If Irish are intimidated by Fitzgerald, they're not showing it

Updated: October 9, 2003, 7:29 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Notre Dame cornerback Vontez Duff gives up four inches and 30 pounds in his matchup with Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald, college football's leading receiver. That doesn't mean he's given up hope he can contain a player who so far has been close to unstoppable.

"I'm always going to be in his face," said Duff, a third-team All-American last season. "I don't know if anybody's really gotten up in his face and has been real physical with him."

Given Fitzgerald's 6-foot-3, 225-pound size, that's difficult to do, and it would especially seem so for the 5-11, 194-pound Duff. But Notre Dame had some success against Fitzgerald a year ago, limiting the freshman to seven catches for 83 yards.

That would be a big day for some receivers but not Fitzgerald, who has 18 touchdown catches in his last 10 games and nine in four games this season. Under current rules, Fitzgerald must wait until 2005 to be eligible for the NFL draft, but some scouts already consider him the top receiving prospect.

"He feels that any time the ball is in the air, he's going to catch it," Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham said.

Duff's strategy in defending Fitzgerald at a sold-out Heinz Field on Saturday is simple: be tough coming off the line of scrimmage, disrupt his route and don't let him race downfield, hoping to make a play once the ball is in the air.

That didn't work two weeks ago for Texas A&M, which repeatedly used multiple defenders against Fitzgerald without success. He finished with seven catches for 135 yards and three TDs, including a 49-yarder with two defenders on him and a third only a stride away.

"They've just let him run down the field and run all over the place," Duff said. "I'm going to be a little more physical. That's just the kind of person I am. We're going to get in his face, try to disrupt some timing and just play our kind of football."

Notre Dame was badly outgained by Pittsburgh last season, 402-185, but won 14-6 in South Bend mostly because it contained Pitt's physical quarterback, the 225-pound Rod Rutherford, inside the Irish's 20.

Rutherford had a good day statistically, throwing for 313 yards and running for 29 more, but the Panthers repeatedly stalled within scoring range and never found the end zone. Rutherford also committed two key turnovers and was sacked eight times.

Notre Dame's strength again appears to be its defense, even though the Fighting Irish (1-3) have allowed at least 22 points to each of their four nationally ranked opponents.

"I think they have the toughest defense we will face this entire year," said Pitt coach Walt Harris, whose No. 15 Panthers (3-1) have yet to face a ranked team.

"Most of their players are back, most of the guys were part of the team that won 10 games (in 2002). We've lost to them the last two years -- we found a way to lose and they found a way to win -- so they are always dangerous," Harris said.

However, Rutherford and Fitzgerald have improved since the Notre Dame game a year ago. Rutherford isn't as apt to throw the ball into coverage as he did early last season, and the emergence of running back Brandon Miree (82.7 yards per game) has prevented defenses from worrying only about Pitt's downfield throwing.

Fitzgerald has added 15 pounds since last season.

"That is a very difficult combination for us to defense or to even attempt to defense," Willingham said, referring to Rutherford and Fitzgerald. "As of right now, no one has really done a good job of doing that."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index