by John Vannie
Notre Dame will travel to the suburbs of Dallas in search of a much-needed victory as the Irish will take on Arizona State in this season’s Shamrock Series contest at AT&T Stadium. The 3-1 Sun Devils are coming off a 62-41 thrashing of USC, and hope to become the first school in history to beat the Trojans and the Irish on consecutive weekends. Notre Dame (3-2) has other ideas and is determined to start its midseason bye week with a win rather than consecutive losses. The game will begin at 7:30 PM Eastern time and will be televised by NBC as it is considered part of the Irish home schedule.
A high-scoring affair is likely as the Sun Devils’ potent attack averages 44 points per game and 505 yards of offense. The Irish figure to move the ball on an ASU defense that has surrendered an average of 38 points and nearly 240 rushing yards against its three BCS caliber opponents. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s defense will attempt to recover and adjust against a team with a similar style of offense and skill level as Oklahoma. The Sun Devils have excellent individual players at quarterback, tailback and wide receiver, along with a strong supporting cast.
Arizona State is coached by a familiar name in Todd Graham, who is in his second year in Tempe after coaching teams from Tulsa (2010) and Pittsburgh (2011) against Brian Kelly’s Irish. Graham is 11-6 at ASU and 1-1 in his matchup with Kelly. Notre Dame has played Shamrock Series games in such venues as Soldier Field, Yankee Stadium and FedEx Field in Washington, D.C., and have not battled the Sun Devils since a home victory in 1999. Each team will display customizations in its uniforms and wear specially designed helmets in this unique venue.
Key injuries for both teams are along the defensive line. Sheldon Day continues to nurse a high ankle sprain for Notre Dame. Day can run straight ahead and tried to play against Oklahoma, but certain live action lateral movements were simply not possible. Arizona State hopes to have nose tackle Jaxon Hood back in the lineup this week. His absence due to a leg injury caused Graham to do a lot of shuffling of players last week against USC, who rushed for 247 yards despite trailing throughout the second half.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. ARIZONA STATE’S DEFENSE
With Hood in the lineup, opponents can’t necessarily double team All-American defensive tackle Willie Sutton. This gives ASU’s 3-4 defense a fighting chance. Although the Sun Devils have been overpowered at times, they primarily rely on speed and an ability to create negative plays to kill drives. The Irish will gain plenty of yards, but they must avoid sacks, turnovers and self-destruction in the red zone to outscore the ASU offense. The Sun Devils led the nation in tackles for loss in 2012 at nine per game, and are among the best in this area in 2013 as well. Joining Hood and Sutton up front is end Gannon Conway, who will move inside to replace Hood if he can’t start. Reserve Davon Coleman will then backfill for Conway. Sutton assessed the Irish offensive line earlier this week, saying, “I think they’re better than Wisconsin, but not as good as Stanford’s, so we got to come in and fight.”
Outside linebacker Chris Young is the team’s leading tackler and inside man Carl Bradford is the most productive in terms of creating negative plays. The veteran Sun Devil secondary features two excellent players in aggressive cornerback Osahon Irabor and Alden Darby, a ball-hawking safety. Notre Dame’s receivers are more likely to find open space as long as the running threat remains viable. T.J. Jones has been the workhorse of late while DaVaris Daniels has tapered off after a fast start. Tight end Troy Niklas has performed well when targeted, but he needs to be more involved when third down conversions are at stake.
George Atkinson enjoyed his best performance of the season last week and should be given plenty of chances in this one. The best Notre Dame offensive series against Oklahoma began with successful runs by Atkinson and ended with a textbook play-action pass to Niklas for an easy touchdown. Irish fans would like to see more of this approach, and it would require only an adjustment in attitude rather than wholesale changes to the playbook. The offense must convert its scoring chances against the Sun Devils to prevail, and continuous third and long situations out of an empty backfield will put unnecessary pressure on Tommy Rees to thread the needle.
While Sutton and Hood are stout up the middle when they are on the field together, there is plenty of opportunity for the outside running game to be productive. The ASU linebackers and secondary are not quite as good as Oklahoma, but their gambling nature will be rewarded if they can predict Notre Dame’s intentions. The Irish must strive to break their own tendencies based on down, distance, personnel and formation. Although this would normally be an exercise for the upcoming bye week, Graham’s staff has probably seen enough film to guess correctly more often than not unless Kelly has a few surprises prepared.
