A 62-41 victory against the USC Trojans is as encouraging of a performance in recent history for the Arizona State Sun Devils. Over the past decade, the Sun Devils have faltered time and time again with their chance in the spotlight and they appear to finally be breaking through.
Todd Graham has led the Sun Devils to a 3-1 record through their first four games and they finish up a highly anticipated four-game stretch of games with a matchup against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend.
The Sun Devils dismantled the Trojans in many facets of the game, but they still left room for improvement. Arizona State's run defense remains one of the team's biggest question marks after Will Sutton and Co. allowed 247 yards on the ground to a USC offense that has had difficulty moving the ball this year.
After Saturday night's win, the Sun Devils basked in the glory of gaining an upper hand on one of their most difficult Pac-12 South foes. The celebration is short lived as Saturday's hero, Alden Darby, says Arizona State still has much to prove.
"Our A game has not been shown," Darby said after the game. "We've had spurts and moments, but we still have mistakes and things to correct."
Darby's right. Special teams play is still a glaring issue (especially the punt unit) and the defense has yet to prove it can stop a high-powered rushing attack. If the Sun Devils want to continue their success, they'll have to shore up some of their problems in practice this week.
"We can't have these mistakes week to week," Darby said. "Our A game still hasn't been shown but we'll get there."
The question is: Will Arizona State get there against Notre Dame on the national stage? Let's meet the Fighting Irish and you can decide for yourself.
The First Look
Season to Date (3-2 overall as an Independent)
The Irish enjoyed a dream season last year en route to making an appearance in the BCS National Championship game. While Notre Dame ultimately fell to Alabama, they ended up losing more than just the game. The Irish's defensive leader Manti Te'o moved on to the NFL after a tumultuous offseason and starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended from the team for academic reasons.
This year, the Irish began the season ranked No. 14 in the AP preseason poll. Notre Dame opened the season with a convincing victory against Temple before dropping a Saturday night contest at Michigan. The Irish rebounded with closer than expected victories over Purdue and Michigan State before collapsing in a home contest against Oklahoma on Saturday.
Notre Dame clearly misses Golson at quarterback as Tommy Rees has completed just 53.5 percent of his passes and tossed five interceptions in five games. The Irish defense features two future first-round draft picks on the defensive line in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. Even with the talent in the middle of the 3-4, the Irish couldn't contain a Michigan offense that worked a similar scheme to what Arizona State will use on Saturday.
After Saturday's loss against Oklahoma, the vast majority of AP voters were convinced that Notre Dame did not belong in the top 25. The Fighting Irish received just 12 votes after beginning Saturday ranked 22nd in the country.
Like Arizona State, the Fighting Irish have plenty of talent to play with. The difficulty thus far has been firing on all cylinders and clicking for a full 60 minutes.
Head Coach: Brian Kelly
Career Record (202-70-2)
At Grand Valley State (118-35-2)
At Central Michigan (19-16)
At Cincinnati (34-6)
At Notre Dame (31-13)
Notre Dame on Offense
The Irish were somewhat of an anomaly last season as they lacked the offensive firepower we're used to seeing from teams that make the BCS. Notre Dame relied heavily on its run game and Everett Golson was capable when called upon. This season, the offense is again challenged by ways to best make use of its playmakers.
Tommy Rees is the starting quarterback for Notre Dame and his career has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride. Rees looked strong to start the season but his last two outings have been less than impressive. Against Oklahoma, Rees threw two interceptions on his first three passes including one that was returned for a touchdown.
Rees isn't likely to beat the Sun Devils on his own, but it hasn't been the pass that has given Arizona State trouble this season. The Irish will turn to their rushing attack to best Arizona State and they boast a three-headed monster headlined thus far by junior running back George Atkinson III. Notre Dame actually lists four starting running backs on its depth chart and Atkinson happens to be the one who's outshined his peers.
A high school track star in California, Atkinson has used his blazing speed to rack up 269 yards while averaging more than seven yards per carry. Cam McDaniel actually leads Notre Dame in rushes with 48, but his 3.7 yards per carry pales in comparison to Atkinson's and also trails that of junior Amir Carlisle.
Rees has a few favorite targets in the receiving game including wide receivers T.J. Jones and Davaris Daniels. Jones is the better possession receiver and Daniels figures in as more of a deep threat. Both wideouts have at least 20 catches and 300 yards so far.
Another player the Sun Devils secondary must worry about is tight end Troy Niklas. Niklas only has 11 catches on the season but three of those receptions have resulted in touchdowns including a 66-yarder. Identifying Niklas is a priority in stopping the Irish in the red zone.
The Fighting Irish return three starters on the offensive line from a unit that was cohesive and effective in run blocking last year. Zach Martin and Chris Watt play left tackle and left guard respectively and when the Irish need yards, they'll most often run left. Overall, the offensive line ranks 19th in the country and is allowing a mere .80 sacks per game. Still, the Irish haven't faced a pressure unit as talented as the Sun Devils yet and Tommy Rees didn't look comfortable with Sooner defenders in his face on Saturday.
Overall, it's not the Notre Dame offense that beats teams. The unit is rather methodical and likes to work the clock on long drives. The Irish have demonstrated a penchant for big plays on a few occasions this year, but they'll look to establish running lanes inside the tackles and wear down the Arizona State defensive front.
Notre Dame on Defense
The Notre Dame defense has two of the country's best defensive linemen not named Will Sutton. But even with double trouble in the middle of the defensive line, the Fighting Irish have looked overmatched against great offenses this season.
The Michigan Wolverines hung 41 points on Notre Dame in the second game of the season and Oklahoma's offense accounted for 28 of the 35 points the Irish gave up on Saturday. The Sooners rolled for 450 total yards and 25 first downs and quarterback Blake Bell completed 23 of 31 passes.
Notre Dame's defense is still a force to be reckoned with, but it seems to have lost the magic touch it had last season. This marks the third week in a row the Sun Devils will face a 3-4 defense and they seemed to have little trouble picking apart a highly touted USC front seven.
Alongside Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix is Sheldon Day. Day has registered seven tackles so far but has just one tackle for loss to his credit.
Notre Dame's linebacking core is built to set the edge and force opposing rushers to run between the tackles. Carlo Calabrese anchors the middle and he'll play alongside co-starters Jarrett Grace and Dan Fox. Fox has been the more effective run-stopper with three tackles for loss this year but Grace leads the team in tackles with 22.
Prince Shembo and Jaylon Smith line up at outside linebacker and both will be asked to cover Arizona State receivers on Saturday. Smith plays closer to the line of scrimmage than Shembo but both are effective against the run and the pass.
The Fighting Irish are 58th nationally in pass efficiency defense and they rotate players frequently in the secondary. Elijah Shumate, Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley all see time at the two safety positions and Shumate has a reputation as the best cover man of those three players.
At cornerback, Bennett Jackson has been Notre Dame's version of Osahon Irabor as he's third on the team in tackles with 31 and a reliable tackler in the secondary. KeiVarae Russell starts opposite Jackson and his freshman All-American season at corner took the Fighting Irish by surprise last season. Russell was recruited as an offensive player, but his transition to defense has been smooth and helpful for head coach Brian Kelly.
The Fighting Irish have some of the most talented defensive players in the country this season. Still, this isn't the same Notre Dame defense we saw last year and they are certainly susceptible in a number of ways. The Sun Devils will need an excellent game plan to move the ball and if they have it, there's no reason Arizona State can't do exactly what Michigan did earlier this year.