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Pitt defense prepares for Notre Dame's pro-style offense

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 8:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell rushes Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heincke on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at Heinz Field.

The cautiously optimistic talk surrounding the Pitt defense centers on its apparent improvement since early in the season.

It's a difficult point to argue — unless you thoroughly study the results.

After allowing Duke to score 55 on Sept. 21, Pitt played three games and three-quarters of the fourth one before giving up more points than that. The bad news, though, is the Panthers are 2-3 since the Duke game, largely because of their struggling offense and a lack of big plays on defense (10 sacks, two interceptions and no fumble recoveries in five games).

Look at that pass defense: No. 3 in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and undefeated Florida State.

Yeah, but ...

The ranking is skewed by the past two opponents, Navy and Georgia Tech, who ran the triple-option offense and called running plays 77 percent of the time. Pitt is 10th in run defense (164 yards per game) in the conference.

Nonetheless, the game Saturday night at Heinz Field is a welcome return to normalcy for Pitt and Notre Dame, which also has played option teams the past two weeks (Air Force and Navy).

“We are both excited about getting away from the option offenses we've seen in the last couple weeks,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.

Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House is eager to get back to defending a pro-style offense.

“It's similar to what you practice in training camp,” he said. “The kids are excited not to have to be practicing cut blocks non-stop.”

But there is a trade-off: “Until you watch (Notre Dame) on tape,” House said. “They are pretty good.”

The bottom line is Pitt will face a team with a more balanced offense than it has seen since the opener against Florida State.

Senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who has been sacked only seven times, is playing because Everett Golson, last year's starter, is suspended for the fall semester after cheating on an exam. Golson ran for 74 yards, the game-tying 2-point conversion and the game-winning touchdown in the third overtime last year against Pitt.

House, though, is worried about Rees' throwing ability.

“Not that Golson couldn't, but (Rees) can make all the throws,” he said.

The biggest concern, however, is the Notre Dame stable of running backs, featuring juniors Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III and emerging freshman Tarean Folston.

McDaniel, 5-foot-10, 207 pounds, leads the team with 464 yards on 98 carries. Atkinson is the game-breaker with an 80-yard run against Oklahoma earlier this season.

But Folston was the key component in last week's 38-34 victory against Navy. He finished with 140 yards after totaling only 116 in the previous seven games, and he carried seven times for 46 yards on Notre Dame's patient, game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Nine of the 11 snaps were runs, including Folston's 1-yard touchdown with 3:47 left.

“When they go to win a game, it's run the football,” House said.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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