When the Irish take the field against the Arizona State Sun Devils, the Notre Dame offense has to bring its A-game if Brian Kelly's team is going to pull out a victory and preserve hopes of a top-notch bowl game. With Stanford looming large at the end of the season, minimizing losses through this more favorable stretch is a must.
Last week, Your Best 11 looked at what Oklahoma was going to try and exploit in the Fighting Irish defense, and, unfortunately for Notre Dame, a lot of it worked. Underneath routes caught linebackers and safeties out of position, and the Sooners were able to move the ball regularly.
This week, against Arizona State, the Irish face a similar attack, looking to push the tempo and create mismatches in the pass game. Taylor Kelly, Marion Grice and the rest of the Sun Devils attack are going to be problems for the Notre Dame defense.
To counter that, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have to put points up on the board, which boils down to four key elements: ball security, running the football, using the screen game and taking shots down the field.
Ball security has to be job one coming off the dismal performance against the Sooners; inability to keep possession of the ball sank Notre Dame's ship before the Irish were able to get into the flow of the game. Sooner linebackers Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon pulled in interceptions on back-to-back Irish pass plays, and safety Julian Wilson added another interception in the third quarter.
Those three picks ran the score from 0-0 to 7-0 with the Nelson return for a touchdown, then 14-0 with the drive set up by Shannon's return and finally 21-7 on the strength of the Sooners' drive after Wilson's grab.
Fingers automatically go to Tommy Rees, who posted his second-straight game with a sub-.500 completion percentage, but there is plenty of blame to go around for the Irish. On the first interception, a lack of communication ultimately thwarted any chance Rees had to complete the pass.
The offensive line fails to identify the edge threat presented by Eric Striker, only accounting for the four threats inside the box. Five to block four works great; the issue is Striker is the fifth rusher and goes untouched to Tommy Rees, who is going through his reads to the right side of the field. The result is a ball that floats into the arms of Nelson, who returns it for a touchdown.
Heading into the game against Arizona State, Notre Dame has to fix issues like this to stay in the ballgame. Rees and tight end Troy Niklas have to help the linemen by identifying the additional rusher, allowing them to adjust the protection and give Rees time to throw.
Rees also has to get on the same page with his receivers to ensure ball security. Throws into coverage and poor ball placement helped contribute to the other two interceptions for the Irish. Believing in DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones to pull down tough catches makes sense; the issue is leaving those throws high, where they can be tipped away and turned into turnovers.
Protecting the football will go a long way from stopping an otherwise close game from becoming a blow out, but the Irish still have to score with the football. In Dallas, against Arizona State, that starts on the ground. The Sun Devils have given up big yardage and big plays in the run game in recent weeks, and Notre Dame has to capitalize in that facet to stop Rees from having to throw the ball far too often.
George Atkinson III must build off of his successes against the Sooners in the contest against Arizona State. The junior posted an explosive 80 yard run that reminded people of why he keeps getting heavy touches for the Irish, but some of his other carries are the real cause for excitement.
Atkinson was able to put together 13 carries for 68 yards, a 5.23 average, with only one negative rush against Oklahoma. That is a quality rushing effort, and while the home run is nice, Atkinson demonstrated a sense of consistency that has eluded the Fighting Irish run game by putting back-to-back positive gains.
On Saturday, it will be critical for Notre Dame to build off of this success against a team that is susceptible to the Power-O, the lead and the zone run. Defensive tackle Will Sutton is a monster in the interior, but the rest of that Arizona State front-seven can be moved, and that is what the Fighting Irish have to do.
Running the ball is paramount in this game, a contest that is going to require the Irish to possess the ball in an effort to stop Kelly and the Sun Devils from carving up the Notre Dame defense. Not only will three-and-outs, drives that last under two minutes, incompletions and negative rushing plays fail to get the job done, but they will set the table for Arizona State's attack to put up big numbers.
As a supplement to the push to run the ball, the Irish should also look to the screen game—not tunnel the bubble or the two man receiver screen game. Rather, getting Atkinson and Amir Carlisle involved in the screen game is a must. Give the pass rush a reason to slow down and let the big bodies on the line get out in front of the running backs to go lean on linebackers and defensive backs.
Carlisle and Atkinson are solid in the open field; giving them a chance to impact the game on screens puts another bullet in the Irish's offensive gun and can help make Rees' life a little easier—long handoffs with blocking in front, while still letting playmakers operate in space.
Even if Notre Dame protects the football, can establish the ground game and works in success through the screens, they will still have to stretch the field with the vertical passing game. Brian Kelly is going to work the slants and the intermediate passing game, but Rees has to stretch the ball down the field to both keep the Sun Devils honest and create big plays.
The shots have to come in different ways, most notably through building off the run game and taking advantage of man-to-man coverage. Play-action passing can get Daniels and Jones on top of safeties with eyes in the backfield and help open up the interior of the field.
Work the safeties down into the box by running the football against the front-seven. Then, move them with the play-action fake, forcing them into bad positions and spots where Rees can make easy completions.
Rees is also going to have to rise up and put the ball in spots where only his receivers can catch it, down the field—balls out in front of the receivers that let them continue to run away from the defenders and allow them to use their athleticism.
Here it is all about the one-on-one coverage. Get an Irish playmaker isolated on a Sun Devil corner and let him go make the play. Daniels is solid down the sideline, as this play against Purdue's Ricardo Allen showed earlier in the season.
Given what the Fighting Irish defense has shown in 2013, the Notre Dame offense is going to have to work to keep itself in this ball game. That starts with protecting the football, going after Arizona State on the ground, pushing the ball to running backs with screens and stretching the ball downfield.
Brian Kelly's team needs an A-game out of the offense in Texas. The Sun Devils smell blood in the water; they are hosting recruits to watch them beat last year's BCS runner-ups. Todd Graham and Arizona State want to embarrass the Irish, the same as they did with USC last weekend.
The onus is on the Irish to fight off the Sun Devils, and that is going to take a big time offensive effort.