SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame embarked on a grueling eight-game schedule to start the season. The Fighting Irish now embark on a testy four-game stretch to close out the season with plenty to prove.
Notre Dame’s season began with a trip to Dublin and ended with four consecutive night contests against ranked opponents. The Irish are 6-2 after dropping two of their last four and looking emotionally spent in back-to-back road contests at No. 17 Duke and No. 25 Louisville.
Notre Dame finally received its first of two bye weekends following a 48-20 victory over No. 10 USC on Oct. 14.
Now, the 14th-ranked Irish are well rested heading into a home game against Pitt (2-5) this weekend.
“They’ll be ready to roll after a three-day break,” coach Marcus Freeman said.
No two-loss team has ever made the playoffs. That rule of thumb will likely continue because all 13 teams ahead of the Irish in the Top 25 have one loss or fewer. But Notre Dame still has plenty to play for.
By winning, the Irish could earn a bid for a New Year’s Six bowl. The program hasn’t won a major bowl since the 1993 season.
The former should be doable. The Irish faced the 11th-toughest schedule in the country through the first two-thirds of the season, according to ESPN, but their upcoming opponents own a combined record of 12-16.
The biggest question is: Can the offense under coordinator Gerad Parker, promoted from tight ends coach in the offseason, hold its own with the other side of the ball?
The defense has remained dominant no matter the level of the opponent. The Irish rank in the top 12 in total defense versus both ranked and unranked teams.
The same cannot be said for the offense.
Notre Dame averaged 508.8 yards per game in the first four games, ninth against unranked opponents. In the following four games, offensive production dropped to an average of 320.3 yards versus teams in the Top 25 (49th).
“We have to be better against really good people,” Parker said. “It’s what everyone here wants. It’s what you want. It’s what my wife wants.”
Odds are the Panthers will finish below .500 for the first time since 2017, but Pitt’s physical defense under coach Pat Narduzzi is still dominant and should present a quality litmus test for the Irish.
“It’s stood the test of time,” Parker said.
The Panthers hold opponents to 323 yards per game (26th), harassing them in the backfield to the tune of 3.14 sacks (T-12th) and 7.4 tackles for loss (21st).
It’s safe to assume they will also continue a recent trend of stacking the line of scrimmage.
Thus far, Notre Dame has been unable to counter by pushing the ball downfield. Quarterback Sam Hartman has connected on just 5 of 21 passes that traveled at least 20 yards through the air in the last four games, per Pro Football Focus.
“Teams are saying, ‘I dare you to throw the ball,’ ” Freeman said. “They’re truly putting an extra defender in the box. Part of that is we have to take some shots and look like we’re in a run formation and be able to run some play-action shots. That will be a challenge for us to continue to evolve that part of our game.”
Strong offensive showings on Saturday against Pitt and the following weekend against Clemson, the seventh-ranked total defense, will validate Parker’s ability to make the in-season adjustments required to be successful.
“Our guys will be fired up and ready to roll in Notre Dame Stadium versus a team where you put on the film, and we have a lot of respect for these guys,” Freeman said. “I don’t think there will be a lack of motivation at all.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll