Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly calls this week's game against Pittsburgh "like playing a conference opponent more than anything else."
Settle down. The Irish aren't considering joining the Big East. But these two programs are very familiar with one another.
Pitt will have to hope that Saturday isn't that much like recent conference games involving Kelly. His Cincinnati teams eliminated the Panthers from the Big East title chase the last two years, winning 28-21 in Nippert Stadium two years ago and then pulling out last year's epic 45-44 thriller in the season finale. Kelly might be all that stood in the way of Dave Wannstedt having taken Pitt to two straight BCS games.
"I don't know if it's one particular thing where you can say, 'Boy, they don't do this well or don't do that well,'" Kelly said of holding the edge over the Panthers. "We know what their personality is, and both games we played came down to the last possession."
Kelly may have a new address, but Wannstedt said the Irish look a whole lot like his old Bearcats teams.
"Both coordinators are with him, so schematically there is a lot of carryover," Wannstedt said. "They’re not quite as far along in their passing game today at Notre Dame like they were last year at the end of the year with Cincinnati, having those kids around him a couple of years."
While Kelly might have had Wannstedt's number recently in the Big East, it's the opposite story for Pitt and Notre Dame.
The Panthers have beaten the Irish (2-3) each of the last two seasons, including an overtime win in South Bend in 2008 and last year's 27-22 victory in Heinz Field. The gold helmets won't intimidate them.
“We’ve played these guys the last couple of years so our players are somewhat familiar with the environment, their players and the scheme," Wannstedt said. "We need to go up there and play well. We still haven’t played close to what we’re capable of playing."
Pittsburgh (2-2) showed some improvement against Florida International after shaking up its offensive line, but it still led only 16-10 after three quarters before shaking free for a 44-17 win. Spread offenses have traditionally given the Panthers trouble, which is one possible reason why Kelly had the upper hand the past two years. But moving Dom DeCicco up from safety to linebacker might help the defense's ability to control the Irish passing game.
Regardless, there won't be many secrets between the two sides.
"They know what we're going to do offensively, and we kind of know what they're going to do defensively, so that's a wash," Kelly said. "I think this comes down to who's better prepared and who executes better on Saturday, because we know each other so well."