Notre Dame is probably riding high after beating Oklahoma in convincing fashion last week, and the No. 3 team in the nation has every right to be. The Fighting Irish have to remain focused, however, or Saturday's game against Pittsburgh could put them on upset alert.
It's a dangerous game for the Irish. Playing the Sooners on the road was the biggest hurdle of the regular season, and they passed it with flying colors. It would be easy for them to overlook a Panthers squad that has a loss to Youngstown State on its résumé.
Yet, the Panthers were able to keep it close with undefeated Louisville, which is currently ranked 10th in the country, and they have won two straight games. Getting beat by the Penguins in Week 1 is a distant memory at this point.
Notre Dame has to enter Saturday's game with the expectation that Pittsburgh is going to put up a terrific fight. Anything less and suddenly a game the BCS hopefuls are expected to cruise through could become a complicated mess.
As usual, the defense has to lead the charge. The Panthers are coming off a game where they racked up 47 points, led by senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, who threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns.
The rushing duo of Ray Graham and Rushel Shell also imposed their will on the Temple defense, gaining a combined 188 yards on the ground while chipping in three touchdowns, as well. It was the most complete performance of the season for Pittsburgh.
Stopping the attack starts with defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The athletic sophomore has already tallied eight sacks this season and will need to put constant pressure on Sunseri to ensure he can't simply pick the Irish secondary apart from the pocket.
The rest of the defensive burden falls on the team's terrific linebackers, led by Heisman candidate Manti Te'o. They have to shut down the running game early to force Pittsburgh's offense to become one-dimensional, which would make Tuitt even more effective.
Notre Dame held Oklahoma to 15 yards rushing on 24 carries, a dominating performance that propelled the team to the upset. A similar showing is necessary this week even though it's not nearly as high-profile of a matchup.
From there, the Irish running game should be able to handle the rest. Theo Riddick and Co. have been able to control the pace all season, which has taken a boatload of pressure off the Irish quarterbacks, who have been inconsistent at best.
All told, it might be closer than most people are expecting, but Notre Dame should be able to emerge with its ninth win as long as the Irish don't look past the Panthers.
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