The Pittsburgh Panthers have been close in their three most recent encounters with the BCS No. 23 Notre Dame Fighting Irish but have not been able to quite seal the deal.
Those close calls—losses by 12 total points in the past three meetings—are motivational fuel entering Saturday's showdown at Heinz Field. However, if the Panthers are meant to have a good chance at pulling the upset this time around, several players must step up.
One of the three in particular is a defensive anchor, while the other two are freshmen on offense who are playing the biggest game of their careers to date. A win here would remedy a two-game losing streak for Pitt while also boosting its chances of playing in a better bowl game.
With Notre Dame still fighting for a potential BCS bowl bid, let's take a look at some Panthers who could play a big role in ruining those aspirations.
James Conner, RB
A shoulder injury in the Virginia Tech game was a recurrence of the one he suffered in training camp, and it set Conner back after what was a promising beginning to his freshman season.
After two consecutive 100-yard games, the power Conner possesses was on full display when he punched it in from six yards out against Virginia on Sept. 28.
Conner is already 6'2" and 230 pounds with a physical style and enough explosiveness to be a menace in the open field. Since the Irish are going to try to set the tone at the line of scrimmage, there could be no better time for Conner to get back on track.
Since re-injuring his shoulder, the bruiser has struggled to reestablish himself as a downhill force of nature.
Although he only had eight carries for three yards in the most recent loss to Georgia Tech, there is no doubting his effectiveness when healthy.
To combat what should be a run-heavy Notre Dame plan of attack, look for Conner to mix it up with the Irish's physical front seven in spelling starter Isaac Bennett.
Aaron Donald, DT
Perhaps the most underrated star on the defensive side of the ball in the country is Donald, who is only 285 pounds but is a load to handle in the trenches.
Donald was the only defender to receive a vote in the Heisman Trophy poll on ESPN.com, and even in last week's loss to Georgia Tech, he had himself a whale of a game defending against the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack:
It's going to take a similar effort against the likes of Tarean Folston, George Atkinson III and the Notre Dame backfield, which will likely try to keep the ball out of QB Tommy Rees' hands.
With 27.5 career sacks, Donald is no slouch when generating pressure up the gut, either.
The characteristic abundance of energy Donald brings to the gridiron can help set the tone for his team and generate some early momentum, forcing Rees to win the game for the Irish.
If Donald can command the type of attention he often does against an opponent of Notre Dame's caliber, the chances of Pitt pulling this one out are vastly enhanced.
Tyler Boyd, WR/KR
Forget the freshman label when it comes to Boyd, because the precocious playmaker is a threat to score whenever he has the ball in his hands.
Boyd doesn't pop out as a speedster or a super strong target, but he is deceptive in both of those areas and can also impact the game as a kick returner.
A lot of the onus falls on Boyd to make an impact on special teams—where one big return can make a huge difference—and to be the go-to target for senior quarterback Tom Savage.
With an amazing catch radius and reliable hands, anything in Boyd's vicinity is potential for a big play in the Panthers' passing game.
The first-year phenom leads Pittsburgh with 45 receptions and six touchdowns, trailing only senior receiver Devin Street in receiving yards. While Street is superior in terms of yards per catch, Boyd must continue to produce against Notre Dame's 23rd-ranked pass defense.
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