Notre Dame Football: 5 Matchups to Watch vs. Pittsburgh Panthers
With talk of undefeated records, national championship aspirations and jousting within the BCS standings, the one aspect that gets lost in the mix is the game of football itself.
I'll bring us back to the game now, as I'll dissect the top matchups of Saturday's showdown between the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the Panthers of Pittsburgh.
Discussion of the actual game itself will tide you all over until Mark May and Lou Holtz verbally spar on ESPN's pre-game segment, as well as College Football Final.
Notre Dame NG Louis Nix vs. Pittsburgh RG Shane Johnson
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Notre Dame's shocking 8-0 start to the regular season has been largely a product of its superb defensive play, which starts with a rock solid defensive line led by nose guard Louis Nix.
The 6'3", 326-pound behemoth causes headaches for opposing offensive lines, as he possesses the capability to effectively plug both A-gaps, forcing offenses to run the ball to the edge.
Nix, who never lacks reason to be excited, should be even more fired up to knock heads with the Panthers, as Pittsburgh will be starting Shane Johnson—the sophomore has never played a down at Pittsburgh—at right guard.
Because of Johnson's lack of experience, the Panthers will find it difficult running the ball towards the right hash, as Nix will be wreaking havoc on the untested, unproven Johnson.
Pittsburgh QB Tino Sunseri vs. Notre Dame Secondary
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Despite Pittsburgh's inconsistencies to begin the season—the Panthers lost to FCS member Youngstown State, but defeated then 17th-ranked Virginia Tech two weeks later—quarterback Tino Sunseri has been a constant.
The senior has completed 69.2 percent of his passes to go along with 13 touchdowns to just two interceptions through eight games.
Sunseri is playing his best football late in the season, too, which should be a cause for concern for the Notre Dame secondary.
In a 47-17 demolition of Temple last week, Sunseri completed 20 of his 28 pass attempts for 321 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, he did it against a mediocre Temple team, but his ability to distribute the football can't be overlooked.
However, any success Sunseri has against the Irish will be limited, particularly because of the way Notre Dame was able to contain Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones last week in Norman.
Notre Dame QB Everett Golson vs. Pittsburgh Pass Rush
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Prior to Notre Dame's convincing 30-13 victory over Oklahoma last week, the blueprint for stopping the Irish offense was simple: Load the box in an effort to take away the running game and force Everett Golson to throw the football.
The Sooners followed that game plan, but paid for it.
Golson completed 13 of his 25 pass attempts for 177 yards, including a critical 50-yard completion to Chris Brown late in the game that set up Notre Dame's go-ahead score.
The sophomore from Myrtle Beach, S.C., may not have done enough to earn the full respect of opposing defenses, but he'll continue to make them regret loading the box.
If Golson can consistently find the open receiver down the field when Pittsburgh brings extra pressure, Notre Dame will find points easy to come by.
Pittsburgh Rushing Attack vs. Notre Dame Front Seven
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Championship-caliber football teams pride themselves on stopping the run, which Notre Dame has done in staggering fashion in 2012.
The Irish rank 9th nationally in rushing defense, allowing an average of 95.25 yards-per-game on the ground.
Facing as stiff of a front seven as Notre Dame's will be a quality test of Pittsburgh's rushing attack that features the two-headed monster of Ray Graham and Rushel Shell at running back. The two combined for 188 of the Panthers' 207 rushing yards last week against Temple.
For Pittsburgh to have any hopes of upsetting Notre Dame, it will have to establish Graham and Shell early and often, which won't be easy against Manti Te'o and Co.
Pittsburgh WR Mike Shanahan vs. Notre Dame CB Bennett Jackson
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When any offense has the luxury of lining up a 6'5", 225-pound receiver out wide, it will work tirelessly to create one-on-one matchups for said receiver.
Well, Pittsburgh has such a receiver in senior Mike Shanahan.
The North Huntington, Pa. native will be matched up against Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson, who gives up nearly five full inches and 40 pounds to Shanahan.
If Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph can find ways to get Shanahan matched up with Jackson in one-on-one coverage, the Panthers will be able to pick up large chunks of yards through the air.