- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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No. 23 Notre Dame visits Pitt tonight (8 ET/ABC) to renew a rivalry that has featured no shortage of close calls in recent years. Here are five things to watch when the two teams square off at Heinz Field.
Injured guys. Yes, we're starting here again. Warmups every week during a Notre Dame game have become all the more important for watching who lines up where, and next to whom. Chris Watt (PCL tear) practiced this week and is expected back at left guard. Sheldon Day (ankle) and Louis Nix III (knee tendinitis/small meniscus tear) are both expected to play again on the defensive line as well, though to what extent, we do not know. Then there is safety Austin Collinsworth, who is cleared to play after suffering a neck strain during last week's game against Navy. Brian Kelly says that Elijah Shumate is fine after a hamstring injury kept him out of the last three games.
Tarean Folston. Everyone had been waiting for a Notre Dame running back to break out the way Folston did last week against Navy. The freshman carried the ball 18 times for 140 yards and ran it in for the go-ahead, one-yard touchdown with less than four minutes to play. Pitt's defenses won't be as forgiving as Navy's, but it will be interesting to see if Folston can build off his career day or if this was just a flash in the pan, as the Irish certainly could use a consistent force in the backfield.
Tight end play. These guys have certainly risen to the occasion this year. No one is replacing Tyler Eifert's production -- nor were they expected to after the captain was drafted in the first round -- but Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack continue to improve every week. Niklas has 22 catches for 372 yards and five touchdowns and, as seen last week, has become much more aggressive as a blocker. Koyack, meanwhile, has seen the ball come his way much more in recent weeks, as he has scored three touchdowns in the Irish's last four games. They take plenty of pressure off a passing game that has often been too reliant on TJ Jones, and another strong outing can further stretch the defense.
Aaron Donald. The Pitt defensive tackle just might be the best interior lineman in the country this season. He leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.4 per game) and is third in sacks (1.1), in addition to forcing three fumbles. At 6-foot, 285-pounds, he is not overwhelming with his size, but he certainly can change the game, as evidenced by last week's performance at Georgia Tech -- 11 total tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one sack. The six TFLs were the most in a game by an FBS player this season. To put that into perspective, the Yellow Jackets ran 63 plays, meaning nearly 10 percent of their plays ended with Donald making a tackle in the backfield.
Defensive newcomers. Nix and Day should play, but we don't know how much. Jarron Jones, Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo and Isaac Rochell all have seen more time lately because of the injuries across the line. Ben Councell is also done for the year (ACL tear), Ishaq Williams is out for at least this game with a different ACL injury, and there is the chance that Collinsworth and Shumate could be limited (or not play), as well. Romeo Okwara and Eilar Hardy are among the reserves who have seen much more action in recent weeks, and they will need to step up again in order to contain a dangerous Pitt passing attack.
17hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information