For 60 minutes tonight between the lines, that perception is irrelevant. The following trio of questions, however, will likely decide the contest.
Can the offensive line rebound?A team strength for the first two months of 2011 and certainly in the season opener vs. Navy, Notre Dame's offensive line played poorly vs. Purdue, allowing five sacks of quarterback Everett Golson, four official quarterback hurries (I noted two more), and committing three pre-snap and one post-snap penalty (with another in-play declined).
In truth, the Irish front failed for most of November and in the December bowl loss, and then again vs. a top level defensive front last week. In the former scenarios, 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave was absent due to injury, replaced by classmate Mike Golic. The two line up side-by-side in 2012 with Golic at right guard. Both struggled mightily last week and will be faced with 60 minutes of pounding from a stout front seven.
The line's best player, Zack Martin, played the worst game of his Irish career last week, but its likely he'll bounce back. Keep your eyes focused on the Irish center, right guard, and on X-Factor Christian Lombard, a player making his first career road start at right tackle -- the post-snap action there will decide the which team wins or loses on a given play, and likely on the evening.
Will the Irish Limit Gains in Space?One on Purdue drive last week, 50 of the Boilermakers 56 yards were gained after missed tackles by the Irish. The result was a field goal that should have been avoided, one that cut the Irish lead from 10 to 7 midway through the third quarter.
Cornerbacks Keivarae Russell and (backup) Jalen Brown, along with linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese were the culprits on the drive. Safety Matthias Farley also contributed. Each will be faced in spaced Saturday by an oversized athlete such as tight end Dion Sims (6'5" 285), running back sLe'Veon Bell (6'2" 244) and Larry Caper (5'11" 222), and wide receiver Bennie Fowler (6'1" 218).
Add to that the shoulder injury suffered by hard-hitting safety/athlete Jamoris Slaughter last weekend and the Irish have legitimate open-field tackling concerns this Saturday.
A portion of Notre Dame's defensive philosophy is tackling after the catch, limiting the yardage gained. As former safeties coach turned-offensive coordinator Chuck Martin noted last year, "I've never sat in a Monday meeting and lamented: 'Man, we lost that game because we didn't cover the curl in the flat.'"
No, its the missed tackle that contributes to defeat for a bend-but-don't break pass defense. Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta have tackled well this year; so too has Slaughter, but he's yet to attempt post-injury (Slaughter might be the team's best hitter/tackler in the open field in good health). Notre Dame's remaining players must do the same when isolated vs. quality athletes.
All About Everett?If perceived strengths and weaknesses manifest for both teams Saturday, the outcome will likely be decided under center, where Spartans senior Andrew Maxwell will make his third career start, as will sophomore Everett Golson. Maxwell has played one game of relative profile, a Friday evening season opener vs. Boise State in which he through for 248 yards but also three interceptions.
Tonight will be Maxwell's biggest, pressure-packed test, but Golson is the triggerman that must operate in a hostile environment, and against the best defense he's faced (and potentially will face this fall).
The Irish will win if Golson and his offensive cohorts can finish with a single turnover. Each thereafter puts the final outcome in jeopardy, even if the defense continues to create miscues of their own.
Final JudgementWith a win Saturday, the Irish will start 3-0 for the first time since 2002. A win likewise gives the program its first in prime time in a Top 10 foe's home stadium since 1983, a head-shaking reality that includes 10 consecutive defeats. More important, a win by Notre Dame would put the Irish squarely into the nation's Top 15, regardless of what else occurs this weekend, and as high as No. 11 or 12 in my estimation -- with a prime time meeting against current #17 Michigan to follow.
I don't doubt the Irish can win, but if the last 15-plus seasons have taught me anything, it's that I'm certain they can find a way to come up short in such a big spot, too. A win tonight would be Brian Kelly's best as Irish coach (it's not close) and the program's best moment since at least Week Two 2005, Charlie Weis' second game and an afternoon road win at #3 Michigan (the Wolverines collapsed to 7-5 thereafter).
Notre Dame's brand was in the news this week, its move to the ACC in other sports and with its toe dipped in the conference's football waters a huge marketing boon. Now the actual football team has to do something of note.
The Irish players and staff don't have to prove anything to their frustrated fan base or the media that doubts them. They have plenty to prove to themselves, and in this case, the nation will be watching.