SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Fourth-ranked Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are looking to avoid distractions on Saturday.
The Fighting Irish (8-0) tried all week to distance themselves from talk about possibly playing for their first national championship since 1988. They skipped discussions about how the 2002 team stumbled at this same point.
They’ve done their best to escape the demand for tickets — and their time — that friends and family have created leading up to recent games at Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish haven’t been as dominant as they have been on the road.
It’s a problem that perplexes the Irish. Notre Dame’s average margin of victory at home is five points and away from South Bend it’s 28 points. Coach Brian Kelly said he believes the Irish have to raise the intensity at home.
“I think teams that come into Notre Dame Stadium play their very, very best. We have to match that intensity,” he said.
The biggest differences for the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium and away are turnovers, penalties and their rushing offense and defense. Seven of Notre Dame’s eight turnovers have occurred at home and the Irish have committed 27 penalties at home and 15 away. Meanwhile, the Irish are averaging 110 yards a game more away from South Bend while the defense is holding opponents to 41.5 yards a game less away from South Bend.
“I don’t know. That’s the same thing we talked about this week. We have to come with the same energy at home as we do on the road,” Kelly said.
The Panthers (4-4) have a different sort of distraction after leading rusher Ray Graham, leading receiver Devin Street and defensive back Lafayette Pitts were charged Thursday with misdemeanor counts of simple assault and conspiracy involving three other students. The players deny being involved and will play on Saturday.
Left tackle Zack Martin and other Irish players say playing in hostile stadiums might help motivate them.
“When you come out you hear a bunch of people yelling at you, booing you, it amps you up a little more,” cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “I don’t think that has anything to do with playing home or away. I think people lose mental focus.”
Kelly believes part of the problem is the time demands from parents and friends of players at home, saying he saw several players giving tours of the athletic complex on the day before the last home game against Brigham Young. He’s trying to take steps to guard against that.
“We want to make sure that Friday and Saturday is not the Super Bowl, parents asking for tickets. Friends wanting, ‘Can you take me on a tour,’” Kelly said.
Another distraction is all the talk about Notre Dame possibly having its best season in two decades. Jackson concedes it’s hard to avoid the big picture talk because that’s what everyone on campus is interested in.
“You can’t look at it because if you look at it and you look past something you won’t reach the goals you want to reach,” he said.
The Irish also are trying to avoid the fate of the 2002 team that started 8-0, then was upset by unranked Boston College following a big win at Florida State.
Coming off a big win at Oklahoma last week, Kelly said he didn’t plan on talking to his team about that past history. One player who didn’t need to be taught a lesson is center Braxton Cave, who grew up a die-hard Irish fan in nearby Mishawaka. He remembers watching the loss to Boston College.
“I think I recall throwing something through a window at the house,” he said.
But he said he hasn’t talked about that game with teammates.
“Because right now this team is focused one game at a time. Everybody knows. Everybody knows it’s one game at a time and this is the most important game,” he said.
Another distraction for Kelly is the team’s health. A week ago, tailback George Atkinson III missed the Oklahoma game because he was sick. Kelly said a few more players were ill this week.
“Everybody should dress on game day. We’ll see. But it’s not an epidemic. It’s not going to knock out four, five, six guys,” he said. “If one guy is affected by it at all, it will be just minimizing some of his reps.”
Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst also is concerned about another distraction, that his team could get caught up in focusing on the role of being a spoiler.
“All that stuff is really good for the game and you love the interest, but the game stands on its own. We can play this game and it would be a great game if no one was in the stands and they weren’t talking about it on all the things. The game still stands on its own,” he said.