Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House was asked Wednesday if he was looking forward to facing a more conventional offense from Notre Dame this week, rather than the triple-option attacks Pitt has played against in its past two games.
“Yeah,” House said. “Until you watch them on tape. They’re pretty good.”
House admitted it was a relief that his players wouldn’t have to go through the incessant cut blocks in practice anymore in preparation for Notre Dame’s spread offense, but the Irish will pose a different sort of challenge.
Notre Dame primarily a spread system, with most of its snaps coming out of the shotgun or, in a new wrinkle added this year, the pistol formation.
“It is back to normal, it’s similar to what you practiced in training camp. So that part’s good,” House said.
It’s mostly just a return to normalcy, but there could be some personnel adjustments as well.
Redshirt sophomore Nicholas Grigsby saw action for Pitt at middle linebacker Saturday, mostly because the coaches thought his speed and athleticism matched up well against Georgia Tech’s option. Pitt coach Paul Chryst said Thursday that he expects regular starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon to return from injury this week.
While the Irish offense should be mostly similar to what House saw as Pitt’s secondary coach in a 29-26 triple-overtime loss in South Bend last year, there is one important difference: It will be Tommy Rees, not Everett Golson, at quarterback.
Rees, a senior, reclaimed the starting role this season after Golson was suspended by the university for the fall semester because of an academic violation.
Golson was crucial to Notre Dame’s comeback last year against Pitt, rushing for 59 yards — including the tying two-point conversion and the winning touchdown — in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Rees does not pose the same running threat, but has been effective, completing 55.6 percent of his passes for 2,186 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“He’s playing really well on tape,” House said. “He’s making throws all over the place.”
For House, the key to stopping the Irish will be on the ground, where Notre Dame has averaged 150.1 rushing yards per game with four different players serving as the leading rusher in a game. Last week, it was freshman Tarean Folston, who ran for 140 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against Navy.
“At the end of the day, it’s really fitting the scheme that they’re running,” House said.
“We’ve had a couple of different guys helping us on the scout team at practice. They’ve got some change-of-pace backs, they’ve got a guy that’s a great jump-cut back.
“They’ve got some talent back there.”
Perhaps, the easiest way for Pitt to play well would be to get another stellar performance from defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who Thursday was named the Bednarik Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Georgia Tech, as well as a semifinalist for the Lombardi Trophy (best lineman).
Notre Dame’s offensive line is big, averaging 6 feet 5, 312 pounds, but Donald is confident in his abilities.
“There are times the offense might double-team me, but I’ve been getting a lot more single blocks this season I feel like,” Donald said. “When I get those single blocks I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.