Pitt is leery of Notre Dame's prolific passing
For Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, the path to victory is clear when the eighth-ranked Panthers play Notre Dame on Saturday night: The once oft-maligned Pitt secondary must render Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen ineffective.
If so, the Panthers will keep alive their slim BCS title game hopes. If not, it could be a long night before a packed house at Heinz Field.
"I think this is the best passing team, maybe in the country," Bennett said. "Our guys know it's going to be a challenge."
And the Panthers are facing a much-improved, more mature and inspired Clausen, who is looking to rally the Irish after a 23-21 home loss to Navy last Saturday.
Also, Clausen has more big-play threats — including receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd — than a year ago when the Panthers left South Bend, Ind., with a 36-33 four-overtime victory.
"Clausen can make every throw," Bennett said. "He has better control of the offense."
The Panthers, who lead the country with 4.3 sacks per game, have a simple game plan. They want to disrupt Clausen by flushing him out of the pocket, but that won't be easy against an offensive line that is rated as one of the nation's best.
"If our front four doesn't get pressure, it will cause a lot of problems for us," defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. "It's never about sacks, it's about pressure. We've got to make (Clausen) uncomfortable and make him move his feet and find a way to distract him."
The Panthers (8-1) seldom blitz their linebackers to pressure the quarterback, mostly because an experienced defensive front has overwhelmed most offensive lines. Bennett is hesitant to blitz Clausen, in part because the Notre Dame offensive line isn't impregnable, considering Clausen has been sacked 19 times.
"It doesn't hurt to get bored," Bennett said. "I'm not a dial-up (the blitz) guy. Their line is huge, and probably three of the four will play in the NFL. When you pressure people, it's got to be a calculated risk."
The Panthers, seeking their sixth straight win since a 38-31 loss at North Carolina State, arguably will be facing the most prolific passing team on their schedule. So far, only fourth-ranked Cincinnati has compiled better numbers through the air than Notre Dame (6-3).
While Clausen is averaging 308 yards passing per game and has a 162.88 passing efficiency rating, it's his touchdown-to-interception ratio (20 to 3) that impresses Bennett and Pitt's defensive backs.
"It'll be a test because it's no secret those guys have played well this season," cornerback Jovani Chappel said. "The stats don't lie. The highlights don't lie. We feel like we're ready for any task."
The Pitt secondary proved to be a liability early in the season, especially after free safety Andrew Taglianetti suffered a season-ending knee injury against Buffalo. Players shuffled in and out of the starting lineup until freshman Jarred Holley was inserted.
The Panthers have been more aggressive in pass coverage. They have seven interceptions in the past three games, including three each against South Florida and Syracuse. They had only three in the previous nine games.
"Once we moved Jarred in there after Scoop (Elijah Fields) got hurt, we just sort of week by week found out this is what we can do," Bennett said. "We tweaked some things, but if you had told me in August that my fifth corner (Holley) would be starting at cover safety, I would have said we would have some issues."
"I've always watched Notre Dame growing up, so I'm excited about the challenge," Holley said. "Our (defensive secondary) has grown up since the beginning of the season. We know Clausen has a great arm, so it's going to be important to keep their receivers in front of us."