Friday, September 02, 2005

Panther Matchups | by Michael

Time to break down a few match-ups in Saturday's game. There really shouldn't be too many surprises, since both Dave Wannstedt and Charlie Weis have a fairly significant head-to-head history, as we reviewed in our Know Thine Enemy series in July. More important than the talent match-ups loom the coaching adjustments. We've heard for the past nine months about Weis's prowess with Xs and Os, so what might we see Saturday night?

Irish OL vs. Panthers' DTs
Converted defensive end Thomas Smith has been penciled in at one interior slot since spring practice and, earlier this week, sophomore Corey Davis was named the other starter. Here's some background on Davis, who redshirted last year. Also, as many already know, Smith recently suffered a knee injury which has prevented him from practicing; that said, he is expected to be ready for Saturday's game.

The experienced and talented Irish offensive line should be able to push these two around, and if the middle of Pitt's defensive line can be dominated, it should enable Weis to get more creative with his formations so as to prevent Pitt from dropping the safety into the box. What I mean by that is, if our OL can get a great push and consistently open up some holes in the middle, Weis can spread Pitt's defense with 3 or 4 receivers, which will force Pitt to either put their nickel package in the game (again, softer defense since a LB is replaced by a DB) or play riskier coverages with potentially little-to-no deep help (should Pitt choose to keep a safety committed to stopping the run).

Charlie Weis vs. H.B. Blades
Blades is a great run-stuffing middle linebacker but his weakness is defending the pass. He's smaller (probably closer to 5'11 than 6'0) with great instincts, and he was moved from the strongside to the middle in order to get more athletic linebackers on the field. Remember the 2002 game where Pitt's Gerald Hayes dominated and the Irish struggled to run the ball? Blades is as talented a playmaker.

Weis may want to put Blades in uncomfortable situations by going with 3 or 4 receivers. I'm not sure if Blades is in Pitt's nickel package, but if he's not, it's certainly a softer defense. If he is, it's likely that he's the weak link in the back seven (against the pass). New England did the same thing to Philadelphia's Jeremiah Trotter in the Super Bowl, although the Eagles were a more blitz-heavy team than Pitt will probably be under Wannstedt. Still, the Irish have the advantage of having not only a deep WR corps but also versatile personnel at TE, with whom they can both spread out or pound away on the Panthers. It should be interesting to see how Weis attempts to lessen Blades' impact on this game. What we do with our TEs early in the game could be an indication of our gameplan; if we spread them out, or ask them to line up in the slot or out wide, watch out for quick draws or screen passes to Darius Walker.

Maurice Crum vs. Erik Gill
Tyler Palko's security blanket killed us last year and is one of the better balanced TEs in the country. Enter Rick Minter and the Apache backer. The whole idea behind the Apache is to get more speed on the field by sacrificing size. Crum's performance in his first start, in prime-time no less, is one of the bigger questions in the game. There should be little question that he'll be a target of Matt Cavanaugh's offense from the first snap. Todd Heap was a vital cog in the Ravens' offense, which often employed two TEs, and I think Pitt will try to do similar things in 2005. Forget the pass for a moment; Pitt's power rushing attack is likely going to run right at Crum, and whether or not he can shed blocks and make tackles may ultimately be more important than how well he defends Gill in coverage. Keep an eye on this battle early on in the game.

Irish Front Seven vs. Pitt Rushing Attack
If the front seven can hold the Pitt's running game in check, then a safety can be used to double Greg Lee. However, if the front seven needs one of the safeties to help out in the box, Matt Cavanaugh's options will expand and I would expect to see Palko take some shots deep, which brings us to...

Ambrose Wooden vs. Greg Lee
Purely an educated guess that Wooden will defend Lee to start the game, although I also wouldn't be surprised to see ND rotate its defenders on him, even if that includes Mike Richardson, who was torched down the stretch of last season. Although Wooden has earned some acclaim for his play in fall camp, and he looked good in limited action in last year's Oregon State loss, this is a difficult assignment for any corner, let alone one with very little tangible experience. Expect Minter and Bill Lewis to do all they can to make Wooden's job easier, but if the front seven can't stop the run, that could leave Wooden on an island at times.

If you're the Irish coaching staff, you clearly want to make 5'7 former walk-on Joe DelSardo beat you rather than Lee. DelSardo had 49 catches in 2005, but half of those came against Furman (7), Rutgers (8) and in garbage time of the blow-out loss to Utah (9). As I see it, the key is shutting down Lee, even if it means doubling him on every play. Make DelSardo beat you.

If Notre Dame can control the majority of those match-ups, I would expect a victory. What I love about this game is that not only do so many match-ups favor ND, but so do the adjustments. If Dave Wannstedt and Matt Cavanaugh favored a more aggressive offense, and if they had the talent at WR to spread the field with 3 or 4 receivers, I'd be more concerned. But right now, Pitt's talent fits the power running game they've chosen as their base offense, and that plays to the strength of the ND defense.