ARIZONA STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Taylor Kelly has been both efficient and productive at quarterback this season. He averages 342 passing yards per game, is an effective scrambler, and has thrown 11 touchdown passes against four interceptions. Kelly typically looks for 6’3” wide receiver Jaelon Strong downfield, and that combination has connected 31 times for more than 100 yards per game. The running backs are also an integral part of the passing offense. Marion Grice and D.J. Foster have caught 44 balls out of the backfield between them, and H-Back Chris Coyle’s size, speed and athleticism are well utilized in this offense.
Graham challenged his offensive line to play more physically after losing the war in the trenches against Stanford, and they responded by handling what is generally regarded as a talented Trojan defense. There are no outstanding performers up front for ASU, but like Notre Dame the left side of the line features the best players. The ability to create holes for the elusive Grice is critical to their success. The senior tailback leads the nation in scoring with 12 touchdowns, eight of them coming on the ground.
The threats posed by the passing and running ability of Kelly, Grice’s effectiveness as a runner and receiver, and the fact that Strong is the best receiver the Irish have encountered to date make the Sun Devils very difficult to defend. Grice and Coyle appear to be difficult matchups for Notre Dame’s linebackers, so Kelly and Bob Diaco may consider a base alignment with five defensive backs instead of four. The Irish front will be difficult for Arizona State to contain, but if Kelly can get the ball out quickly to his receivers in space the Sun Devils could duplicate the success enjoyed by Oklahoma using similar tactics.
The blueprint used by Stanford to build a 39-7 lead against ASU was to stop the run and pressure Kelly into mistakes and incompletions. The Sun Devils threw 56 passes in that game, but enjoyed a 50/50 run pass balance while dismantling USC. Notre Dame has the talent to approach Stanford’s success, and would be advised to reverse a recent negative trend by getting off to a good start and controlling the clock. Arizona State has outscored opponents by 169-89 in the first quarter under Graham. If the contest is close throughout, note that Graham’s Sun Devils have also outscored teams 182-88 in the fourth quarter.
The Sun Devils are only average in the return game. Grice handles the kickoffs to a 23 yard average while Robert Nelson scrapes out five yards per punt return. The coverage units are solid on kickoffs (19 yards allowed per return) but a bit loose on punt returns (12 yards). Field goal kicker Zane Gonzalez has limited range, hitting only two of five attempts from longer than 30 yards. Kickoff specialist Alex Garoutte generally boots the ball into the end zone or beyond, while punter Dom Vizzare has struggled this season to date.
Notre Dame is still searching for consistency on special teams. Atkinson is capable of ripping off a long kickoff return, but the coverage unit is just as likely to allow a similar outcome. Kyle Brindza’s punting has improved to an extent, but the occasional shank pops up at inopportune moments. If the game comes down to a last minute field goal, Brindza has the edge over ASU’s Gonzalez.
If I didn’t know better, I’d guess from their attire that these teams were archrivals in a B-Flight Bowling League. Arizona State will have to gamble on defense to slow down Notre Dame, and this strategy is likely to work if the Irish are behind on the scoreboard and remain predictable in their formations and play calls. A slow start will almost certainly spell doom, and the quarterback that throws 50 passes will almost certainly be on the losing team.
ASU is coming off a three game stretch against Wisconsin, Stanford and USC, and both mental and physical fatigue could become a factor if Notre Dame is patient enough to pound on them. The Irish will be motivated to replace the bad taste of a home loss with a hard fought win before their bye week. If they can perform like they did during the middle portion of the Oklahoma game and patch the holes in the short passing zones on defense, they can handle the Sun Devils.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Which team will best capitalize on its scoring chances?
Will the Irish set up play action passes or telegraph Rees’ throws out of an empty backfield?
Can Notre Dame’s offensive line limit ASU’s ability to create negative plays?
Will Atkinson or Grice have the biggest impact on the outcome?
Can the Irish cover the Sun Devil backs and short zone receivers?
Which team will win the turnover battle?
How ‘bout them Cowboys?
This game has the potential to unfold in a similar fashion to last week’s debacle with Oklahoma. Notre Dame’s tendency to start slow has become alarming and could once again doom the Irish to another loss against the high-scoring Sun Devils. With Hood likely at less than 100% if he plays at all, there is just no excuse for Kelly not to take advantage and copy Stanford’s plan to run the ball religiously and mix in play-action passes. His team really needs a win before the break, and the effects of ASU’s tough early schedule are bound to show up in the fourth quarter if Notre Dame can keep pace during the first 45 minutes. I’m not as confident about this one as I’ve been about the previous five, but I expect the Irish will be improved just enough on both sides of the ball to steal the win.
NOTRE DAME 35 ARIZONA STATE 31