Notre Dame 2012 Football Schedule: Keys to Each Game

Randy ChambersAnalyst IMay 10, 2012

Notre Dame 2012 Football Schedule: Keys to Each Game

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    The expectations aren't as high as they were last season for the Irish, but Notre Dame would still like to see some progress this year. A majority of the team stayed intact, but there is that wonderful quarterback controversy going on and a few issues in the secondary to worry about.

    While the talent usually figures itself out, it's the schedule that many Irish fans are worried about. Taking on Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC is no cakewalk. Then when you throw in teams like Miami and BYU, you have a lot on your plate to deal with.

    Notre Dame has finished the last two years with eight victories, topping that this season may be a little difficult, but there are always ways to knock off even the best teams in the sport.

    We've broken down the schedule, gave a few predictions and provided you with a few games the Irish must win. Now it's time to look at the keys to victory against every team on Notre Dame's 2012 schedule.

Vs. Navy

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    Key: Stop the running game.

    There's one thing you can always expect from Navy, and that's a team that wants to run the football. It's averaged over 250 yards on the ground the last five seasons. Last season, the Midshipmen only threw the ball a total of 135 times against 694 rushing attempts. That was also a majority of their scoring offense: 34 touchdowns on the ground, 10 through the air.

    This year Navy only returns four starters on the offensive side of the ball, but the game plan likely won't change anytime soon. Quarterback Trey Miller hasn't shown nearly enough to help create a more balanced offense.

    The Irish did a solid job in last year's victory, holding Navy to under four yards a rushing attempt. The defense will have to have a similar showing in this game as well.

Vs. Purdue

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    Key: Move the chains.

    The Boilermakers weren't exactly so hot on the defensive side of the ball last season. Sure they only allowed 27 points per contest, but they gave up more than enough big plays which resulted in their 7-6 record.

    Purdue allowed 205 plays that went over 10 yards, which was by far the worst in the conference and tied for 106th in the country with teams like Iowa State, Baylor and New Mexico. They also allowed 54 plays that went over 20 yards, which was third worst in the Big Ten, only ahead of Northwestern and Indiana.

    The Irish were one of the best teams in the country last year finishing with 216 10-yard plays on offense (tied with Toledo for 22nd in the country).

    Notre Dame keeps the majority of its offense intact and Purdue returns seven starters on defense. In last year's victory, Notre Dame racked up 34 first downs while the Boilermakers only managed 17.

At Michigan State

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    Key: Protect the quarterback.

    It's no secret that Michigan State has one of the top defenses in the country. They finished last season with 45 sacks (which was good for third in the country) and were ranked sixth in total yards allowed. This season they return eight starters on that side of the ball and look to repeat those numbers from a year ago.

    There were only four games last season where the Spartans failed to get at least two sacks, and Notre Dame's 31-13 victory was one of them. Quarterback Tommy Rees was only sacked one time in the shocking win.

    The word is that Notre Dame will have one of the better offensive lines in the country this season. The Spartans were 7-1 last season when they sacked sacked a quarterback at least three times. It'll take a similar effort to beat the Spartans in consecutive years for the first time since 1993-1994.

Vs. Michigan

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    Key: Contain Denard Robinson.

    They say the best way to kill a snake is to cut the head off. Well, when a team relies heavily on one player, like Michigan does with quarterback Denard Robinson, it's best to try and contain him as much as you can. Make other players beat you.

    The problem is that the Irish haven't done such a great job at that for the last two seasons. In two games against Notre Dame, Robinson has combined for 948 total yards and eight total touchdowns. I think that's a good part of the reason why the Irish have lost their last four games against Michigan.

    In the last two seasons that Robinson's been the full-time starter, he's lost a total of nine games. In those nine games, Robinson failed to top either 100 yards rushing or 100 yards passing.

    I think the key to this game is pretty clear.

Vs. Miami (In Chicago, IL)

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    Key: Control the clock.

    Notre Dame has enough pieces on offense and proven players to knock off this Miami team, but they'll have to control the clock. Miami only returns four starters on the offensive side of the ball and only have two players left that scored more than one touchdown last year.

    They also don't know who their starting quarterback is going to be with Stephen Morris undergoing back surgery. This Hurricane team has a lot of questions on offense and is desperately searching for playmakers to step up and become difference makers.

    With this matchup taking place in Soldier Field, you can likely expect harsh weather conditions. If Notre Dame's running game can get going and keep Miami's offense on the sidelines, there should be no issues with the Irish winning their third in a row over the Hurricanes.

Vs. Stanford

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    Key: Contain Stepfan Taylor.

