PITTSBURGH – Beating Notre Dame for a third consecutive season might be a lot easier for Pittsburgh if it had the Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin of last season.
Lewis, a returning 1,799-yard rusher, hasn't lost his starting job — yet — even though Ray Graham is coming off three consecutive 100-yard games and has outrushed Lewis 492-193. Lewis, who ran for 152 yards and a touchdown as Pitt beat the Fighting Irish 27-22 last season, will start Saturday in South Bend, Ind.
Baldwin's falloff is just as troubling for the Panthers (2-2), if only because they don't have another wide receiver who comes close to duplicating the 6-foot-5 junior's size, skill or leaping ability. An all-Big East receiver last season, he has 15 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
Those statistics might be good for most receivers after four games, but they're not good enough for Pitt, which designed a website for Baldwin intended to push him for postseason honors. Going into this season, Baldwin was viewed as Pitt's best NFL prospect at wide receiver since Heisman Trophy runner-up Larry Fitzgerald in 2003.
Baldwin's numbers are similar to those through his first four games last season (15 receptions, 320 yards, 2 touchdowns) but it was about this time a year ago that his season began taking off. He averaged nearly five catches per game over Pitt's final nine games, finishing with more than 100 yards receiving in six.
Pitt's drop-off in quarterback play from senior Bill Stull in 2009 to sophomore Tino Sunseri is most affecting Baldwin, who is dealing not only with widely different coverages but also with an inexperienced quarterback who regularly overthrows him.
"For us to take our offense to another level, which we need to, Jon Baldwin needs to get his hands on the football," coach Dave Wannstedt said.
That can be difficult when passes are sailing three feet or more above those hands. Sunseri threw incomplete on nine of his first 11 attempts during a 44-17 victory over Florida International on Saturday, and Baldwin made only two catches for 14 yards.
Baldwin has remained patient in a work-in-progress offense, but he understands this would be a good week for a breakthrough game. As a freshman, Baldwin caught a 10-yard touchdown pass that forced overtime at Notre Dame, and the Panthers wound up winning 36-33 in four overtimes.
Last season, the Fighting Irish couldn't slow down Baldwin, who had five catches for 142 yards and a touchdown.
"As a receiver, you definitely want to make every play. But the reality of it is that you're not going to make them all," Baldwin said. "And if you don't make one, you just have to get up and try to catch the next pass thrown your way. I had a lot of catches like that last year, but I'm sure I'll make some big ones this week against Notre Dame."
Baldwin expects to see coverages much like those employed by Cincinnati during its 45-44, Big East-clinching victory at Pittsburgh last season. Baldwin made six catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns in what became coach Brian Kelly's final game at Cincinnati before being hired by Notre Dame (2-3).
"Notre Dame probably will play some man-to-man, at least they did when these coaches were at Cincinnati. They have both coordinators there with coach Kelly," Baldwin said. "I watched the Michigan game, and they will play some press coverage. But it's nothing that we haven't seen from defenses."
Predictably, Baldwin is seeing a wider variety of coverages than he did during his first two seasons. Last season, defenses had to contend not only with Baldwin, but also with tight end Dorin Dickerson, who had 10 touchdowns among his 49 receptions.
"Every week we kind of see new wrinkles for Jon," Wannstedt said. "It may be one guy pressing him, another guy on top of him, one guy inside or one guy playing outside coverage. They're always going to come up with a different look. We have a few offensive linemen, a new quarterback, so we're trying to progress, but at the same time be smart. It's been a challenge."
Baldwin played high school football in Aliquippa, the Beaver County community near Pittsburgh that also produced players such as Darrelle Revis, Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett. Notre Dame cornerback Darrin Walls starred at nearby Woodland Hills, which has produced more current NFL players than any other U.S. high school.
Baldwin doesn't remember Walls from those days, nor does he recall much about how Walls defended him last season.
"I think you'll see a great game on Saturday. He really didn't press that much, so I really can't say if he's physical in that aspect," Baldwin said. "And he really didn't tackle me, either, so I wouldn't be able to tell you that at all."