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Notre Dame vs. Miami: 5 keys to a Fighting Irish win

Notre Dame's C.J. Sanders (3) cuts in front of Georgia's Richard LeCounte III (2) on a kickoff return during the first half of a game earlier this season in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)

Notre Dame is projected by the odds makers to beat Miami (Fla.) tonight by four or fewer points. Others may not see it quite that way, but one thing is obvious, most believe that this game between a pair of national powers will be close. And in a close game, minute details matter.

Most football fans will be focused on the quarterbacks of both teams, perhaps even the offensive and defensive lines, Fighting Irish runner Josh Adams, all with good reason. But details such as special teams, penalties and turnovers will all play a significant part in determining the outcome of this game.

“This football team that we play,” veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of the Hurricanes, “no doubt will require our very best.”

Here are some details that could – and should – play a role in tonight’s clash between third-ranked Notre Dame (8-1) and 7th-ranked Miami (8-0) at 8 p.m. (ABC) in Miami.

THERE GOES SANDERS!

Notre Dame junior kickoff return specialist C.J. Sanders had his most productive outing of the season last week against Wake Forest. He returned three kickoffs for nearly 30 yards per attempt, which may be beneficial tonight.

The ‘Canes rank 107th (out of 129 ranked teams) nationally in kickoff return defense and in half of Miami’s games, it has given up a kickoff return of at least 37 yards.

THERE’S A FLAG ON THE PLAY

In a close game, a critical penalty – even if it is just one – at an inopportune time can determine the outcome of a game (go ask a North Carolina State fan if that is accurate). In the case of Miami, the Hurricanes are becoming more disciplined of late in terms of the number of times that they have been penalized, but in each of the past five games, Miami has registered more yards penalized than its opponents.

On average, Miami has almost 15 yards more assessed against it each game than Notre Dame does.

“We’ve been challenged each and every week in the ACC,” Kelly said. “Each opponent has brought different challenges, but this one, I think, in terms of being as complete a football team as we’ll play.”

Miami does a lot of things well, as Kelly noted, but discipline will be crucial for both teams, particularly late in this game.

WATCH THIRD DOWN

Third down – for both teams – will be a key part of this game.

Miami isn’t very good at stopping the opposition on third downs, while Notre Dame redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush is pretty good at moving the chains.

“He’s 60 percent efficient on third down in all third down situations from 1 to 10 yards,” Kelly said of Wimbush. So he’s been really efficient on third downs.”

The Fighting Irish have successfully converted over 44 percent of their third down opportunities, while Miami is stopping its opposition just 37 percent of the time.

And the third-down dilemma doesn’t stop for Miami when the opponents have the ball.

The Hurricane offense is one of the worst in the nation (117th) in successful converting third downs when they have the ball. The Hurricanes have done so just 31 percent of the time.

“Listen,” Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill said this week, “in big games like this, defense wins the game. So, whoever plays better defense is going to win the game.”

REALTED STORY:Notre Dame vs. Miami: 5 problems for the Fighting Irish

THAT MAY BE MIAMI

If “defense is going to win the game,” then Miami has some mojo going its way.

The Hurricanes have picked off 13 passes this season, which ranks as the seventh most in the country. However, the Irish players believe wholeheartedly in Wimbush giving them an opportunity to be successful.

“This year,” Irish senior linebacker Nyles Morgan said of Wimbush this week, “Brandon has really improved with his passing efficiency, just how well he’s putting the ball in the wide receivers (hands) for them to catch it. He’s not just making the throw, but he’s throwing it where they can only get it and only them.”

Wimbush has thrown just a couple of interceptions this year in 200 attempts, and he hasn’t done so in the last five games.

“You know,” Kelly said in defending his quarterback against any criticism this week, “he’s only thrown two interceptions. He’s got a lot of things going for him as he continues to grow at the position, because he is clearly able to throw the football, but more importantly, he makes big plays when they’re needed.”

THE ‘CHAIN’ GANG

The Miami players would like nothing more than to rock the “turnover chain” on national TV tonight, which is a gaudy gold necklace that Hurricane players wear – on the sidelines during the game – when they force a turnover, which has happened a lot this year.

The Hurricane defense has already forced 20 turnovers, which is more than it did all of last season. However, neither the Irish nor Hurricanes have done a poor job of handling the ball, so something will have to give.

“It’s a cool idea,’ Tranquill said of the jewelry. “We have to go in and we have to take the ball over on the road, put our offense in favorable situations to score the football.”

“We’ve got one of the best offenses in the country and so they will be able to do that if we do turn the ball over.”

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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