Florida State wins if...
Offense: ... the four true freshmen starting on the offensive line prove to be healthier and more productive than the injured and ineffective veterans they're replacing. While junior quarterback E.J. Manuel's blind side will be protected by first-team All-ACC left tackle -- and possible first-round pick -- Zebrie Sanders, left guard Josue Matias, center Austin Barron, right guard Tre' Jackson and right tackle Bobby Hart were all playing high school football at this time a year ago. FSU has been bad in the trenches this season, which has led to too many sacks of Manuel and too few holes for the tailbacks, and even though Matias and Jackson will be making their first career starts Thursday, they need to realize their potential right away.
Defense: ... defensive coordinator Mark Stoops dials up a scheme that not only puts pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, but it takes him to the turf on more than one occasion. Rees is not a mobile passer and won't be buying himself any extra time -- either in the pocket or outside the tackle box -- with his legs, but the fact that he's only been sacked nine times in 2011 proves he gets rid of the ball in a hurry. Stoops needs to send a blitzer or two from every angle imaginable in order to speed up the decision-making process for Rees and give him less time to wait for receiver Michael Floyd or tight end Tyler Eifert to break open, plus third and 14 is a lot easier to defend than third and 7.
-- John Crist, NoleDigest.com
Notre Dame wins if...
Offense: ... it runs as much or more than it passes. It's a simple equation: When Notre Dame runs more than it passes, or when its run/pass balance is within five snaps more passes than runs, the Irish are 15-1. When the Irish offense relies too heavily on the pass, they lose, with all nine losses over Brian Kelly's two seasons featuring 37 or more pass attempts. Reasons abound, but the root cause is that Notre Dame's excessive passing days have generally included multiple turnovers, either interceptions or fumbles by its quarterbacks the chief culprits. Run/pass balance, protect the football, punt, defend, win -- it might not be sexy, but it has teeth.
Defense: ... the defensive front can apply pressure to Manuel while still containing him in the pocket. If Manuel is not allowed to extend plays with his legs, Bob Diaco's disciplined defense should hold Florida State to two or fewer touchdowns, just as it has against 12 of the last 17 opponents to take the field vs. Notre Dame -- and in three of those five failures, the Irish led by at least 30 points when the given foe scored its third touchdown of the day. Manuel and FSU's myriad offensive playmakers will win in space. The Irish have to limit those opportunities.
-- Tim O'Malley, IrishEyes.com
Florida State loses if...
Offense: ... Manuel is the only effective rusher and has to make too many plays with his legs. FSU entered the season with junior Chris Thompson and seniors Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas atop the depth chart at tailback, but Thompson was never right due to a previous back injury and then broke his back Oct. 8 at Wake Forest, Jones simply didn't have the talent to create something out of nothing and Thomas battled injuries and inconsistency from start to finish -- that finish was premature since he didn't make grades during the Fall semester and was an academic casualty before the bowl game. While the 'Noles have some serious weapons in the aerial attack, this inexperienced offensive line can't be expected to keep Manuel upright in the pocket 40-45 times, which is why freshman backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. must make their presence felt.
Defense: ... Floyd and Eifert are able to exploit one-on-one matchups and/or find the open areas in zone coverage. FSU's defense is No. 1 in the country with a yards-allowed-per-carry average of 2.3, so the Fighting Irish should be in for some tough sledding trying to run the ball, but Floyd and Eifert are the best receiver-and-tight end combination the 'Noles have faced since Clemson on Sept. 24 -- Sammy Watkins and Dwayne Allen both had productive days for the Tigers in a 35-30 win at Death Valley. Sophomore Xavier Rhodes is the only corner that stands a chance physically vs. Floyd, and the safety rotation of senior Terrance Parks and junior Nick Moody is more comfortable in the box that out in space chasing Eifert.
Notre Dame loses if...
Offense: ... it falls behind by two scores. In three of Notre Dame's four losses this fall, the Irish dropped to deficits of 16-0, 17-0 and 21-0. In three of five losses last year, the Irish fell behind 21-7, 16-6 (eventually 34-6) and 21-10 in the first half. Kelly's Irish have won just once when trailing at halftime over the last two seasons, including at Wake Forest in early November this year. The team's come-from-behind struggles are directly related to their over-reliance on the pass, as noted in the section above.
Defense: ... its defense can't get off the field consistently after third down. In more than half of Kelly's nine losses as Irish coach, the opposing offense has fared well on third down (Stanford twice, Navy and Tulsa last year, USC this year). In most of the 25 games coached by Kelly and Diaco, the latter's defensive unit has shined in this regard, limiting quality teams such as Michigan, Michigan State, Utah, and USC (last year) to their worst third-down conversion efforts.
John Crist is editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Tim O'Malley is publisher of IrishEyes.com.
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