#1 -- Donald Can't DominateNotre Dame was forced to adjust throughout the 2012 contest vs. Pittsburgh because Panthers defensive tackle Aaron Donald disrupted the Irish inside zone running game. Donald likewise wreaked havoc when the Irish dropped to pass and was the impetus for an absurd 15 combined QB hurries by the Panthers vs. the Irish front over the last two meetings.
The Irish interior OL is 2/3 different than last year's trio of blockers that dealt with Donald. Two members of the threesome, Steve Elmer and Nick Martin, have multiple seasons ahead in which they'll be far more polished -- and in Elmer's case, potentially dominant -- players. Conversely, Donald is a finished collegiate product, and he'll be in attack mode for 60-plus snaps.
#2 -- Pressure From FourCan Prince Shembo, Stephon Tuitt, and Romeo Okwara apply enough pocket pressure in third-down situations to get to Pittsburgh QB Tom Savage? The drop-back passer rarely has success vs. Bob Diaco's defensive approach, and the Irish pass rush, irrelevant over the last two week's vs. Service Academies, had appeared to hit its stride in mid-October.
With Sheldon Day battling injury and Louis Nix working his way back, can Okwara remain inside in the dime package (six defensive backs, four down linemen, one LB) and if so, will long-time reserve Anthony Rabasa finally get a shot to do what he does best: rush the passer?
Over the last two seasons, Shembo registered a combined 14 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass breakup, and 3 QB hurries vs. the Panthers. He's one to watch coming off the edge tonight.
#3 -- Discretion is the better part of valorPittsburgh has forced a combined five turnovers over the teams' last two matchups. Tommy Rees was responsible for two of those errors, both egregious interceptions and both where thrown when rolling right to avoid pocket pressure. His 2012 interception gave the Panthers possession at midfield and Pittsburgh capitalized with a touchdown for a 17-6, momentum-changing lead.
Tonight's hosts aren't good enough to beat Notre Dame if the Irish protect the ball and occasionally play conservative on third down settling for a punt, rather than turning it over and providing the Panthers with a short field.
Kelly, Rees and the Irish offense would do well to heed the team's 2012 directive that "zero is fine" when a play breaks down and move onto the next snap.
#4 -- End Zone EndingsIn 2011, Rees turned the ball over with an ill-advised pass inside the Panthers 5-yard line. In 2012, Everett Golson tossed a pick in the end zone late. The 2012 contest also featured a Cierre Wood fumble at the goal line, one that would have cost the Irish the contest had Pittsburgh kicker Kevin Harper not missed a chip shot on the ensuing overtime possession.
Considering the Panthers 115th-ranked red zone defense is even less impressive than Notre Dame's 100th-ranked red zone offense, when the Irish breach Pittsburgh's red zone tonight, touchdowns must follow.
#5 -- Treat Them As They ArePittsburgh struggles to run (104th in rushing offense), to convert in the red zone (73rd), and to convert on third down (71st), and rank near the bottom of the nation in terms of first downs gained this season (114th out of 123 FBS teams).
Yet the point spread is just four points in favor of the Irish. Why?
Because the Panthers, like most teams, play up to Notre Dame's level when pitted vs. the Irish.
With two huge battles forthcoming in underrated BYU and destructive Stanford, Notre Dame needs to play up to its own standard and handle the painfully average Panthers from the outset.
Not every scrappy rival should push Notre Dame to the brink. Letting teams accustomed to failing vs. others hang around vs. his squad remains an issue for Kelly & Co. a full 48 games into his tenure.