No. 22 Arizona State (3-1, 0-1 in Pac-12) at Notre Dame (3-2 as an Independent)
Kickoff: 4:30 P.M. MST/6:30 P.M. CST/7:30 P.M. EST
Location: AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas
Point Spread: Arizona State (-6)
TV: NBC (Tom Hammond, Mike Mayock, Alex Flanagan)
Radio: 620 KTAR AM (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather Forecast: N/A (The roof at AT&T Stadium will be closed as there is a 30 percent chance of rain)
What to Wear: Arizona State encourages all fans to wear gold to road games.
Series History: Arizona State has played Notre Dame twice and the Sun Devils haven't been able to stop the luck of the Irish. The programs met in back-to-back seasons in 1998 and 1999 and the Fighting Irish won easily both times. The 1998 matchup resulted in a 28-9 Notre Dame victory while the 1999 game was even more of a landslide with a final score of 48-17. The Sun Devils are looking to become the first team to ever knock off USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks.
Notre Dame's Season to Date
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter this week's contest looking to right the ship after dropping two of their first five games. Head coach Brian Kelly's squad is 3-2 after losing a week two matchup to an up-tempo Michigan squad and falling in last week's game against an undefeated Oklahoma team.
The Fighting Irish began the season ranked 14th in the country after making an improbable run to the National Championship a season ago. Notre Dame lost defensive leader and Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o to the NFL and quarterback Everett Golson to a suspension for academic reasons. Still, the Fighting Irish's early season struggles come as a surprise to many who believe Notre Dame's defense stacks up with the best in the nation.
After breezing past an overmatched Temple squad for its first win of the season, Notre Dame lost a tough road matchup to Michigan under the lights at "The Big House." The Fighting Irish defense surrendered 41 points and couldn't contain Wolverine receiver Jeremy Gallon who caught eight passes for 184 yards and three touchdown.
The following week, Notre Dame traveled to Purdue and played a closer-than-anticipated matchup against the Boilermakers. The Fighting Irish escaped with a 31-24 victory, but actually slid a spot in the AP poll. In a home game against Michigan State, Notre Dame mustered just 17 points and relied on a stout defensive effort to sneak away with a 17-13 win over the Spartans.
Against Oklahoma, Irish quarterback Tommy Rees threw interceptions on two of his first three pass attempts and the Irish fell into a hole they couldn't climb out of. Oklahoma's Blake Bell tossed for 232 yards while the Sooner defense limited Rees to 9-24 passing on the afternoon. The Sooners' 35-21 victory dropped Notre Dame out of the AP poll for the first time this year and that's where the Fighting Irish stand coming into this week.
Arizona State on Offense
Marion Grice is on a prolific touchdown pace and Jaelen Strong is enjoying the best debut season of any receiver in Sun Devil history, but what makes this offense tick? It's the leadership and poise of quarterback Taylor Kelly.
In last week's display of offensive fireworks against USC, Kelly fell just short of setting career highs in passing and rushing yards by throwing for 351 yards and running for another 79 yards. Kelly was precise in his option reads and it showed in his 19.8 yard per carry average as well as persistent in targeting playmakers in the passing game.
Kelly found Strong seven times for 103 yards and hit Chris Coyle and Grice five times each through the air. Kelly also capitalized on having D.J. Foster in the slot by hitting the sophomore on a 74-yard touchdown pass right down the seam. Foster said he thought he might have a chance before the play and he credited Kelly with finding him over the top.
"I knew that the backer inside of me was trying to wall me off and I knew I had to beat him high," Foster said. "There was really nobody there so I got on top of him and Taylor threw a great ball."
Using Foster as a receiver may limit his individual production, but it opens up the running game and forces teams to keep an eye on Arizona State's deep threats. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell likes to use Foster out of the slot and he says he's getting used to his new role.
"Most definitely. It's just repetitions and stuff and practice and I'm getting more comfortable so everything's starting to gel together," Foster said.
Foster says his receiving skills aren't the only reason we can expect to see him split wide more often against Notre Dame. The Sun Devils watched film on the Michigan game and believe their up-tempo style should be even more of an advantage this week.
"I hope so, each week it's just a different game plan," Foster said. "How Marion's feeling, how Deantre's feeling, we've got three good backs and we're trying to incorporate all of us in the backfield so we can all be fresh because the tempo that we go at is so fast."
Notre Dame is the fourth straight team the Sun Devils will face that operates with a 3-4 defensive scheme. The Sun Devils struggled at times against Wisconsin and Stanford, but since the second half of the game against the Cardinal, Arizona State appears to have figured out a way to beat its opponents' game plans. Still, Foster knows there's room to improve in preparing for any defense.
"Stanford ran it (3-4 defense) and we didn't show up too well so we just have to correct that and see what we did wrong from that game since they're so similar," Foster said.
