Irish limp into season's second bye

With an essential bye week on the horizon, a one-game season awaits Brian Kelly's Irish in Steel City

Had Notre Dame not finished 12-0 in the 2012 regular season, their late-October escape from heavy underdog Pittsburgh would have been but a blip on the national radar. Instead, last year's Irish comeback from a 20-6 second half deficit served as the detractor's poster child to discredit Notre Dame as a title-worthy team.

But 12 months later that classic letdown game instead serves as a rallying point for Brian Kelly's Irish, again favored against a struggling Panthers team, just as they have been in four of the last five meetings, each of the quintet of matchups played to the wire.

The teams have met in five consecutive season, the last three during the Kelly era. Pittsburgh has had three coaches during that span but each game played out in a similar manner nonetheless.

Aggregate score: 122-118 in favor of the Irish, with seven overtimes interixed.

This week in the Steel City, it's unlikely to be any different, especially with Notre Dame limping in as five-point favorites.

"We are running out of next men," said Kelly in reference to the program's injury-related mantra "Next Man In."

"We're at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options, especially when you're talking about (Kona) Schwenke and (Tony) Springmann.  It becomes an issue now where we have to be very creative in what we're doing and how we're doing it."

Schwenke is out for at least this weeks' game with a high-ankle sprain. Springmann has missed the season due a camp knee injury and subsequent surgery. Both were counted on to provide depth to the All-Americans in front of them on the defensive line prior to the training camp's kickoff.

Also potentially removed from the mix is versatile sophomore defensive lineman Sheldon Day. Day re-aggravated a high ankle sprain that kept him from three midseason games. Exacerbating concerns up front is a knee injury to defensive end candidate Ishaq Williams, out again this week after first missing time at Air Force on October 26.

Backup field linebacker Ben Councell is out for the season as well, lost after injuring his knee vs. Navy. Councell had played with his hand down as a defensive end in recent weeks when the Irish showed a 4-3 front.

"We'll figure something out.  We'll get 11 guys out there," Kelly said. "It's just not going to be one of those things where we're going to have the same group of guys out there all the time.  As you know, we're going to have to find a way to stop a big, physical offensive line at Pittsburgh, and that's the thing that concerns you most."

Rising to the occasion?

Mired at 4-4, the Panthers have struggled to move the ball on the ground this season. Sans long-time Irish killer Ray Graham, Pittsburgh ranks 104 nationally in rushing, 103rd in total offense, and just 79th in scoring at 26.1 per contest. They've passed it well at times, 5th-year senior Tom Savage, a Rutgers transfer, ranks 41st nationally in passing efficiency.

Statistics aside, it's highly unlikely the Panthers don't again rise to the occasion vs. Kelly's Irish. Even Pittsburgh's Achilles Heel, it's inability to protect the passer, might be a non-issue this week considering the missing Irish up front.

'We'll probably play Jarron Jones inside at that nose position with (Tyler) Stockton," said Kelly of Louis Nix's relief corps should the senior return and play through knee tendinitis that's plagued him over the last two weeks. "That would probably be the way that we go right now (Sunday). We'll still have some more conversations about it, so I don't want to get held to that today, but that's probably (Stephon) Tuitt will stay on the outside. We're hoping to get Sheldon Day back. Then you'll have Day and Tuitt and certainly that gives us a little bit more flexibility outside."

If both Day and Nix return the Irish will have six technical defensive linemen available: starters Day, Nix, and Tuitt, with backups Jones, Day, and true freshman Isaac Rochell. If they don't, outside 'backers will join the fray and Notre Dame will likely feature a heavy dose of 4-3 fronts.

Senior boundary linebacker Prince Shembo plays a de facto defensive end role on more than 50 percent of the defense's snaps and sophomore Romeo Okwara is well-equipped to play with his hand on the ground as well.

Senior Justin Utupo is also available to play both as a 3-4 end or pass-rushing end, the latter his strong suit though the bulk of Utupo's collegiate playing time has been on special teams.

Pittsburgh's lack of running punch appears well-timed for a thin defensive front seven.

"I think this is probably close to the pinnacle," said Kelly when asked if 2013 stood alone in terms of defensive attrition. "But I've had some offenses that have been hit this hard, and I think if you're in college football or at any level in the pros, you're going to have these times.  You just -- they don't give you any points for complaining about it.  If they did, I'd complain every minute.  So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."

Have a roster handy Saturday night, Irish fans.

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