The most over-hyped game of the season is finally here for Arizona State. The Sun Devils are heading to Dallas to battle Notre Dame in the annual Shamrock Series at AT&T Stadium (Jerry World) in a game that made more news off the field than it did on it over the last four months.
After a bitter feud between the two universities' athletic departments dominated the headlines during the summer, none of that matters this week. It's time to buckle the chinstraps and dig in for what should be a fun game.
Notre Dame is clearly not the team it was last year, losing to Oklahoma last week in a game that was never really as close as the score might indicate (and the score doesn't indicate it was close). The Irish barely beat a mediocre Michigan State team, barely beat an even-worse Purdue and couldn't hang with either ranked team they played.
The Sun Devils, meanwhile, just got a coach fired in week five. Forks up.
Matchup of the Week: Interior lines
Both teams have legitimate first round picks on the defensive side of the line. Both teams have questions on the offensive side of the line. How both teams handle these differences, and whichever team can isolate them, is more likely to win.
Will Sutton and the nose tackles vs. Notre Dame's interior line
Will Sutton finally looked like Will the Thrill against USC. His first step was quick, he showed explosive power and he disrupted the Trojans' rushing attack constantly. The problems with the Sun Devils defense against the run continue to manufacture themselves on the weak side of the field, where SPUR linebacker Anthony Jones and field safety Laiu Moeakiola keep taking poor angles and missing tackles. Sutton and the nose tackle position have not been the problem.
Jaxon Hood will not return this week, but that shouldn't matter. Davon Coleman moved inside for the second half of the USC game and was solid, and Marcus Hardison gives the Sun Devils some rotational depth. It remains to be seen if Mo Latu will return this week after missing last week with what coach Todd Graham called "a knee issue. It's not an injury, he's just working through something." I don't know what that means, but Latu is just a bonus if he can go.
Notre Dame has run the ball well at times this season, with the team averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 134.6 yards per game. The problem for the Irish is they can't seem to pick a running back. Cam McDaniel has been bad at times, Amir Carlisle is average and George Atkinson III looks great, but none of them get consistent carries. They also don't get consistent holes to run through. The interior line of the Fighting Irish is small. Center Nick Martin weighs just 295 lbs.
Martin doesn't get off the ball well and that should allow the Sun Devils to get great pressure up the middle. The Sun Devils will use this to either make the running backs bounce the ball wide, something none of them do particularly well, or force quarterback Tommy Rees to move in the pocket.
Guess what? Rees can't move in the pocket. It's been a long time since I've seen a quarterback so stiff. Rees stands still and makes one read. If that read goes away, he panics, and Rees has yet to establish how to make progressions, a shocking development for a senior. I expect Sutton and Coleman to feast on the Irish tailbacks, as well as Rees in this one. Don't get me wrong, if Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is half the coach the world thinks he is, they will run a lot of power and stretch plays to eliminate Sutton and force the Sun Devils secondary to make plays.
But you can only do so many of those runs, as USC and Wisconsin both showed. It should be another big day for the Arizona State defense, and I expect the Sun Devils to force a few more turnovers and maybe score again, too. If they do, it will all start with Sutton.
Let's make something clear right now: Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III are the two best defensive players the Sun Devils will face all year. No team in the country possesses a one-two punch on defense, let alone along the defensive line, that the Fighting Irish do.
Nix is a massive human, weighing over 355 lbs. Tuitt is as explosive of a 5-techinque lineman that you'll see in college. When I watch Nix, I see former Minnesota Vikings great Pat Williams. Nix is huge, but surprisingly athletic and can push the pocket and get sacks. Tuitt is Sutton on steroids (not literally). Tuitt has the size and speed combination to disrupt both the run and the pass, and his ability to pressure from a down position on the edge allows Notre Dame to drop more linebackers into coverage instead of blitzing.
Where these two really create a problem for Arizona State is the lack of size the Sun Devils have up front. Center Kody Koebensky is a technical machine, but he isn't even a great athlete, and he's not particularly strong either. Left guard Jamil Douglas is the best lineman the Sun Devils have right now, and I expect him to help double team Nix on running plays. Right guard Vi Teofilo has been surprisingly good in pass protection so far, but he's never seen someone like Tuitt, and that worries me. Teofilo is also much smaller than Tuitt.
So what do the Sun Devils do? Use their speed and use misdirection. Oklahoma was great at presenting different looks against the Irish, and it worked. The Sun Devils started to unveil a new formation against USC that could work similar wonders against Notre Dame.
The under center formation, with two running backs and two tight ends, allows quarterback Taylor Kelly to shift multiple players and sent one in motion pre-snap. This gives Kelly an idea of the defense the opponents are in and then adjust the play accordingly. If Arizona State runs outside the tackles, they eliminate Nix from the equation. The trick is to give Tuitt multiple looks so he either has to stay back and read the play, or commit early and hope he's right.
Will Tuitt guess correctly a few times? Sure. But there will be times when he's wrong, and just like the USC game, this will open running lanes for Marion Grice, Deantre Lewis, D.J. Foster and Kelly. Once those lanes open, the play-action pass down the seam will be open, and Notre Dame doesn't have the speed in its linebackers or secondary to run with Chris Coyle or Foster.
The Sun Devil offense we saw against USC in the second half is the one they've been working toward all year. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that Arizona State was breaking in two new lineman and three new skill players, and these things take time. I expect the Sun Devils to find ways to isolate Tuitt and Nix and make the rest of the Irish defense make plays.
So far, that defense has come up short when asked to do so, and that's a good sign for the Sun Devils.