There are few teams in college football more intriguing than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. From Everett Golson's academic suspension to the team's dramatic drop off from a championship appearance last season, there has been no shortage of hot topics to discuss in 2013.
For that reason, we're having a second Behind Enemy Lines this week to learn more about the team Arizona State will be facing off against in Jerry's World.
NBC Sports' Keith Arnold already shared some brilliant insight in our first installment so the bar was set high for Patrick Burns of One Foot Down. Don't worry though; he more than held his own in the Q&A:
Q: Besides the fact that the defense lost leaders at every level, what has been the unit's biggest downfall this season? The talent is still there so why aren't the results?
Patrick Burns: The defense lost Manti Te'o, and that cannot be understated. He was just a massive eraser in the middle of the field that was equally strong sideline to sideline and against the run and pass. We also lost our senior strong safety Zeke Motta, the leader of our secondary.
No excuse, however, as like you said the talent is still there. We have a weak point at ILB against the pass, but other than that, on paper, the defense should be performing well. The problem has been execution. Simple mistakes like not keeping inside leverage in certain coverage situations, missed tackles, and losing contain have been the big issues this season. Scheme wise, and talent wise, we've got the tools. All that's lacking is the execution, which is what happens when you lose as much leadership and experience as we lost.
Q: As the nation saw Saturday, Arizona State is most comfortable when the touchdowns start to rack up. Do you think the Notre Dame offense is built to compete in a shootout if it comes to that?
Burns: No, unless ASU's secondary and pass rush are equally bad raging dumpster fires (I have no reason to believe this). Tommy Rees is not a sling-it-around-the-yard QB, and after last week's performance, I think most Irish fans believe that anything resembling a pass-first game plan will spell doom for the offense, and hang the defense out to dry like they did last week against Oklahoma. We have the playmakers to compete in that type of game, but we don't have the QB to spread the ball to them efficiently.
Q: It seemed like last week Notre Dame was finally able to consistently get their ground game going against Oklahoma. What was the difference in that game?
Burns: Equal parts Oklahoma's defense (3-3-5 nickel, with a small-ish defensive line), improved execution across the board on the offensive line, and a commitment to the running game. Add in the growth of George Atkinson III last week into someone who ran hard and low, and through tacklers (something we've been hoping for all year), as well as the emergence of freshman Tarean Folston as an impressively physical back, and it spelled success for the Irish on the ground.
I think that, especially after last week's game, Brian Kelly is going to lean heavily on the run game (with the added benefit of slowing down ASU's offense), and try and help Tommy Rees out by giving him simple playaction reads. If the run game is as effective as it was last week, I think the Irish can be very successful.
Q: Can you elaborate about the expectations that fans in South Bend had entering this season? What is the mindset among Irish followers now that the team is sitting at 3-2?
Burns: Entering the season, most fans pegged the Irish as a 9-3 team, with most attributing losses to Stanford, OU, and one of Michigan, Michigan State, and ASU. While that's still in play at 3-2, there has been a re-setting of expectations after watching the first 5 games. We're painfully average in a lot of areas, Tommy Rees severely limits our offensive options, and our defense is trying to break in a lot of new starters (some expected and some unexpected).
The biggest thing that people who follow Notre Dame closely know is that with the losses of Everett Golson due to academic issues following Spring practice, projected starting safety Nick Baratti to a shoulder injury at the beginning of fall camp, and starting Dog linebacker Danny Spond to retirement due to hemiplegic migraines only 2 weeks before the season opener, it was going to be a somewhat down year for the Irish. Too much preparation and experience was lost to unlucky circumstances. Most rational Notre Dame fans (yes there are some of us), are simply looking for improvement, and are excited at the number of meaningful snaps the talented underclassmen are receiving. 8-4 with a bowl win and improvement as the year moves along would be great to build on when Golson returns to campus in the spring.
Q: Score prediction time: who is going to win and what precisely do you expect to happen?
Burns: I have confidence that Notre Dame's running game will have similar success to what we saw against Oklahoma, with the caveat of dealing with Will Sutton effectively. I've been very pleasantly surprised with starting center Nick Martin (brother of left tackle Zack Martin), and am interested to see how he handles that test.
Despite that confidence, I think Tommy Rees is going to really hurt ND in this game. There will be a few throws that kill drives, and we may need him to make a big play that I'm not sure he's built to make. Such is the offense at Notre Dame in 2013.
On the defensive side of the ball, I think you'll see what ND did well last year, and get a heavy dose of bend-but-don't-break. I fully expect Marion Grice to catch upwards of 6 billion passes for five-yards per catch, but if ND's defense can hold them to field goals, that would be just fine with DC Bob Diaco.
Best case scenario: ND's running game is clicking, and the offense is winning first and second down with no issue. This opens up the playaction passing game, allowing Rees time and easy throws, and limiting his big mistake potential. Notre Dame's defense keeps everything in front of them, allowing no big plays, and even forces a turnover or two.
Worst case scenario: Will Sutton eats the entire ND offensive line, ASU packs the box, and ND has to turn to the passing game. If this happens, the game is over, regardless of what ND does on defense.
Most likely scenario: ND's RBs show some modicum of success, but Rees struggles. ND's defense keeps ASU in front of them most of the game, but gives up 1 or 2 big plays that tip the scales in ASU's favor.
Final prediction: ASU 34 - ND 24 (and ND goes to 0-6 against the spread).