Since 2009 the Shamrock Series has provided Notre Dame Football with a neutral venue to showcase their program. 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. The choice of the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, most prominent football stadium in Texas as the venue 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.
Unfortunately for the Irish, they face their toughest challenge yet in the Shamrock Series in the Arizona State University (ASU) Sun Devils. In the past week, the Sun Devils torched USC for 61 points and rose to 22nd in the AP and Coaches polls (while Notre Dame fell out of both rankings). With only one loss on the season to a tough Stanford team and wins against quality opponents like USC and Wisconsin, Arizona State (3-1) is riding high in the PAC-12 South. New head coach Todd Graham, a scourge for Notre Dame during his time at Tulsa and Pittsburgh, has publicly stated that his team and the fans have circled the Notre Dame game on their schedule and they intend to use this opportunity to showcase their skill on a national stage.
Let’s take a look at the offense the Sun Devils will bring to Cowboy’s Stadium on October 5.
Passing (358.8ypg – 8th in nation)
Led by QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona State’s offense has exploded onto the college football scene. The team is averaging 44.3 ppg, good for 10th in the nation, and has scored an impressive 22 touchdowns in 4 games. Kelly has thrown for 1,370 yards and 11 touchdowns and is completing 61.4% of his passes. Although listed at only 6’2″ 206lbs, Kelly has proven that he can move the pocket and scramble for yards. Kelly’s statistics seems even more impressive when you take into account that they were accumulated against Wisconsin (32 points), Stanford (28 points) and USC (I know USC is down but there is still a ton of talent on that team).
The strength of Arizona State’s passing offense lies in their use of multiple formations and motion which confuses defenses and creates mismatches with their running backs and slot receivers. In fact two of the team’s top four receiving threats are non-wide receivers. RB Marion Grice has caught 22 passes for 183 yards and 4 TD’s (Grice has an impressive 12 TDs on the season when you include his rushing total). DJ Foster, who is listed as running back but plays out of the slot, has caught 22 passes for 258 yards and 1 TD. Both Grice and Foster are quick and elusive, and Graham uses screens and swing passes to get them into the open field where they can break big plays.
On the outside, WR Jaleen Strong, a big bodied receiver, has caught 33 receptions for 488 yards and become the team’s leading receiver. TE Chris Coyle has caught 11 receptions for 213 yards and 2 TD’s and provides Kelly with a big target across the middle and in the red zone.
The biggest knock on the Sun Devil’s offense has been their inability to stretch the field vertically. Most of this blame can be placed on the Sun Devil wide receivers who struggle to gain separation from opponents’ defensive backs. A good portion of Kelly’s deep throws are back shoulder throws where only the receiver can catch the pass. Kelly does have a slight accuracy problem, but this is mitigated by Graham’s preference for shorter, underneath patterns that move the chains and give his receivers a chance to make plays.
Rushing (146ypg – 85th in the nation)
Given all the hype surrounding the Sun Devil’s passing game (and the statistics) it seems ironic that the offense’s success relies on the potency of the running game. The purpose of ASU’s running game is not necessarily to accumulate huge chunks of yards or maintain possession; instead, Graham uses the rushing attack to keep opponents, particularly their linebackers, guessing so he can setup the underneath passing game for his slot receivers and running backs. This deception powers ASU’s quick pace offense which wears down defensive fronts and creates huge holes for Grice, Kelly, Foster and Deantre Lewis. Collectively this group has rushed for 550 yards and 11 touchdowns on 135 carries.
Although most fans will blame Tommy Rees and the turnovers for the loss to Oklahoma, and don’t get me wrong he deserves a could portion of the blame, I simply cannot overlook the fact that Notre Dame’s defense relinquished 200 plus yards rushing and another 232 yards passing. The defense did make some key stops that the offense failed to capitalize on, but they still allowed two big plays in the passing game that led to touchdowns. The mistakes on those two plays (a misread by Jarrett Grace and a bad play by Bennett Jackson) emphasize the deficiencies in Notre Dame’s pass defense that Arizona State is perfectly equipped to exploit.
In the Sun Devils game against Wisconsin, a team that plays a 3-4 defense like Notre Dame and has similar speed, Graham used Foster and Grice in the spread, the pistol and the slot to isolate them on the edges with Wisconsin’s slower interior linebackers. Both players had a their way because Wisconsin lacked the speed and athleticism to stay with them. Given the similarities of Notre Dame’s defense to Wisconsin and the struggles of the trio of interior linebackers (Jarrett Grace, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese) Notre Dame can expect a similar game plan from the Sun Devils.
If the Irish intend to slow down ASU’s offense the defensive front needs to shut down the running game and pressure Kelly without an overuse of blitzes. This will force Kelly to rely on his receiver corps and limit the effectiveness of the underneath passing game. Expect Diaco to play tight, bump-and-run coverage on ASU’s receivers in order to force them to the outside, but the secondary needs to keep their heads up as Kelly has an affinity for the back shoulder throws.
In the end, even with a great scheme from Bob Diaco, Notre Dame simply does not have the speed to contain all the weapons surrounding Kelly. Moreover, once ASU gains momentum they prove incredibly difficult to stop. Notre Dame may make some key plays, but the Sun Devils will still score a ton of points. I am sticking with my preseason prediction of an Arizona State victory.