Notre Dame has a chance to extend its winning streak to five games when the Fighting Irish battle Pittsburgh on Saturday night, and both teams feature some impressive playmakers who will have a significant impact on the outcome.
Since opening the season with a mediocre 3-2 record, Notre Dame has won four in a row to get to 7-2, and a strong finish should earn Brian Kelly's squad a trip to a lucrative bowl game in January.
Which team will win?
Pittsburgh hasn't fared well against the top teams in the ACC. The Panthers enter the game with a 4-4 record, but none of their wins have come against a ranked team.
Interestingly enough, Notre Dame isn't being favored to win by much (four points, via Covers.com). Even though Pittsburgh hasn't won against the Fighting Irish since 2009, the two schools typically produce tightly contested battles.
Here's a look at the impact players who will lead these teams on Saturday night.
Tommy Rees, QB, Notre Dame
When Notre Dame lost Everett Golson for the season, many wondered if Tommy Rees was up to the challenge of taking his place after the team's undefeated regular season a year ago.
Through nine games, it's clear Rees was more than up to the challenge. He's passed for 2,186 yards with 22 touchdowns and just eight interceptions—a touchdown-to-interception ratio that is easily the best of his college career.
Rees is coming off a poor performance against Navy last weekend, however. He threw two interceptions in the game and nearly cost his team a chance of winning. However, in his previous two games he threw seven touchdowns and zero picks.
Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
Pitt doesn't feature as many blue-chip prospects as Notre Dame, but Tyler Boyd is one of the most exciting young players this program has seen in a long time.
The true freshman has caught 45 passes for 644 yards and six touchdowns this season, and he recently matched Larry Fitzgerald in the school record books with his fourth 100-yard receiving game of his freshman campaign, as noted by Pitt Football:
The young man brings size, speed and a fierce will to catch the ball to every single game, and if the Panthers end up winning, you can be sure he'll have something to do with it.
Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Of all the players in this game who have a shot at making it big at the next level, Stephon Tuitt is the most promising of them all.
The 6'6", 322-pound physical freak of nature has the ideal size, speed, quickness, athleticism and power to become a dominant 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, and he's clearly the top defender on Notre Dame's roster.
Incredibly, Tuitt has actually played some nose tackle this year when Louis Nix III was out. He's currently back in his more natural spot as a defensive end, where he's thriving. For the season, he's posted 6.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
From one physical freak to another, Aaron Donald is the unquestioned leader of Pittsburgh's defensive front. He was recently named to the 12-man watch list for the Lombardi award for the nation's top lineman, as noted by Jerry DiPaola of TribLive.com:
Aaron Donald named one of 12 semifinalists for Lombardi award for nation's top lineman (offense or defense). He's the only DT on list #Pitt— Jerry DiPaola (@JDiPaola_Trib) November 7, 2013
As DiPaola noted, Donald is the only defensive tackle on the list, but it's not hard to see why he's included.
The senior has already racked up 19.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks this season. Those are excellent numbers for a 3-4 outside linebacker who does nothing but rush the passer, but this is an interior lineman we're talking about here.
Donald's quickness is going to be an issue for Notre Dame's offensive line on Saturday, and you'll be hard-pressed to keep your eyes off the big man when he's on the field.
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