Poll Position?

Saturday, Irish fans will take in another "just don't lose" matchup, the second such situation over a three-week November span before a trip to powerful Stanford concludes the season. Still, an impressive prime time win vs. Maryland could help the team's season-end cause.

After a 4-3 start, Notre Dame has won consecutive games they couldn't afford to lose. Two more such matchups, including Saturday's neutral site game vs. 2-7 Maryland in Landover, wait.

And while more harm than good can come from tomorrow night's contest, the Irish can still take important steps with a victory.

  1. Style points are relevant: Relatively speaking, at least. Winning 45-14 vs. a team that hasn't beaten an FBS school since Labor Day weekend would barely impress pollsters – those placing Brian Kelly's Irish near the nation's Top 30 at present. But winning 24-17 again as Notre Dame did last week vs. Wake Forest – a true road game, and better foe than the Terrapins – would do little to improve Notre Dame's status.

    Irish fans holding out faint BCS dreams would only see those realized if the team can work its way into the Top 20-range (not 23-25) heading into a season-ending matchup at potentially undefeated and #3 Stanford. Failing that, it's the Champs Sports Bowl – a solid couple steps up from last year's Sun Bowl bid nonetheless.

    The Irish are capable of a 45-17 blowout Saturday, but Maryland has scored points vs. quality teams – if not defenses – this season. However, of late the Terrapins have struggled, scoring just 16, 17, and 13 in their last three outings, and are undergoing full-scale implosion with first-year head coach Randy Edsall taking the brunt of fan and media abuse.

    Notre Dame needs to handle a team in such dire straits…

  2. 11-3 with a win: If the Irish prevail Saturday, fans outside Notre Dame's circle will see a 7-3 record in 2011. But as Kelly has alluded to often, building the program in his image is a process, and this victory would move his Irish to 11-3 in its last 14 games – the best stretch since Charlie Weis' first 14 games in 2005-06 ending with a home September '06 blowout of then-#18 Penn State.

    Of note: during the 13 games already played, Bob Diaco's defense has limited 10 of the opponents to two touchdowns or fewer (Michigan, Air Force, and USC the exceptions); five of those to just one touchdown and two were kept from pay dirt. Kelly said Job 1 was rebuilding the defense; he and Diaco are close, though USC – the season's toughest offensive test until Thanksgiving Saturday – put forth a solid 60 minutes vs. the Irish scoring 24 offensive points and piling up nearly 450 yards in the process.

    The defense hasn't fully arrived as I thought it might this season, but its solid – second tier and likely underrated a bit nationally considering key injuries up front and a hobbled Manti Te'o (lingering ankle injury).

  3. 116th vs. the run: Just a quick reminder that Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood should combine for a minimum of 30 carries per game, regardless of the opponent. Maryland ranks 116th vs. the run this season, allowing 25 touchdowns on the ground (Notre Dame, by comparison, has yielded five rushing scores). The two-headed Irish monster should allow an inconsistent Irish passing game plenty of mid-range windows as the Terrapins attempt to plug holes exposed up front.

  4. Turnovers and Tommy: Maryland ranks ninth in turnovers gained, their 23 more than doubling the total forced by Diaco's defenders (10). Quarterback Tommy Rees and the Irish have suffered 22 (Rees is responsible for 13-14 depending on your scoring of a pair of laterals) and Notre Dame has played just two turnover-free games in nine contests to date.

    "They're an athletic group," said Kelly of the Terrapins defense. "I like their secondary, they're aggressive, they play a lot of man coverage (and) they do bring pressures. "So part of the scheme that (defensive coordinator) Todd Bradford runs is predicated on taking the ball away, and to do that, you've got to be pressuring the offense and they'll do that. We're really preparing for a lot of man, a lot of pressure because that's what's allowed them to put points on the board, vis-à-vis turnovers."

    If Notre Dame protects the ball (one turnover or less and not inside either team's 20-yard line) they'll win going away. If not, a talented but dysfunctional Terrapins team could stick around.

    "They're playing Notre Dame," Kelly exclaimed when asked about the 2-7 foe. "This is (Maryland's) bowl game."

    Notre Dame's bowl big hangs in the balance – look for a relatively clean outing for the Irish and the team's first appearance in the Top 25 since bumbling through the season-opener.

    In two weeks, we'll see how far the Irish have progressed this fall. Until then…

Notre Dame 38 Maryland 17

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