Justin K. Aller
Pitt faces easily its toughest test of the season when it faces the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend in South Bend. If the Panthers want to pull off the upset, they'll need to battle some significant odds.
For one thing, the game's on the road. For another, the Panthers are dealing with several key injuries. LInebackers Dan Mason and Manny Williams are both out for the season, as is offensive lineman Ryan Schlieper. Pitt will be playing a few new starters this weekend, and in a hostile environment at Notre Dame, that doesn't bode well.
Even more importantly than those two things, though, Pitt is simply not as good as the Irish this season. That's not to say they can't win in a one-game situation, but the Panthers aren't as strong as Notre Dame is. However, if you're looking for a few reasons Pitt might be able to do the unthinkable, you're in luck.
As great as the Notre Dame defense is, Pitt's has been a bit unheralded and isn't getting a lot of recognition despite playing well. The Panthers started out pretty badly, giving up 65 points against Youngstown State and Cincinnati. But since then, they've quietly turned things around. Over the team's last six games, Pitt has given up more than 17 points only once - to undefeated Louisville. Pitt now ranks 33rd in scoring defense on the season, and other than allowing the Cardinals to hang 45 on them, the unit has allowed a meager 13 points a game. That's not to say the Panthers will have an easy time with Notre Dame, but keeping things close for a while is certainly within the realm of possibility.
Then there's Tino Sunseri on offense. Last year, Sunseri was often a reason why Pitt couldn't keep things close. But he's clearly a far better player, and, importantly, he actually has experience playing in South Bend. In 2010 as a sophomore, Sunseri had a decent game there, completing 27 of his 39 passes, and throwing for 272 yards and a touchdown. He also threw an interception, but as a first-year starter, those numbers weren't bad. Now, two years later, Sunseri is dramatically improved. He may not have an outstanding game, but he's capable of doing some good things if the offensive line can buy him even a little bit of time.
And if things go down to the wire, Pitt fans have to feel much more confident in the kicking game. After a spotty start, Kevin Harper has made his last four field goals. Pitt will need to put points up on the board and if they can't get the ball in the end zone, Harper will need to help the Panthers salvage drives by kicking some through the uprights.
Lastly, Notre Dame simply hasn't been all that dominant against average teams. The Irish beat both Purdue and BYU at home by only three points each. They've struggled a bit and showed some vulnerability at times. Add it all up and the Panthers are plenty capable of hanging with Notre Dame if they play well.
Realistically, let's be honest -- Pitt is a longshot to win this game. But anything can happen in one game, and to write the Panthers off fully would be foolish.