Schedule: October 5, 2013, 7:30pm EST
Where: Dallas Cowboys Stadium (Shamrock Series)
Since 2009 the Shamrock Series has provided Notre Dame Football with a neutral venue to showcase the program’s talents. The Irish have played in San Antonio, New York City, Washington D.C. and Chicago and have defeated their opponents by an average of 29 points per game. In this year’s installment, Notre Dame faces the Arizona State University (ASU) Sun Devils at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
The choice of the most prominent football stadium in Texas cannot be overlooked. In the past several years Brian Kelly and his staff have ventured deep into Texas to pluck a few highly regarded recruits and they understand the importance of Notre Dame maintaining a footprint in the state. The game against the Sun Devils allows the Irish to invite potential recruits and their families to the game and continue laying the groundwork for potential commitments.
For the Sun Devils the game presents a unique opportunity to play on a national. After four straight losing seasons, the Sun Devils finished 8-5 in 2012. Todd Graham, the former Tulsa and Pittsburgh head coach (that’s right, Tulsa 2010 and Pittsburgh 2011, lest we forget), led the Sun Devils to the Kraft Hunger Bowl and a victory over the Navy Midshipmen. Graham will use this game to woo Texas recruits who may prefer the sun and fun of Tempe, Arizona over Midwest football. I expect Graham to have his team prepared and excited for the game.
Last season the Sun Devils offense revolved around the quarterback and running back positions. Taylor Kelly, the Sun Devils quarterback and 2013 returning starter, completed 67.1 of his passes and threw for 3,039 yards and 30 touchdowns. Kelly also ran for 690 net rush yards. Graham and most writers expect Kelly to have a better season in 2013.
Behind Kelly, the Sun Devils return their best playmakers in RB Marion Grice and RB DJ Foster. Grice tallied 19 touchdowns last season, 8 coming through the air. Grice and Foster each racked up 400 plus yards rushing and receiving. After a strong first season (Grice transferred from junior college) expect both backs to improve and continue to dominate through the air and on the ground.
In the offseason, the Sun Devils graduated their top receivers, Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles, from a group that disappointed in 2012. WR Kevin Ozier, the team’s only returning starter, will need to carry the load as a group of redshirts and recruits adapt to big time college football. TE Chris Coyle, last year’s leading receiver, returns after catching an impressive 57 catches and 5 touchdowns in 2012. Coyle along with Grice and Foster will again represent the bulk of the passing offense.
The offensive line for the Sun Devils struggled last season, but should improve in 2013. The unit allowed 3.0 sacks per game but ASU still averaged 205.5 rushing yards per game. Kody Koebensky, a Rimington Trophy Nominee (award for nation’s best center) and veteran starter, will anchor the line, while veterans Vi Teofilo, Jamil Douglas and Sil Ajawara will fill the positions vacated by Andrew Sampson and Bruce Schwab.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the ASU defense is outstanding. According to Sundevils.com in 2012 ASU’s defense collected 4.0 sacks per game (2nd in the nation) and made an astonishing 117 tackles-for-loss. Over the course of the season, the defense forced a negative play on 16.3% of opponents’ plays and five players finished the season with double-digit TFL totals. The 2013 unit returns 8 starters from last season, none bigger (literally and figuratively) than DT Will Sutton.
Sutton, a consensus 2012 All American and winner of the Morris Torphy, demolished opponents last season. According to Sundevil.com, “Sutton posted 23.5 tackles for loss (TFL), 13.0 sacks and 63 total tackles in 2012. Sutton finished the season ranked second in the nation at 1.92 TFL per game and third in the nation with 1.08 sacks per game, leading the Pac-12 in both categories.”
When Sutton failed to cause havoc in the backfield the Sun Devils relied on Carl Bradford, their “Devilbacker”. Bradford finished the season with 81 tackles, 20.5 TFLs and 11.5 sacks, ridiculous numbers over a 13 game season. Bradford and Sutton are complimented by Jaxon Hood, Davon Coleman and Staffon Martin, each an outstanding athlete and playmaker. The defense needs to replace Brandon McGee at the middle linebacker position, but Grandville Taylor (Sr.), a partial starter last season, seems poised to fill that void.
In the secondary, ASU boasts a unit that ranked third nationally in passing defense (167.92), fourth in interceptions (21) and 10th in passing efficiency defense (105.45). DeVeon Carr and Keelan Johnson have graduated, but they return 2013 All Pac-12 nominees Alden Darby (second team) and Osahon Irabor who should anchor another strong group.
Over the past three seasons, Todd Graham teams have tortured the Irish: an embarrassing loss to Tulsa in 2010 (more the fault of Tommy Rees’ decision making, but the game never should have been that close); the late game touchdown to beat Pitt in 2011 (final score 15-12); and the near heartbreaker to Pitt last season (I give Graham credit because they were his players and his system). In ASU, Graham finally has the talent to challenge the upper echelon of college football and teams need to take note.
In 2012 Notre Dame struggled mightily against teams with strong defensive lines. Purdue, Stanford, BYU and Pittsburgh successfully stuffed the Irish’s run game and put pressure on Golson, forcing him to make plays with his legs. With Golson gone, the burden falls on the offensive line and the running game to take pressure off Rees. The Sun Devils did finish 81st in rush defense and the loss of Brandon McGee could negatively impact their run stopping ability. Nonetheless, Sutton should cause problems for Notre Dame’s Nick Martin and occupy enough blockers to allow his teammates to plug running lanes. Bradford may have difficulty with Zack Martin and Christian Lombard but eventually he, Sutton or other playmakers will put pressure on Rees which could lead to turnovers.
Defensively, Notre Dame struggled last season covering backs and tight ends, the two strengths of ASU’s offense. How well Jarret Grace and Dan Fox play in coverage will determine the effectiveness of Taylor Kelly and the ASU offense. ASU also strikes early and often, scoring first in 11 of their 13 games, which could put Notre Dame into any early hole. The Irish traditionally do not play well if they fall behind by halftime.
After games against USC, Stanford and Wisconsin, ASU may be fatigued by the time they face Notre Dame. But Graham is an excellent motivator and play caller, and Notre Dame should expect that his team will be well prepared and ready for the challenge. ASU will score early but eventually the Irish will smother Kelly and slow down their attack. Unfortunately ASU’s defense will overwhelm Notre Dame’s offense and most likely force turnovers. Kelly will make the move to Malik Zaire but his efforts will be too little, too late. ASU wins in an upset over Notre Dame.