Fighting Irish Digital Media intern Josh Flynt ('11) continues to provide the inside scoop on the Notre Dame football program ... An Early Start: For the Irish fans on the West Coast, be sure to set your alarms for this week's game or you might miss the opening kickoff. The noon (ET) game is the earliest the Irish will play this season. Despite having a different schedule for Saturday, head coach Brian Kelly and his players are not concerned. On Tuesday, Kelly explained that players are used to getting up early because they have to finish their classes by 1:30 p.m. Likewise, Harrison Smith was not worried about making any major adjustments. "I'm actually excited for our early game. It's almost like training camp, like get up and get ready to go. I think the whole team is going to have the mind set as soon as we get up that it's game time," the captain said. From a fan's perspective, there might not be much time for tailgating, but there are a few benefits to an early Irish game. Though Notre Dame football reigns supreme for most Irish UNDerground readers, those that also enjoy the rest of the college football landscape need not worry about conflicts with this week's late afternoon and prime-time showdowns. Arkansas at Alabama, Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, Florida State at Clemson and LSU at West Virginia are just a few of the matchups between ranked teams. Secondly, it is an issue that Domers face every season. A friend made the "mistake" of scheduling his or her wedding on a Saturday in the fall. To the average person, autumn might seem like a perfect time to get married. However, such is not the case for die-hard college football fans. Well, this week you might be in luck. If any of those friends are getting married this Saturday, perhaps you can make it to the church on time without even missing a play.
Protecting the Ball: It's been a top concern since the season began and it will continue to be until the Irish do a better job of holding onto the football. After three more turnovers against Michigan State, the season total climbed to 13. Fortunately, Notre Dame was able to make a few big plays and shut down Michigan State's offense, coming away with a 31-13 victory. However, if the Irish are going to have the type of season that they are capable of, they will have to hang on to the football - especially on the road. Completely eliminating turnovers is an unrealistic expectation, but reducing the number to one or two (or even zero) per game would certainly limit the scoring opportunities for opposing teams. A Familiar Face: While the man leading the Panthers on to the field is new to the Steel City, he is familiar with Kelly's Fighting Irish. First-year Pittsburgh head coach Todd Graham took over the Panthers in January after leading Tulsa for four seasons. Last year Graham's squad defeated Notre Dame, a stunning 28-27 upset that dropped the Irish to 4-5. While at Tulsa, Graham's teams were known for having prolific offenses, leading the nation in total offense in both 2007 and 2008. Since arriving at Pittsburgh, he has implemented his "high octane" fast-paced, no-huddle system and the Panthers have scored 97 points in three games. Through the Air: Last week, Michael Floyd had six catches for 84 yards - a solid contribution from the senior receiver, but seemingly small compared to the first two weeks of the season, in which he caught 25 passes for 313 yards. Tommy Rees did not pass the ball against the Spartans as frequently as during the first two games, but that might change this weekend. Pittsburgh is currently ranked 119th in pass defense. To put that in perspective, there are 120 FBS schools. There might not be a better opportunity all season for more of the Rees-Floyd combination. If the early season statistics ring true, we can expect to see a lot of Irish offense through the air at Heinz Field. Stopping the Run: One of Pittsburgh's most dangerous offensive weapons is junior running back Ray Graham, who is currently fifth in the nation in rushing, averaging 139.7 yards per game. The Panthers have a recent history of producing great running backs as Graham follows in the footsteps of LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, former Pitt standouts who now play for the Philadelphia Eagles. Against Michigan State, the Notre Dame defense did an outstanding job against the run, holding the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries. Though Michigan State did not play the strongest of competition in its first two games, it piled up nearly 350 yards on the ground. If the Irish have a similarly impressive game in terms of rush defense while containing Graham, they will have a great chance of returning to South Bend with their second victory of the season.