By DAVID VANTRESS
THE GOSHEN NEWS
SOUTH BEND —
It’s football under the Saturday night lights for Notre Dame this week, as the No. 24 Fighting Irish travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers. Kickoff is slated for 8 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Last year, the Irish needed overtime to hold off the Panthers, 29-26 and preserve a perfect record that ended up culminating in a 12-0 regular season and berth in the BCS National Championship Game.
This year, there are no national championship aspirations as the final quarter of the 2013 regular season gets under way.
But there is still much for the Irish to play for: Notre Dame is still pushing for a spot in a BCS bowl game.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said the Irish will have a fight on their hands tonight at Heinz Field.
And after two straight weeks against option teams in Air Force and Navy, the Irish are looking forward to facing a more conventional attack, Kelly said earlier this week.
The Irish (7-2) are getting to a good place on offense, Kelly said.
“Offensively we found a pretty good rhythm, offensively, over the last few weeks. We want to build on that,” Kelly said. “Defensively we want to get back to playing traditional football, get away from the option. We played extremely well against USC, and we want to build on that.”
Kelly’s good feeling about the offense comes both from the play of senior quarterback Tommy Rees and the surging Irish rushing game.
Rees has thrown seven touchdown passes in his last two games, benefiting from offensive balance.
The Irish ran for 264 yards last week against Navy, including 140 yards and the game-clinching TD by freshman Tarean Folston.
In Pittsburgh, the Irish will encounter a team that’s scuffling a bit this season at 4-4 under second-year head coach Paul Chryst. The Panthers have been inconsistent on offense this season: They put up 58 points against Duke Sept. 21, but have managed just 54 points combined in their last four games against FBS opponents.
Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage has been sacked 29 times in 2013 — the fifth-most in the nation.
The Panthers have also been dogged by the lack of a consistent running game. Pitt was held to minus-5 yards last week against Georgia Tech.
Despite the Panthers’ struggles, Chryst is still optimistic.
The lack of a consistent running game hasn’t helped. Pitt was held to minus-5 yards last week against Georgia Tech.
“These are correctable things,” Chryst said. “We’ve got to find a way to get it right.”
Chryst said both teams are different from the squads that engaged in the thriller at Notre Dame Stadium in 2012.
“They’ve got different players. The whole makeup of their team is different,” Chryst said. “I think we’re a different team, too. They’re not reinventing themselves, but I think players are the strengths and weaknesses of teams. Offensively, they’re still in the same formations as last year, but they’re also playing to Tommy Rees’ strengths more. You can take things from last year’s game and put it on film, but like any team they’re a different team from year to year.”
The recent series history between the two teams has been filled with nail-biters. The past five games have been decided by an average of four points, and two of those contests have gone to overtime. ... Kelly is very familiar with Pitt, dating back to his tenure at Cincinnati (2007-09). Kelly is 5-1 vs. Pitt with the only loss a 24-17 setback to the host Panthers in 2007. ... Notre Dame leads the overall series, 47-20-1; the Irish are 21-10 against the Panthers at Notre Dame Stadium and 26-10-1 in Pittsburgh ... With one more win this season, Kelly would become the first Notre Dame coach ever to win at least eight games in each of his first four seasons. ... Notre Dame has won 27 of its last 31 regular season games - good for a .871 winning percentage - since starting 0-2 in 2011. Only two FBS schools have a better regular season winning percentage over the same span: Oregon (29-2, .935) and Alabama (29-2, .935).
Material from the Associated Press was used to compile this report.