Over the course of the past eight seasons the Irish have been up-and-down from many different viewpoints. The one area that is especially troubling is that Notre Dame often times loses home games against less talented teams, not to mention loses to similar opponents away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium. That trend must be resurrected before the Notre Dame football program can reach its long-term goals.
Pittsburgh - Right off the bat, Notre Dame travels to western Pennsylvania to play Pittsburgh this upcoming Sep. 3. A new head coach for each program, a fresh start, and the game will be broadcasted live under the lights on ABC, with Keith Jackson calling the game. Beyond what everyone expects to be much-improved Irish special teams, Notre Dame simply needs to be much better pass defense as a whole. Tyler Palko is back after shredding Notre Dame for five touchdowns last season.
Regardless of how the Irish defend the passing game, Notre Dame will need a strong running game to keep Palko standing next to his teammates on the sidelines. A young Panther defensive line should aid that greatly. Darius Walker should have a 100+ yard performance. Notre Dame has a stout run defense, while the Panther's running game is below average. Notre Dame must take advantage of this area as well.
Michigan State - The Sep. 17 game with Michigan State marks the first home game for head coach Charlie Weis. The hoopla surrounding the game will be gigantic. Hopefully it will not become a distraction for any of the Irish players.
The Spartans are a dangerous team. The Spartans utilize a spread offense, which is always difficult to defend. Quarterback Drew Stanton is the catalyst for the Spartans, and he can beat teams with both his legs and his right arm. When healthy, and that's been a big if during Stanton's short career, he is as dangerous as any player the Big 10 has to offer. Michigan State has several talented wide receivers, but its running game will be the key. The Spartans were 10th nationally last season at 238.5 rushing yards per contest. The most talented of the running backs is redshirt sophomore Jehuu Caulcrick, who had 619 rushing yards last season. He is a 230-pound running back with speed. If Notre Dame is able to slow him down, the defense will be in pretty good shape. Jason Teague actually led the Spartans last season with 688 rushing yards, and he returns as well.
Defensively the Spartans will be counting on Eric Smith to be its leader. A junior college transfer that originally signed with Purdue, Smith started out at the "Bandit" position (similar to the Apache position at Notre Dame) for the Spartans. Smith will now be the ringleader of the secondary as a safety. Another player to remember is SirDarean Adams (great name, huh?). He was a heavily recruited player from Bradenton, Fla., (Bayshore) before signing with the Spartans. Adams is now the likely starter at Bandit with Smith moving over to the secondary. The Michigan State defense is expected to be solid, but nothing spectacular.
Purdue - The Boilermakers are not only a tough opponent, but the Oct. 1 game will be played in West Lafayette, after an emotional game against Washington in Seattle, and before an off-week in which the Irish the Irish will begin to prepare for Southern California. And oh, the Boilermakers play at Minnesota the previous week before the Irish come to town. It's generally not good to play a team after it loses. The Gophers are capable of upsetting the Boilermakers.
Timing aside, Notre Dame still has more talent than Purdue, although less experience on defense. Purdue returns 10 starters on defense, with defensive end Ray Edwards a primary concern for opposing offensive tackles Mark LeVoir and Ryan Harris. Edwards is a pure pass rusher that gave Notre Dame some trouble last season. Defensive tackle Brent Grover is also a potential nemesis. He has been a good player throughout his college career. The biggest threat could still be free safety Bernard Pollard. The Fort Wayne native is likely to be a NFL player and has the size to match up with Irish wide receivers Rhema McKnight, Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija.
Offensively the Boilermakers will turn to quarterback Brandon Kirsch to lead the way. He has sometimes been more affective with his legs than coach Tiller would probably like, but he is still a threat nonetheless. Slowing down running back Jerod Void is without a doubt a big priority for Irish defensive coordinator Rick Minter. When Purdue is able to have a balanced attack, it rarely loses. Void's impact, good or bad, could greatly determine the outcome of the game.
Notre Dame will need to be patient when it has the football. Purdue has an experienced defense and will capitalize upon mistakes quickly. Staying out of long yardage situations is definitely a must for Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and the Irish offense. Purdue lines up its defensive ends very wide during obvious passing downs making it almost impossible to block them without a H-back, running back or tight end to help out the offensive tackles. Much like the Pittsburgh game, Darius Walker needs to have a big performance. Keep Purdue's offense off the field, and move the chains. The success or failure of play-action passes down the field after drawing in Purdue's secondary will probably be an important factor as well.