    The Irish have lost the last three games against Stanford, but this is their chance to snap that losing streak. With no Andrew Luck on the roster, it should be a lot easier for Notre Dame's defense to make plays and get off the field.

    But they'll still have to control a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in Stepfan Taylor. He's entering his senior year and has done some damage against the Irish in his career (257 total yards in the last two meetings).

    Stanford is still trying to figure out who their starting quarterback is going to be, but regardless, the winner of the competition is going to have little to no experience. I would rather force a young quarterback to beat me rather than someone who has rushed for over 2,400 yards and 28 total touchdowns over the last two seasons.

Vs. BYU

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    Key: Prevent third-down conversions.

    BYU could end up having a great year. This is a team that won 10 games last season, and returns 15 starters, including their quarterback and seven players on offense. They had a very balanced offensive attack in 2011, and won a lot of their games because they converted on third down (over 51 percent of the time, this was good for fifth in the country).

    In victories, the Cougars converted on third down a total of 54 percent of the time; in losses, that total dropped to 41 percent. The good thing is that Notre Dame only allowed third-down conversions 34 percent of the time, which was good for 20th in the country last year. Those percentages stayed the same in wins and losses.

    If the Irish are able to get off the football field and prevent the Cougars from picking up first downs, they should be in great shape. 

At Oklahoma

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    Key: Protect the quarterback.

    Much like the game against Michigan State, Oklahoma is pretty good at getting after the quarterback as well. They finished the year with 40 sacks and return most of the front seven. The problem for the Sooners is that their defensive backs aren't exactly the best in the world. Sure, the talent is there, but when opposing quarterbacks get time, they get destroyed.

    In the Sooners' 10 wins last year, opposing quarterbacks only completed 50 percent of their passes. In their three losses, quarterbacks completed over 64 percent. That has a lot to do with the pressure Oklahoma was able to generate (there were only a combined five sacks in the games they lost).

    Oklahoma is a very physical team, but it's clear that they must rush the quarterback well in order to prevent things from getting ugly.

Vs. Pittsburgh

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    Key: Generate pressure.

    Since we've been talking about how well Notre Dame's offensive line has to play, this is a perfect opportunity for the Irish to get after it on defense. Pittsburgh does return eight starters on offense, but that offensive line was beyond brutal last season, allowing a total of 63 sacks. In case you're wondering, that was the worst in the country by 16. (There were 21 teams last season that didn't even allow 16 sacks.)

    Notre Dame lost their sack leader from last year in Aaron Lynch, but with those numbers, it appears that even you and I could get into Pittsburgh's backfield and create some issues. Last season, the Irish sacked the Panthers quarterback six times and won the game by a field goal. 

    Developing a solid pass rush in this game will not only make things difficult for Pittsburgh, it should also help keep the ball out of running back Ray Graham's hands. He's arguably the top playmaker in the Big East and should be on a few Heisman ballots this year.

At Boston College

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    Key: Get off the field on third down.

    Boston College is a team that was absolutely terrible on offense last season. They only averaged 18 points per game and only scored over 20 points a total of three times. Their red-zone conversion rate was ranked 11th in the ACC at 71 percent and they converted third downs only 37 percent of the time.

    That's why getting off the field is so important in this game. With a team that struggles so mightily on the offensive side of the ball, allowing first downs will only give them confidence and more opportunities to score. In their victory last year, Notre Dame held the Golden Eagles to 3-for-13 on third-down attempts.

    Finishing the job on defense should help the Irish win their fourth straight against Boston College.

Vs. Wake Forest

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    Key: Don't get caught looking ahead.

    With the huge upcoming matchup against the USC Trojans, it's important that the Irish don't get caught in the media attention and focus on Wake Forest first. Sure, they were inconsistent all of last season and only return three starters on offense, but they're still a team capable of pulling off an upset.

    The Demon Deacons return seven starters on defense and is a team that ranked fourth in the ACC in plays of over 10 yards. 

    The Irish should win this game fairly easily if they remain focused heading into the game. But with the big rivalry game against USC in the distance, Notre Dame could end up being the ones beating themselves, rather than the other way around. 

At USC

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    Key: Avoid turning the ball over.

    USC will enter this season as one of the favorites to win the national championship and for good reason. They return nearly every starter from last year, and have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Matt Barkley running their offense.

    The Trojans will enter this game as a big underdog, but there's one way to try to remain competitive, and that's avoiding turnovers. It's haunted this team the last two seasons, as they've combined for a total of 53 giveaways. The last two matchups against USC have resulted in seven of those turnovers.

    In the last three seasons, the Trojans are 16-3 when the defense forces at least two turnovers.

    It's hard enough to beat a great team as it is, but when you're coughing the football up constantly, it's nearly impossible.