Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh Week 4 Preview: 10 Reasons Irish Will Get Back to .500

James ToljCorrespondent IISeptember 22, 2011

Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh Week 4 Preview: 10 Reasons Irish Will Get Back to .500

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    The first two games of the season for the Irish were a huge disappointment, but the team bounced back and finally got a win against Michigan State Saturday.

    It's never smart to guarantee a victory, but is there a good chance that Notre Dame evens out its record and gets to .500 against the Pittsburgh Panthers?

    While anything can happen on game day, let's take a look at why Notre Dame has the upper hand in the matchup.

Robert Blanton

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    Robert Blanton has had a fantastic run in his first three games. 

    It was Gary Gray who drew the most attention from NFL scouts before the season started, but with Gray's failure to find the ball in the air and Blanton playing lights out, it seems Blanton will be the one getting his number called on draft day.

    Expect Blanton to cover Pittsburgh's biggest receiving threat, sophomore Devin Street, and cut his production down quite a bit.

The Irish Passing Attack

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    Notre Dame plummeted out of the Top 10 passing offenses after Tommy Rees posted just 161 yards against the Michigan State defense.

    So do the Irish still have an advantage? 

    In their first three games, the Pittsburgh Panthers have given up a whopping 1,009 yards through the air, and it's not like they have been facing Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees.

    Pittsburgh's first three games were against Buffalo, Maine and Iowa (Iowa looks to be having a down year after losing to Iowa State in its second game).

    Even with Pittsburgh's sub-par passing defense, Tommy Rees won't be perfect.

    Rees is only a sophomore and is still learning the nuances of his position. He might throw an interception or two, but Rees, like he always does, will also get the ball in the end zone.

The Rushing Duo

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    Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have been outstanding so far this season.

    Wood has run the ball 60 times for 299 yards and is averaging five yards per carry. He has found the end zone four times this season.

    While Gray has yet to score a touchdown, he has carried 22 times for 148 yards and has posted a mind-boggling 6.4 yards per carry.

    The Pittsburgh rushing defense is much better than its passing defense, but it hasn't faced a pair of running backs of Wood and Gray's caliber yet.

    The Irish passing attack will likely be featured more so than the running game, but if the running backs can keep the ball safe, expect Wood and Gray to have big days.

The Offensive Line

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    The Notre Dame offensive line will be pitted against the tough front seven of the Pittsburgh Panthers defense.

    The Panthers linebackers are good, but the defensive line has given the Irish fits in the recent past. Will a change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 make the Panthers less effective?

    The Irish offensive line has proven to be formidable opponents in the first three games of the season.

    They have kept the quarterback upright (Tommy Rees has only been sacked twice) and opened up gaping holes for the running backs (although the line hasn't been great in short yardage and has had too many penalties). 

    The Pittsburgh defensive line could be one of the biggest headaches for the Irish on Saturday, but looking at how well the offensive line has played thus far is a good indicator that Pittsburgh's defensive won't be able to dominate the trenches. 

Michael Floyd

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    Michael Floyd has more value to the Irish than any other player on offense.  

    The star wide receiver draws double-teams that open the field for other receivers and running backs, he draws pass interference penalties that aren't marked down in his statistics and is a very good blocker.

    But Floyd's contributions aren't just blocking, double-teams and drawing penalties. He also puts up astonishing numbers. 

    Floyd has 33 receptions for 397 yards and two touchdowns this season. Unless Floyd get triple-teamed Saturday, his statistics will increase dramatically on Saturday.

The Pittsburgh Offense

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    The Pittsburgh offense is in the first year of new coach Todd Graham's spread system, and it will probably take some time before it kicks into high gear.

    The Panthers' quarterback, Tino Sunseri, has a respectable 658 yards in three games, but he only has three touchdowns to his four interceptions.

    The Irish defense did a great job of preventing a big play against Michigan State but gave up a decent amount of plays underneath. With Sunseri averaging 6.9 yards per completion, the Irish will have to play a little closer to Sunseri's receivers. 

    The Panthers will give the Irish defense a heavy dose of Ray Graham, too, Pittsburgh's speedy junior running back, who has 419 yards and six touchdowns on 79 carries already this season, but the Irish defense is solid against the run. 

     

Harrison Smith

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    While a lot of the talk revolved around Robert Blanton after Saturday's win, and rightfully so, it was hard to miss Harrison Smith at the end of the game.

    Every time Kirk Cousins threw the ball in Smith's vicinity, he made a lightning-fast break on the ball.

    Smith caught fire at the end of last season nabbing four interceptions in the last two games.

    If Smith starts using his lethal speed with his nose for the ball, he could have another multiple-interception game versus Pittsburgh. 

Less Mistakes?

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    The Irish have turned the ball over 13 times in three games to start the season. It can't get much worse.

    Notre Dame had 10 turnovers in its first two games, so the three against Michigan State were a drastic improvement (loaded with sarcasm).

    While I have slowly begun to realize that you can't coach away turnovers, one has to wonder, when will the luck of the Irish start to kick in?

    Hopefully the players are starting to be more cognizant of keeping the ball safe and sound, but only time will tell.

The Fearsome Freshmen

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    You can bet that the fabulous freshmen will get a chance to play again this Saturday. Troy Niklas got to start in the absence of Prince Shembo, and both Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch had an impact on the game as well. Lynch even forced a fumble. 

    Niklas, Tuitt, Lynch and Ishaq Williams will all provide depth Saturday as their minutes increase more and more throughout the season.

    And after George Atkinson III ran a kickoff back against Michigan State, it's not just the young guys on defense who should be feared (Atkinson did muff a return, but he gets some leeway because it was his first game as a returner).

Revenge

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    Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham might be at a new university, but I bet his stint at Tulsa still leaves a bad taste in Brian Kelly's mouth.

    Last season, when playing Tulsa in South Bend, Kelly put the game in the hands of an unproven Tommy Rees. Kelly chose not to use David Ruffer on a chip-shot field goal to win the game

    The ball was intercepted which ended the game in Tulsa's favor.

    The call was a huge mistake by Kelly, but he won't be giving the game away this time.