Back for another season, the (Day Before Game Day) Five Keys focus on the five things that I think will be most important for USF to have success against their next gridiron opponent. As you know, I don't predict games, just take a look at the key elements... although you can usually tell how I'm feeling about a game by what I choose to focus on. Today, the Friday Five Keys for Notre Dame.
1. Make B.J. Daniels comfortable. Facing a 3-4 defense creates some unusual looks for an offense, especially in college because it's only been recently that anyone has started running it again. Alabama has been playing it for a few years, and some other teams like Georgia, Georgia Tech, Stanford, and Texas A&M use it too. But none of them have been on USF's schedule. In fact, the only 3-4 defense I can think of that Daniels has faced was when they played Cincinnati two years ago, which was coached at the time by Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Daniels had a pretty mediocre game -- he went 15-for-32 for 208 yards with one TD pass and two interceptions, although one was a last-minute heave with the game already decided. The other one was a killer, leading to a three-yard touchdown drive that gave the Bearcats the lead for good.
In a 3-4, not only can a blitz come from more places, but it also gives the defense more spying opportunities to keep Daniels from running around. Whether Todd Fitch has to run the ball more (not easy to do against the Irish defense) or give Daniels some easily executable pass plays, he has to settle his quarterback into the game.
2. Ready for anything. Is Notre Dame going to come up and run the ball like they did at the end of last season? Or will they throw it more often? Is the defensive line (especially the interior) going to be able to stand up to a concerted running game without Terrell McClain in the middle anymore? Can they get pressure on Dayne Crist if they do throw downfield? The Irish are going to have some options and diversity in their offense that not many teams offered up against the USF defense last season.
3. Giving up 10 yards is better than giving up 70 yards. I've been harping on the secondary for awhile and how they need to be better playmakers this season. But against the Irish, they will go up against one of the most talented sets of receivers they'll see all year. Michael Floyd and slot man Theo Riddick both have big-play ability, and giving up a long touchdown to either of them on the road can be mentally devastating (think back to the Jeff Demps touchdown run last year in Gainesville). So USF may need to play some softer coverages and let Notre Dame have some yardage, then try to cut them off at scoring range and force punts or field goals, or try for fourth-down stops. The downside is that Kelly will probably figure out what plays to call to turn those would-be field goals into touchdowns. It's a tall order for the USF defense.
4. Don't screw up the special teams. No fumbles, no ill-advised return decisions, cover kicks, make your field goals and PATs, don't shank punts, all those little things that can happen at the beginning of the season on special teams because it's the first time these units have seen game action. I'm a lot less worried about this than I would have been, say, two years ago. But I think the special teams are one of USF's strongest advantages in this game, and it can't be squandered.
5. It's only a football game. I might have said this a little less obnoxiously than Gary Shelton did. But for all of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds Notre Dame Stadium, the field is the same size and the rules are the same as they are on any other college football field. Once the game starts, the ghosts and the echoes need to stay in the history books and not between USF's collective ears. Try and write your own history.