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Bucking the Trend

Nov 7, 2013, 7:04 PM EDT

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.

I think this has been beaten to death this week, but it’s worth talking about. The last time a Notre Dame-Pitt game was decided by more than a touchdown, Dave Wannstedt and Charlie Weis were coaching their first games for their respective teams. Brady Quinn led the Irish to an upset 42-21 victory, jumpstarting Notre Dame’s best season since 1993.

Since that 2005 game, these have been the finishes:

2008: Pittsburgh 36 – Notre Dame 33 (4OT)

2009: Pittsburgh 27 – Notre Dame 22

2010: Notre Dame 23 – Pittsburgh 17

2011: Notre Dame 15 – Pittsburgh 12

2012: Notre Dame 29 – Pittsburgh 26 (3OT)

Part of me thinks the trend will not continue this year. Pittsburgh’s only convincing win of the season is against New Mexico. If that last sentence didn’t make you laugh, look up who coaches New Mexico.

But that’s the interesting part of this series. The Panthers were enormous underdogs last year when they came to Notre Dame Stadium to face the 4th-ranked Irish. If you don’t remember that game, go find a replay or something.

In 2009 a talented – yet unranked and 6-3 – Notre Dame lost the longest game in Notre Dame history to a top-ten Pittsburgh team.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this game ended up being close, especially given the unpredictability of the Notre Dame units. If we get the offense that lit up Navy and the defense that shut down USC, this will be a runaway victory.

The offense played very, very well against the service academies, but the pileup of injuries to the defense could be a problem. Since the summer, the Irish have lost Baratti, Spond, Springmann, Grace, and Councell for the season. Nix, Shumate, Williams, Day, and Schwenke have all suffered from various injuries too.

If Notre Dame can overcome all its injuries, a victory improves the record to 8-2 with two tough matchups to close the season. After Pitt, those two games will be an uphill battle for the Irish, but coming through unscathed would be very promising come BCS selection time.

It’s easy for us as fans to look ahead at the last couple games on the schedule. But it’s been eight years since an easy win over the Panthers, and looking towards BYU and Stanford could put Notre Dame on a negative track for those last two critical games.

Yet if it comes to another close contest, that could benefit the Irish. If we’ve learned one thing about this team, it’s that they are very adept at closing out tight games. It’s a critical aspect to the game that eluded so many Notre Dame teams until last year. If there’s a positive to all the injuries, it’s that our young players are gaining experience – not just physical experience, but the toughness required to win those nailbiters.

That’s what I’m most looking forward to this weekend – will the youngsters keep performing well? Besides Jaylon Smith, who has played strong all year, the depletion of the Irish depth has recently forced underclassmen into prominent roles. While they’re inexperienced and make freshman mistakes, they are clearly a talented bunch and are very fun to watch. See how Cole Luke, Devin Butler, Isaac Rochell, and Max Redfield continue to make plays for the Irish and develop before our eyes.

On the offensive side of the ball, Tarean Folston has emerged as one of the top – if not the top – running backs in an extremely deep stable. Between him and sidelined fellow freshman Greg Bryant, the future is very bright at that position.

Hopefully, watching young, dynamic players carry the team to victory will be the only source of intrigue on Saturday, but with this series you never know. At least I can pretty much guarantee it won’t reach the drama of last year’s game.

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