Friday, September 02, 2005

Keys to the ND-Pitt Game and a Prediction

We are a little less than 24 hours from kickoff of the Notre Dame season opener. While much has been made about the X's and O's ability of Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt, this game ultimately comes down to the players on the field. There are 3 keys for the Irish if they want to leave Pittsburgh victorious.

One, they need to be able to run the football. The Pitt Panthers have a very good middle linebacker in H.B. Blades, but not much else in the front seven. Their two defensive tackles, Thomas Smith and Corey Davis are big question marks. Smith has been battling a knee injury in fall practice and Davis will be making his college football debut. The Panthers also have two new defensive ends in Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop, both of whom saw limited action last season. Notre Dame's offensive line must be able to open holes for Darius Walker not only to keep Tyler Palko and Greg Lee off the field, but also to avoid playing into the strength of the Pitt defense, their secondary, as they have 3 returning players and one of the better cornerback combos in the country.

Two, they need to be able to stop the run. With new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, there will be an increased emphasis by Pitt to run a more conservative, ball-control offense. In fact, I would be surprised if Palko throws more than 30 times tomorrow. That means that the the defensive line must control the line of scrimmage and the linebackers must fill the gaps in order to stop 235 lbs running back and true freshman Rashard Jennings from getting going and running over defenders. If the Irish cannot slow down Jennings, not only will Pitt be able to control the clock, but the Irish will be forced to bring a safety into the box to slow down the running game, which will likely leave Lee one on one versus Ambrose Wooden or Mike Richardson. In a word, yikes.

Three, they need to win the turnover battle. If you take a look at the top teams not only in the college football, but also the NFL, they all have one common characteristic and that is they force more turnovers than they give up. Turnovers will loom especially large in this game with both teams fairly even in talent.

So what's going to happen tomorrow? I expect Darius Walker to have a huge day, running for at least 120 yards. I also expect the Irish to control the line of scrimmage, prevent Jennings from running wild and force him to cough it up at least once. I further expect Palko and Greg Lee to keep the game close into the 4th quarter. In the end, however, it will be too much Darius Walker, and the Irish will walk away with a 27-21 victory.