Just outside the first College Football Playoff rankings, the No. 8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-1) try to boost their stock against the unranked Pittsburgh Panthers (6-2, 4-1 ACC) in Saturday’s matchup at Heinz Field.
Head coach Brian Kelly’s squad were placed at No. 5 in the first CFP rankings of the season, three spots better than their position in the AP Top 25 poll but one removed from early contention for the national title behind No. 4 Alabama, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 2 LSU, and No. 1 Clemson.
Had sophomore Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer forced overtime by converting his two-point conversion attempt against Clemson a month ago and claimed a victory in the extra period, Notre Dame would likely be included in the top four and the Tigers title hopes would have dashed away.
But Kizer and the Irish rebounded since their lone loss of the season, most recently batting down then-No. 21 Temple last week. Kizer powered his third fourth-quarter comeback of the year by finding receiver Will Fuller for a 17-yard touchdown pass with 2:09 remaining against the Owls for a 24-20 win.
Kizer overcame two interceptions to finish with 299 passing yards, and led all rushers with 143 yards and two scores in Notre Dame’s second victory over a ranked opponent this season. The touchdown grab was Fuller’s ninth of the year, and he’s topped out at 748 yards this season, 300 more than second-leading receiver Chris Brown.
Since taking over for injured Malik Zaire, Kizer’s racked up 1,669 passing yards and 11 touchdowns to six interceptions, and ranks second on the team with 318 rushing yards and five scores behind senior running back C.J. Prosise’s 947 yards and 11 trips to the end zone.
Kizer’s rise has Notre Dame firing off 36 points per game, good for a tie for No. 23 in the nation, but he’ll face a Panthers defense allowing only 22.1 points a contest and that’s eager to get back into the top 25 after slipping out following a 26-19 letdown to unranked North Carolina.
Notching its second-lowest point total of the year and plagued by six penalties for a loss of 55 yards, the Panthers couldn’t overcome a 17-point second quarter by the Tar Heels and endured their second loss of the year.
But first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi did have the Panthers in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2010, something his five predecessors couldn’t do, and his squad can still contend for the ACC Coastal title should they prevail over the Irish.
Much of the Panthers' success this year belongs to freshman running back Qadree Ollison, who notched only 54 yards against North Carolina, but picked up his eighth touchdown of the year and he's scored in all but one of Pittsburgh’s contests.
Working behind efficient junior quarterback Nathan Peterman, Ollison’s fifth in the ACC with 716 total rushing yards and has helped set up junior receiver Tyler Boyd’s 63 receptions for 578 yards and four scores, good for second in the conference.
Ollison could especially feast on an Irish defense that’s allowed 167.2 rushing yards per game and 12 total touchdowns on the year, and it’s a strategy that worked for the Panthers when these two sides last met in 2013. In a 28-21 home victory, Pittsburgh ripped off 112 rushing yards and two scores while forcing three turnovers out of then-No. 23 Notre Dame.
Betting Odds: Notre Dame -8.5 points
Over/Under: 53.5 points
Prediction: Notre Dame over Pittsburgh, 30-20