Arizona State vs. Notre Dame: Behind enemy lines with Inside the Irish

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's game in Jerry's World has been the most anticipated matchup of the season. Keith Arnold of Inside the Irish tells us what to expect from the team standing on the opposing sideline.

In the span of one month, Arizona State has transitioned from considerable underdog to nearly unanimous favorite in their matchup against a team who made a national championship appearance last season.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have frustrated their colossal fanbase through the early-going in 2013 but does that mean that we're simply under-estimating them entering Saturday? To answer that question and many more, we brought in NBC Sports' Keith Arnold. And believe me, he's about as knowledgeable as they come:

Q: In last weekend's loss to Oklahoma, ND looked allowed quite a few big gains to Blake Bell and Trevor Knight on options and QB-keepers. With ASU QB Taylor Kelly coming off his best rushing game of the season, is this an area in which the Sun Devils could exploit?

Keith Arnold: I'd be shocked if ASU didn't. Just about every game this year, Notre Dame has had struggles containing a mobile quarterback, starting with Temple, watching Devin Gardner play the game of his life, and even Rob Henry and Connor Cook of Purdue and Michigan State respectively.

In many ways, Taylor Kelly is the perfect quarterback if you're taking on Notre Dame's defense. He's athletic enough to be elusive in the run game, and accurate enough to move the chains with short, possession throws (That's not a knock on his arm, but it's been the preferred offensive mode against the Irish defense after five games).

After an impressive effort against USC, I'd be surprised if the Sun Devil offense didn't try to pick up yards with Kelly on the ground, especially after watching Notre Dame tape.

Q: You know a season isn't going according to plan when a head coach has the reassure everyone that your quarterback is still the starter. What is your assessment of Tommy Rees so far and how much of the blame does he truly deserve?

Keith: That's a really good question and one that's probably not as easy to answer as it is to ask. Tommy Rees is Tommy Rees. For Notre Dame fans that have watched him play since 2010, they've seen the best version of him and they've also watched turnovers and physical limitations hamper the Irish.

This season was derailed in May, not September, when Everett Golson was suspended for the fall semester because of an academic Honor Code violation. You could hypothesize for weeks what this team would be like with Golson at the helm, but it's not going to do anyone much good.

Rees has played okay. He certainly didn't play well against Michigan State or Oklahoma, with his latest outing probably his worst since beating USC in a rainstorm during his freshman year. But a lot of the problem has been how the offensive coaching staff (Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly) have decided to use him. If they stuck with the same offensive game plan as they used with Golson as he learned the offense, would the Irish be better than 3-2? I tend to think maybe, though it's not as if the Irish defense is the same group that looked like a brick wall last year either.

There is no more divisive player in recent memory than Rees, which is kind of a pity because the kid has done everything asked of him by the staff. And the bottom line is that there isn't anyone close to being as good as him on the depth chart.

Q: I know it hurts to admit it but Notre Dame's defense simply isn't playing anywhere near the level it excelled at last season. Is it simply talent turnover or are them some underlying bad tendencies we should know about?

Keith: Not sure it hurts anyone, especially since the difference has been so obvious. In the preseason, you saw eight returning starters from one of the top five defenses in the country. But at every level, the Irish lost the leader of the unit -- Kapron Lewis-Moore at defensive line, Manti Te'o at linebacker, and Zeke Motta at safety. Lewis-Moore allowed the Irish to help control the line of scrimmage with three down linemen in the run game. Motta was the captain of the secondary, a guy that three seasons of starting experience playing for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. And Te'o -- when you forget the Catfishing and draft slide -- had one of the most ridiculous defensive seasons you could ask for, with 100+ tackles and seven interceptions from his middle linebacker spot.

There's plenty of talent within the unit, Louis Nix III is an All-American caliber player and Stephon Tuitt will be a first round draft pick when he's ready to leave school. Bennett Jackson (CB) should play on Sundays and there is elite young talent playing with guys like Cole Luke and Jaylon Smith. But the pieces haven't come together as quickly as expected, and this group has given up the big plays that just didn't happen last season.

Q: Arizona State has been giving up some huge rushing plays off the edges this season so you can pretty much guarantee the Irish running backs bust a few loose Saturday. Should the Sun Devil defense be more afraid of George Atkinson III after his breakout game or the much-hyped Amir Carlisle? What skill set does each one of those gentlemen offer?

Keith: On paper, George Atkinson is one of the scariest athletes in college football. (CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman had him in his annual freaks list this preseason.) He's a 6-2, 220-pound back that also happens to run a legit 10.3 100-meters. That said, Atkinson is a frustrating back to watch, as he lacks some of the natural instincts that you come to expect from a feature back at a program like Notre Dame.

Last Saturday, the light bulb seemed to go on for Atkinson, who ran hard and through some of the tackles that had taken him down earlier in the season. He did it just in time, because not just Amir Carlisle is hunting for his job, but Cam McDaniel and freshmen backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. There were literally five co-starters at running back on last week's depth chart.

When I heard Todd Graham talking about struggles with alignment and outside runs, I immediately thought of Atkinson, who almost exclusively runs outside zone. The Irish offensive line is talented and finally got on track last week. I'd expect Atkinson to get the first shot at making things happen, with Carlisle being cross-trained at slot receiver as well.

All that being said, if ND gets the lead in the second half, you'll probably see a lot of Cam McDaniel. And before Atkinson broke off his 80-yarder, Folston had a really impressive run around the left side that set the Irish up for a touchdown.

Q: Just because we're a glutton for punishment, what's your opinion of Arizona State's new flame helmet released Monday?

Keith: I've spent the past few seasons worrying about the apocalypse after Notre Dame fans reacted to the alternate uniforms that have now become an annual tradition in the Shamrock Series games. If teams want to do something crazy once a year with a different uniform, I'm all for it.

Do I think the new ASU uniforms look like something out of a Nic Cage movie? Yeah. But if the kids dig it, I'm all for it.

Q: Now, it's time for you score prediction? How do you see this one going and what would a third loss this early mean to the Notre Dame program?

Keith: I haven't made a score prediction in my five seasons of doing this, and I don't think I'll get started here. (I just don't want to confirm all the suspicions of me being an idiot.) But for Notre Dame, the big keys are establishing the ground game and keeping the ball away from the Sun Devils.

Inevitably, one of these offenses are going to make big plays. And I tend to think this game will be closer to the Wisconsin-ASU game than the runaway train that happened last weekend that sent Lane Kiffin packing.

Notre Dame needs to get off to a good start to win this football game. If they struggle early, I don't think they'll be able hold serve, especially if the Sun Devils are able to stay balanced on offense.

To learn more about Notre Dame, head over to Inside the Irish or tweet Keith at @KeithArnold.

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