This week, I enlisted the help of Dan Murphy, who covers Notre Dame football for Blue & Gold Ilustrated to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Irish. Here are Dan's responses to a couple of questions...
1. How does the Notre Dame offense look different this year with Tommy Rees at the helm as opposed to Everett Golson? How has Rees improved since he was the team's starter in 2011? Is he still a game-manager, or has he progressed beyond that to be a real weapon for the Irish offense?
It's still fair to call Rees a game manager, but he's doing a much better job of managing the game this year. He's been more accurate during the second half of the season and has started to involved more receivers in the passing game. He has also cut out a lot of the turnovers that plagued the offense in 2011.
The obvious difference without Golson is the absence of a running threat at QB. The offensive line has done a nice job of protecting Rees (He's only been sacked seven times), so his lack of mobility hasn't real hurt in that respect. With Golson, Notre Dame's offense could have been more explosive if he took the steps forward that most expected. Rees does a better job of making checks at the line of scrimmage and diagnosing defenses. It's hard to say if having Golson around would have made a difference in the 7-2 record to this point.
2. What's going on with Notre Dame at running back? It seems like every week there's a new guy as the featured back. Who should get the majority of the carries against Pitt this week? How has Brian Kelly split up the workload so far?
The old "if you have two starting quarterbacks, you have no starting quarterbacks" adage applies to Notre Dame's running backs this season. They have four guys who get regular carries, but none has stepped up enough to be considered the go-to option. The Irish usually start each game with junior George Atkinson III because if he runs hard he's the best they've got. He's had some trouble this season remembering he weighs 220 pounds and shouldn't be dragged down by first contact on every run.
Freshman Tarean Folston ran for 140 yards against Navy last weekend in as strong of a performance as any Irish back has had this season. It will be interesting to see how soon Kelly gets him involved against Pitt. He's got a good balance of speed, power and shakes that could help the offense if he can earn the coaching staff's trust.
3. What happened to the Irish defense that was so stout last year? Obviously the losses of Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta hurt, but have the returning players disappointed as well? Also, it looks like injuries have taken their toll on the Irish defense. How has that impacted the team?
The biggest storyline heading into this week has been the injuries on defense. As Pitt knows well, playing back-to-back option offenses is brutal on knees and ankles for the defensive linemen. There are about a half dozen regular contributors on defense that are out or questionable for Saturday's game, which means Notre Dame will be reaching pretty far down the depth chart to keep its starters fresh.
As far as the step back the defense has taken this year, the three guys you mentioned were major losses as was senior linebacker Danny Spond who stopped playing in August when he was temporarily paralyzed by migraines. I think the most underrated departure was Zeke Motta at safety. He had a major impact on the rest of a young secondary last year, and they felt his absence in the first month of the season. All-American defensive Stephon Tuitt also wasn't himself during the first half of the season. He's picked up his game a bit in recent weeks. The defense did hold USC and Air Force to 10 points apiece and kept an Arizona State team that regularly scores in the 50s to under 35. They were making some significant strides forward before letting Navy score 34 last Saturday.
4. The Irish won't be making a return trip to the championship game this year, but how has this year been perceived by the Notre Dame fan base? Is winning out and making a BCS game a realistic possibility? Has this year been a disappointment in some respects following up on last season?
Whenever you go 12-0, especially at Notre Dame, fans are going to expect a lot of success moving forward. I think after Everett Golson was dismissed from school in May, most realistic folks had them pegged for an 8-4 or 9-3 season, which is right on pace at the moment.If they find a way to win the next three games and get to a BCS bowl I'd consider that a more impressive coaching feat for Brian Kelly than going 12-0 last season given the guys they lost heading into the year. That's still a tall order, especially for a team that is as banged up as they are right now. The games against Pitt always seem to be close. BYU is playing really well. And then they have to go to Palo Alto and face Stanford. A loss in any of those threes drops Notre Dame from a BCS trip to something like the Little Caesars Bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl, which will certainly feel like a disappointment compared to last year.