News and Notes: Keys to the Game

Will the Irish secondary improve from last year and slow down Tyler Palko?

Notre Dame has two new starting corners and Chinedum Ndukwe at free safety to combat the major problem from 2004. These three players and strong safety Tom Zbikowski will be under the gun from Pittsburgh's top receiving threat, Greg Lee, who caught 10 touchdowns for almost 1300 yards last season. The secondary not only gave up a lot of yards but 23 touchdowns. Many anticipate Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh attempting to establish the run. This remains to be seen. New defensive coordinator Rick Minter and secondary coach Bill Lewis surely have devised a scheme to slow down the Palko machine. Eventually, though, it will come down to the secondary making plays on the field.

How will Brady Quinn look in his debut with Charlie Weis's offense?

Weis has been extremely complimentary of his junior signal caller in picking up the offense and being a leader. Much of the Irish's fortunes will be riding on how Quinn performs in 2005. His arm strength and toughness have never been a question. But Quinn has to improve on a career 50.8% completion percentage and a 10-11 record as the starter. The offense returns all 11 starters from last year and the players he'll throw to are plentiful. Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija provide big targets, Matt Shelton is a proven deep threat and Rhema McKnight has led the team in receptions the past two seasons. Pittsburgh's secondary returns three starters and plays aggressively. The corners, in particular, are big and are both over six feet in size. Quinn threw three touchdowns last year versus the Panthers but also gave them two interceptions. Limiting the mistakes will put him and Notre Dame in a good position to win.

Can the Irish running game keep the inexperienced defense off the field?

Darius Walker might be licking his chops. The Pittsburgh defensive line returns only one starter, Thomas Smith, and he moved to the tackle spot after the graduation of two-three year starters there. Although inexperienced, they are big. Smith is 6-4, 300 lbs. and fellow starting tackle Corey Davis is 6-1, 300 lbs. Despite this size advantage, Notre Dame's offensive line is a veteran group. Weis has made mention of the fact that they are in excellent physical shape and ready for the constant pounding. If the Irish can control the line of scrimmage, they control the time of possession and let the defense rest on the sidelines. Last season, Notre Dame averaged a meager 127 yards a game on the ground. This number will have to drastically rise on Saturday night. Walker looks to get the majority of the carries but Travis Thomas and Rashon Powers-Neal also will handle some of the workload.

Prediction time:

The excitement level hasn't been higher in Irish nation for quite a while. Weis brings confidence and swagger to a team in desperate need of it. Don't expect to see the 6-6 team that was on the field in 2004 but also don't expect an unbeatable juggernaut at Heinz Field. Notre Dame is back in the spotlight in prime time with a national audience dissecting every move the new head coach makes. Expect more good moves than bad ones and for Darius Walker to have a big game on the ground. The offensive line is ready to get "nasty" and the running game will be the beneficiary. If the rushing attack gets going, expect a big passing play to either Maurice Stovall or Matt Shelton for a touchdown. Tyler Palko does not throw for five touchdowns but he doesn't get shut out either with the likes of Greg Lee to throw to. Notre Dame has just enough on offense to outlast Pittsburgh in a fantastic opener, giving Weis his first collegiate victory. Notre Dame 31 Pittsburgh 27


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