashon Powers-Neal on run plays and Grant on passes to keep Blades in check.

Pitt Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

As stated above, Tyler Palko likes to run. But he's not that bad of a passer, either. His completion percentage is 57.1%. An average day for Palko, in addition to 17 yards on the ground, is approximately 19-33 for 238 yards, a TD or two, and a pick. As usual, Pitt relies on one big receiving target. This year, it's 6'2 sophomore Greg Lee. Lee has 40 receptions, 5 for touchdowns, and averages 104 yards per game. This includes a long of 77 yards. Of course, just because Lee is putting up all the numbers yardage wise, that doesn't mean he's the only threat. Just when all eyes are on Lee, in slips 5'8 "possession receiver" Joe DelSardo. DelSardo's yards per catch numbers aren't as flashy (11.5, compared to Lee's 20.8), but he does have 32 catches, 4 TDs, and averages 46 yards per game. Other key contributors to the Pitt passing game are Kirkley (21.6 YPG), RB/WR Marcus Freeman (17.6 YPG) - who bears a striking resemblance to a young "Rudy" from the Cosby Show, and TE Erik Gill at 26 YPG.
Well, it looks to me like the Irish secondary has their hands full. Last year, they shut down Larry Fitzgerald with a great bracket coverage scheme (even though ESPN loves to keep showing one of the measly 6 catches Fitzgerald did make in that game). But, if you do that to Lee, DelSardo and Gill will no doubt camp out and catch first down after first down. If you play everyone evenly, chances are Lee will beat you deep. It should be interesting to watch - I'm just glad I'm not the defensive coordinator for this one. On a positive note for the Irish, Pitt is giving up almost 3 sacks per game, and that's on a schedule where Nebraska and BC are the only teams they've played that wouldn't consistently lose to I-AA schools. So, again, look for big things from Tuck Curry, Hoyte, and also from a guy like Greg Pauly or Kyle Budinscak.

ND Pass Offense vs. Pitt Pass Defense

What's the average day like for Brady Quinn? 16-30 for 223 yards, with a TD and a pick (11 TDs, 7 INTs total). Of course, that's come against all kind of competition. An ideal game, in my "power pulls the train" mind at least, is one where he doesn't need to throw a single pass because of a dominating run game. But, I suspect he'll need to have a good game throwing the ball in order to keep Pitt off of our backs. When he does go to the air, he "only" has 20 options to choose from. Leading the way are Rhema McKnight, averaging about 4 catches and 55.7 YPG, and Anthony Fasano, averaging 37.8 yards on just under 3 catches per game. As for the supporting cast - it seems as they've gone into hiding as of late. I'm looking for a few catches from Maurice Stovall (39 YPG) in key situations, as is becoming his signature this season. Then, if Matt Shelton (a deceptive 41.9 YPG) and Jeff Samardzija can get back on track, the Irish offense will be in good shape.
Pitt apparently lives and dies with the pass this season. Their defense has given up 265.6 yards per game in the air this season. I see quite a few sacks from their defensive backs this season, which could be bad news for Brady Quinn, but also great news for the Irish receivers if coverage is blown. In addition to HB Blades, look for pressure from lineman Thomas Smith and LBs Charles Sallet and JJ Horne.

Special Teams

Placekicker Josh Cummings is 12-17 on field goal attempts this year, but that number is slightly deceiving. Despite a long of 47, 4 of his 5 misses have come from 40+ yards, including two attempts of 51 yards. The primary punter is Adam Graessle, and he's a good one. He has an average of 44.7 yards per punt, and a long of 79 (a good roll on the astroturf perhaps?). Of his 44 punts, 16 have gone inside the 20, and 4 have been blocked. Hmmm, maybe putting 8 guys in the box on punts will finally pay off for ND. Besides a block, ND may finally have a good day in the return game as well. Pitt is giving up 25.7 yards per kick return and 10.1 per punt return.
The punt return game for Pitt is nothing special (sound familiar). DB Allen Richardson is averaging 3.7 yards per punt, with a long of 17. Kick returners, however, are another story. Richardson has 5 returns for 102 yards, and Raymond Kirkley has 8 for 142. But the primary threat is the versatile Marcus Furman. Furman is averaging 27.4 yards per return with a 96 yard touchdown. Gulp.
Well, once again, DJ is doing as well as a walkon can do - unless you want to talk about Reggie Ho. Fitzpatrick is 9-12 on field goals, missing one each from 30+, 40+, and 50+. His long is 47. Punting, DJ has an average of 42.3 and a long of 67. 23 of his 58 punts have ended up inside the 20. Kicking off, Bobby Renkes has an average of 59.8 yards, which gets the ball to the 5 yard line. Coverage teams have been hot and cold for the Irish. They're giving up 20.5 yards per on kickoffs and 7 per on punts.
We'll skip kick returns because I don't want to think about them, but I will say this - it appears that Carlyle Holiday is finally figuring out how to make the most of what Buzz Preston is giving him. It's probably too little too late, but it's better than nothing. Plus, he always has an excuse if he drops one, right?

Look for a big game from
Quinn, Stovall, Goolsby, Hoyte, Tuck

ND 24, Pitt 17: Two by Grant and one by Fasano (one set up by a turnover and one by a deep pass to Stovall), plus one by DJ. That beats a TD set up by a long return, a sustained drive, and a figgie.