Associated Press Photo
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (Sports Network) - The fourth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish continue their quest for the perfect season when they take on the Pittsburgh Panthers at Notre Dame Stadium this weekend.
Brian Kelly's squad took a huge step towards that goal with last weekend's impressive 30-13 win at eighth-ranked Oklahoma. It was the team's fourth victory over a top-25 program this year. With the win, Notre Dame moved to 8-0 for the first time since 2002. The Irish moved up one spot in the top-25 and two in the most recent BCS rankings, now sitting at third behind Alabama and Kansas State.
Staying composed in a hostile environment was key to the victory in Norman.
So playing smart football for us was absolutely crucial," said Kelly this week. "I think our quarterback did a very good job of when things did not materialize, zero was a good play for us. Something that we talked about from day one. You've heard it from me how important it was that we did not go back. And disciplined in following a game plan. Not getting caught up in the moment, in the atmosphere, our guys stayed focused and disciplined on the game plan and played that way as well."
Paul Chryst's Panthers are starting to pick up momentum. After dropping four of the first six games of the season, Pittsburgh has won two in a row to pull even on the year, including last weekend's rout of instate foe Temple, 47-17.
This series dates back to 1909, with Notre Dame holding an all-time advantage of 46-20-1. The Irish have won two straight and 14 of the last 18 meetings overall, but the Panthers have claimed victory in two of the last three at Notre Dame.
The Pittsburgh offense is starting to peak thanks to stellar play under center and a balanced attack. Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri has saved his best for last, having a terrific season thus far, completing 69.2 percent of his passes, for 2,199 yards, with 13 TDs and just two INTs. His 164.79 passer rating leads the Big East and ranks eighth nationally. Devin Street is the top target in the passing game, as he leads the team with 50 catches, for 695 yards and four TDs. Mike Shanahan is a solid option as well, with 37 receptions, for 631 yards and three scores.
Coach Kelly is impressed with Pittsburgh's signal-caller.
"Well, he has really matured as a quarterback, really impressed with his play this year'" said Kelly." You know, he's not turning the football over. Last year he was similar to what we were going through with some untimely turnovers. He takes great care of the football. He's a veteran. You can see that. And the offense fits him very well and he can make plays. He's a guy that I think is playing the best football that he's played his entire career at Pittsburgh."
While the passing attack is humming along at just over 280 yards per game, tailbacks Ray Graham and Rushel Shell have handled the bulk of the ground work, combining for 1,063 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Despite their modest record, the Panthers have shown flashes of solid defensive play throughout the year. The team is allowing 21.8 ppg, while limiting foes to only 339.9 yards of offense.
Junior safety Jason Hendricks has been the top playmaker on the squad, leading the team in both total tackles (54) and interceptions (4). Senior safety Jarred Holley is second on the team in tackles (51) with one INT. Junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald has done the most damage upfield. Of his 31 total tackles, 8.5 have been behind the line of scrimmage, including 3.5 sacks. He also leads the team with 10 quarterback hurries.
The Irish have had their ups and downs on offense this season, but the performance in Norman last week had to be considered a huge plus, as the team didn't turn the ball over once. In fact, the team has enjoyed a +10 in turnover margin this year, with just eight turnovers through the first eight games.
The ground game has been the strength of the offensive attack this season, averaging just under 200 yards per game. A trio of viable options in the backfield gives the Irish plenty of depth, as tailbacks Theo Riddick (525 yards, four TDs), Cierre Wood (467 yards, three TDs) and George Atkinson III 301 yards, four TDs) can all move the chains. Atkinson however, did not play against Oklahoma and is listed as questionable this week.
The ground game has helped Everett Golson learn on the job under center. Golson is completing 57.5 percent of his passes, but they have gone for a modest 1,145 yards, with four TDs and three INTs. Wideout T.J. Jones 926 receptions, 330 yards, two TDs) and tight end Tyler Eifert (22 receptions, 341 yards, three TDs) are the top targets down the field.
While inconsistency has been a problem at times for the Irish offense, the defense has been remarkably consistent, showing the ability to shut down even the best of offenses, including limiting Oklahoma to a season-low eight rushing yards last weekend, although the team did yield its first rushing TD of the season.
Overall, Notre Dame ranks second nationally in scoring defense (9.9 ppg), ninth in rushing defense (95.3 ypg) and 11th in total defense (293.0 ypg).
In a year when there is no clear-cut offensive player running away with the Heisman, two-time All-American linebacker Manti Te'o has thrust his name into the discussion with his playmaking ability. Te'o leads the team in tackles (80), interceptions (5) and fumble recoveries (2). He is not the only gifted performer on this stellar defense, as sophomore end Stephon Tuitt (29 tackles, 8.5 sacks) has been a handful on the defensive line, while junior cornerback Bennett Jackson (38 tackles, four INTs) has been a ball-hawk in the secondary.
Coach Chryst is impressed at the way Notre Dame's defense has evolved around Te'o.
"They're pretty good players. They're real good players. As good as (Manti) Te'o is, and I think he's a special player, they've got a lot of other guys that make it work and they're extremely disciplined. Obviously they have talent. I think their scheme really fits the people that they have. They play fast. 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."