Pitt gears up for Notre Dame's Tate

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Pitt will play Notre Dame at Heinz Field Saturday and not in the shadow of the famous Golden Dome on Notre Dame's campus.

But that doesn't mean the 12th-ranked Panthers (8-1, 5-0 Big East) still won't have all eyes on something Golden that night.

Notre Dame junior receiver Golden Tate is one of the nation's leading receivers with 65 passes for 1,059 yards and 10 touchdowns. And the Panthers know if they take their eyes off him, it is likely they will not win the game.

Tate averages 16.3 yards per catch and he is the kind of star-caliber player who is capable of changing games with big plays in clutch situations.

"Without a doubt, he's the best athlete we've faced all year and he's the best athlete in football right now," said Pitt linebacker Adam Gunn. "He's special and they do a great job of finding ways to get him the ball, whether he is lined up in the backfield in the wildcat package or he's lined up wide.

"They find ways to get him the ball and they look for matchups that favor him and they are going to try to use him to exploit us. We have to prepare throughout the week to be matched up in different circumstances and know where he's at every play."

Tate's ability to run the ball out of the wildcat and in some reverses -- he has 21 carries for 157 yards and two touchdowns -- is not a surprise to anyone who has watched him because he can outrun defenders as well as make people miss.

That's why his "yards after catch" are always high; it also is why tackling him as soon as he catches the ball -- much easier said than done -- is so important.

But beyond his athleticism there is something else rarely talked about that sets Tate apart -- he is a physical player who can lower the boom when he needs to on a block or to finish a run.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said yesterday that calling Tate the best receiver in football is not fair to Tate because he is far more than that -- he might be the best player in the game regardless of position.

"As you watch the tape of all of our opponents I would say without a doubt Golden [Tate] is the best player that we have faced," Wannstedt said at his weekly news conference yesterday. "He does it all. This guy is exceptional at catching the ball, exceptional at making guys miss; he's a tough guy. Wherever they line him up, whatever responsibility they give him, this guy is special.

"He is very impressive."

Generally defensive linemen don't worry much about receivers, but because Tate does take some snaps at quarterback in the wildcat package and is used in a number of different ways, the entire defense has to be aware of him.

Defensive tackle Gus Mustakas said he has watched plenty of film of Tate the past two days and not just because he is trying to learn everything he can about how to slow him down.

"I just enjoy watching him play, he's so ridiculously good in everything he does," Mustakas said. "I just been watching film of him, just seeing what he does; he is unbelievable. He's not one of these 6-foot-6 guys but he is a sick athlete and he is an unbelievable player, and it is really going to be a huge test to stop him this week.

"But then again, I don't think any team has stopped him so we can just hope to sort of contain him."

Although Tate is the Irish's superstar, he is one of a number of explosive and talented skill position players on an offense that has been so dominant at times.

Notre Dame (6-3), which is averaging 30 points and 464 yards of total offense per game, has proven it can score quickly and from nearly anywhere on the field. It is for this reason that the defense knows it will be under extreme pressure the entire game.

Also, the players say they can't get down after giving up a big play because big plays are a staple of the Notre Dame offense.

"You never want to give up big plays," Mustakas said. "But with receivers like [Tate and Michael Floyd], they are both great athletes and both sick players, so things are going to go their way some times, and when they do we just need to settle down and regroup and get them the next play.

"We just have to try and limit them and contain them as much as we can."

NOTES -- Wannstedt said that Cameron Saddler and Aaron Smith will continue to share the punt returner job despite some mishaps by both Saturday in the win against Syracuse. ... Pitt cracked the top ten in the AP and coaches polls in November for the first time since 1982. "It's a neat thing for our program," Wannstedt said. "It's not going to help us win this Saturday against Notre Dame, I know that, but it's good for recruiting and hopefully good for alumni support.". ... Wannstedt is trying his best to minimize the hype for this game among his players. "Our kids are looking at this game like it is a game against a quality opponent with great tradition and no more than that."

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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