Three keys: Notre Dame vs. Rice

Three keys: Notre Dame vs. Rice
August 29, 2014, 2:45 pm
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1. Shake the rust off. Saturday will mark the first game in which quarterback Everett Golson will play in 600 days thanks to his academic exile from campus last fall. More importantly, he hasn't been tackled since facing Alabama on Jan. 7, 2013, though Golson said he's not worried about such a long layoff between taking hits. Golson has been back with his teammates for nearly eight months now and has developed a good rapport with them in practice, but there may be a little bit of an adjustment period playing in front of 81,000 fans. So long as that rust doesn't result in turnovers, though, Notre Dame's offense behind Golson should be fine.

2. Generate sacks and turnovers on defense. The Rice game will be our first look at Brian VanGorder's aggressive 4-3 scheme, which will feature plenty of sub packages to get players in pass-rushing situations as well as a greater emphasis on deflecting passes and forcing fumbles. But this is an incredibly young group, one that could be mistake-prone early on in the season as it gels. But a few well-timed sacks or turnovers could shift things in Notre Dame's favor against a Rice side that is replacing plenty of players from last year's 10-win team. 

[MORE: VanGorder's defense has Notre Dame's offense feeling ready]

3. Don't overlook Rice. While the Owls have to replace leading players on every unit but its receivers, plenty of these guys played key roles in pushing Rice to a Conference USA title in 2013. The key player here may be wide receiver Jordan Taylor, who is questionable for Saturday with a sore left foot. If he's able to go, he'll give first-year starting quarterback Driphus Jackson an excellent target -- the kind of guy who could give Notre Dame's secondary fits. It was only three years ago that Notre Dame was upset by South Florida in its opening game, and 2014's senior class still has the memories of that disappointment seared in their memories. And Rice is a good enough team to sneak up and beat Notre Dame if they're thrown off by the university's academic investigation or are looking ahead to Michigan.