With injuries piled up and a bye week on the horizon, the Irish face a crossroad they’ve been at before. Beat Pittsburgh and take a week to recover, allowing key contributors like Ishaq Williams and Kona Schwenke a chance to heal before dealing with BYU at home.
The Irish may be battered and bruised, but they also seem to distance themselves from teams past, with the mental toughness needed to push forward when physical limitation strike. That toughness will be tested tonight, with Pitt hoping to settle the score after nearly toppling Notre Dame’s undefeated season last year.
Let’s go over some final thoughts before kickoff.
How will the running back position evolve? It looked like the Irish found a featured running back in Tarean Folston, but Brian Kelly did his best to downplay any separation. We’ll see how the carries shake out and if Folston can continue to run with confidence and power, doing so against a tougher defense than the Midshipmen.
Can Tommy Rees attack Pitt downfield? Throwing the football in November at night in Pittsburgh isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially in an offense that relies on precision. With the wind set to pickup in the evening and temperatures dipping into the mid-40s, Rees will need to have a good day from the pocket if the Irish offense wants to continue moving forward.
This Pitt secondary hasn’t always held up this year, and the emergence of Ben Koyack has added another weapon for defenses to think about. TJ Jones is on a touchdown streak that’s inching closer to the school’s record, and he’ll likely be targeted early and often tonight.
How will the defensive line hold up? Expect Louis Nix to make his presence felt almost immediately, matched up with Aaron Donald in a game that’ll feature two of college football’s best defensive tackles. Nix and Donald’s games aren’t all that similar, but expect the two weeks off to do Big Lou some good and for him to come out fired up.
Stephon Tuitt could have a field day tonight against a Pitt offensive line that’s had trouble holding up. Tuitt playing big could lessen the importance of Sheldon Day, who will once again be less than 100 percent as his balky ankle limits his explosiveness.
Even with limitations, the Irish will be at their best up front with Tuitt, Nix and Day. But it’ll be interesting to follow the rotation Mike Elston relies on, and see who that next man is between Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Justin Utupo or Tyler Stockton.
How many snaps will the starting linebackers take? It’s going to be a long night for Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo and Jaylon Smith. Don’t expect a lot of time off for a group that’s going to need to bring a hard hat to work tonight.
Pitt’s going to try their best to establish the run and it’ll be up to these four to play physical at the point of attack and be sure tacklers. If you watched Trick Shot Monday carefully, you saw a small cast on linebacker Joe Schmidt’s thumb. Kendall Moore seems to have earned the staff’s confidence and could be utilized, but after him and Romeo Okwara, the depth drops off quite a bit.
Prince Shembo has been a feast or famine pass rusher all season. He could eat quite well tonight.
Can the Irish find their mojo on special teams? Kickoff coverage has struggled. A nice punt return was called back. After nearly winning the game on special teams against Michigan State, the Irish nearly lost one last week.
If the Irish get into a slugfest Saturday night, they can’t have their third unit let down the offense and the defense. With injuries taking first tier players like Ben Councell off kick units, guys like James Onwualu are going to need to make plays.