Notre Dame features two of the country's elite defensive linemen in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III, so expect Arizona State to emphasize the edge rushing attack and to get Taylor Kelly on the move more frequently this week. Kelly has passed for at least 300 yards in all four games thus far and if all goes well, he'll play a pivotal role in leading Arizona State to another offensive outburst.
"They're (Notre Dame) just a really talented team," Foster said. "Up front they've got a lot of big guys, very talented D-linemen but I think if we play our game we'll be fine."
Arizona State on Defense
Against mediocre teams, Tommy Rees has shined as the quarterback of the Fighting Irish. Against outstanding opponents, Rees has faltered and struggled to put together consistent drives. The question remains: What Arizona State defense will show up on Saturday night?
The Sun Devils have the potential to wreak havoc in the backfield especially after the eruptions of Will Sutton and Carl Bradford last week. Arizona State also has an obvious hole in the middle of its defense, with Jaxon Hood sidelined due to injury. The play of Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway becomes integral to the Sun Devils' success this week on the defensive line. If Coleman and Conway can stop the run and force Notre Dame into obvious passing situations, Arizona State's defense should thrive.
At the linebacker level, Todd Graham shifted Chris Young from his starting WILL backer spot to the SPUR position which puts him in space to make plays on the edge. Young is the Sun Devils' most consistent linebacker and he's a tackles for loss machine when playing his best football. Salamo Fiso, Carlos Mendoza and Grandville Taylor will fight to replace Young at WILL while Steffon Martin holds down the fort at the SAM backer spot this week.
The secondary is another area Notre Dame will be paying close attention to this week. The Fighting Irish have great athletes on the outside including T.J. Jones and Davaris Daniels who have each surpassed 300 yards receiving this year. Sun Devil safety Laiu Moeakiola says Jones and Daniels are top priorities for the Sun Devil defensive backs.
"They have great personnel," Moeakiola said. "They have good tight ends, good receivers, the wide outs make plays and have big play capabilities so as a defense it's our job just to stop that and keep them contained."
After losing the starting field safety battle to Marcus Ball in fall camp, an injury to Ball thrust Moeakiola back into the Sun Devils' starting lineup. Through four games as a starter, the redshirt freshman has slowly evolved on a week-by-week basis.
"Just improving day by day. From week one to now, just trying to improve my game mentally and physically, doing what I have to do," Moeakiola said.
This week, Moeakiola is facing pressure from sophomore Damarious Randall who's finally healthy again and eating into Moeakiola's reps at practice. Regardless, Moeakiola says he's focused on putting himself in the best position to stop the Fighting Irish.
"Never get complacent.... You get tired and you get banged up but you get motivated throughout the season to go out and compete to the best of your ability," he said.
Competing to the best of his abilities means stepping up in run support. Notre Dame watched Arizona State's defense against USC and knows that there's running room to be had against this Sun Devil front. It's up to Moeakiola and the rest of the secondary to step up and make plays so that 5-yard gains don't become 15 to 25-yard efforts.
"Playing safety on this defense, you have to be a run-stopper and a pass defender," Moeakiola said. "The number one thing about that is being smart and knowing what you're taking away every play."
Notre Dame lists four different running backs as starters on its depth chart and is confident that each can get the job done. So far, George Atkinson III has far outpaced Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel as Atkinson III is averaging more than seven yards per carry.
Atkinson III can get to the outside faster than Tre Madden and Justin Davis did for USC, so it's in Arizona State's best interests to treat him like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and focus on taking away the edge when he's in the backfield.
Arizona State knows this offense can be shut down, now it's up to the players to go out and execute.
The Final Breakdown
Notre Dame has had difficulties in every facet of its game this season. The Fighting Irish have struggled to outplay teams that have far weaker talent and they've dropped their only two games against ranked opponents. Under Brian Kelly, Notre Dame is 2-12 when surrendering more than 21 points (H/T Brad Denny) and it would comes as a shock to see Arizona State held under that total based on last week's performance.
In their last five quarters of football, the Sun Devils have put up 83 points and this team looks like it has finally hit a groove. Offensively, Taylor Kelly has been in rhythm all season and Mike Norvell has figured out creative ways to make use of the weapons at his disposal. Defensively, this team can be above average and still win football games. This year's squad won't pile up the tackles for loss and sack numbers we saw last year, but it doesn't have to in order to give Arizona State a chance to win.
For Notre Dame, it comes down to experience. The Fighting Irish need a strong showing in the first and fourth quarters to keep pace with an up-tempo Sun Devil squad that isn't used to the bright lights. If Tommy Rees is calm and collected and the defense forces turnovers, it could be a long day for Arizona State.
What this game boils down to is which team's playmakers step up. Execution is standard for most college football programs by week six of the regular season. Now it's up to the individual players to separate themselves from the their peers and lead their teams to victory. At this point, Arizona State has more impact players, so the Sun Devils should pull out a victory.
Prediction: Arizona State 45, Notre Dame 35