Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Arizona State Complete Game Preview
Notre Dame's road to recovery from last week's 35-21 loss to Oklahoma runs through Dallas, where the Irish will meet Arizona State for the first time in 15 years.
While the loss to the Sooners didn't eliminate Notre Dame from BCS contention, head coach Brian Kelly and Co. have placed themselves in a position in which reeling off seven consecutive victories is necessary in order to earn an invitation to a BCS bowl game.
Accomplishing such a feat is unlikely, particularly with an explosive team like Arizona State being among the Irish's seven remaining foes.
The Sun Devils are riding high after an electric 62-41 victory against USC last week that cost Lane Kiffin his job.
Arizona State and head coach Todd Graham have the opportunity to play the role of eliminator this week, though in a different fashion this time around. Should the Sun Devils hand Notre Dame its third loss of the season, the plug would be pulled on the Irish's already frail BCS aspirations.
For now, here's what you need to know about Notre Dame's fifth annual Shamrock Series game.
Time: 7:30 p.m. EDT
Place: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Tex.)
Radio: Notre Dame IMG Radio Network
Spread: Arizona State by 5.5, per VegasInsider.com
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
1. Control Tempo
Since Todd Graham accepted the head coaching position at Arizona State two years ago, his Sun Devil program has struck fear in opponents through its high-octane offense.
Through Week 5 of the current season, the Sun Devils offense ranks 11th nationally in scoring offense, posting an average of 44.3 points per game. They employ a hurry-up style, with quarterback Taylor Kelly directing the incendiary unit.
If that offense reaches the end zone often and early against the Irish, the pressure of mounting a comeback will fall squarely on the shoulders of Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, which never ends well. I'll discuss this further in the next slide.
2. Avoid Turnovers
Discussing Notre Dame and turnovers in the same breath often reminds me of the Irish's 2011 season, when they finished in the cellar of the FBS in giveaways.
Last Saturday's loss to Oklahoma was a stark reminder of just how costly turnovers can be, as the Irish spotted Oklahoma an early 14-0 lead thanks to two Rees interceptions inside his team's own 35-yard line.
The Sooners offense is nowhere near as lethal as that of Arizona State's, meaning that careless turnovers, particularly near their own end zone, will prove more than costly for the Irish.
Arizona State Keys to Victory
1. Rattle Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees
With Rees directing Notre Dame's offense, creating an effective game plan is simple in nature.
Because he is not a threat to run the football (I can't stress that enough), opposing defenses load the box in an effort to take away the Irish's rushing attack and force Rees to beat them down the field as a passer.
Both Michigan State and Oklahoma executed that game plan to perfection, as Rees' combined stat line from the two contests reads as follows: 23-of-58 passing for 246 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
If Arizona State's front seven can force the Irish to become one-dimensional offensively and rattle Rees enough to create turnovers, Notre Dame's first loss in the five-year history of the Shamrock Series could ensue.
2. Run the Football to Open Up the Offense
During their 21-point victory against USC last week, the Sun Devils rushing attack eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. The Arizona State offense raced right past 100 rushing yards on its way to 261 on the evening.
Because they possess a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback in Taylor Kelly and a slew of weapons on the perimeter, the Sun Devils will see the passing lanes open up should their rushing attack continue upon its success from last week.
And considering USC entered its meeting with Arizona State ranked fourth nationally in total defense, the Sun Devils rushing output against the Trojans should slightly concern Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Prince Shembo, LB
When defending any dual-threat quarterback, a defense's outside linebackers are tasked with being aware of that quarterback at all times.
Shembo will have the same responsibility Saturday while defending Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, who led the Sun Devils in rushing against USC last week with 79 yards on four carries.
When Kelly leaks out of the backfield, Shembo will be the lead man in chasing him down to prevent long gains. Kelly's longest run of the evening against the Trojans covered 40 yards, and that is the type of play that possesses the potential to demoralize the Irish defense.
Tommy Rees, QB
As has been stated incessantly during the past five weeks, the Irish will only go as far Rees can carry them.
His two interceptions on consecutive first quarter drives against Oklahoma virtually gift-wrapped the Sooners' first two scores, which proved to be the two most decisive plays of the game, as the Irish were defeated by two scores.
If Rees' penchant for turning the ball over at critical junctures persists, the Irish will be in for another long game.
Arizona State Players to Watch
Taylor Kelly, QB
The engine that runs the Arizona State offense is undoubtedly Kelly.
The 6'2", 203-pound quarterback has thrown for at least 300 yards in each of Arizona State's first four games of the season, while also rushing for 124 net yards.
His dual-threat capability doesn't allow defenses to sell out against the run, allowing the Sun Devils to efficiently operate their quick strike offense. At first glance, Kelly and his offense appear similar to Oregon's other-worldly offense, though the production between the two is the distinct dividing line.
The Defensive Front Seven
If there has been one glaring weakness during Arizona State's 3-1 start to the 2013 season, it has been its rushing defense. The Sun Devils rank 92nd nationally in the category, allowing an average of 192.3 yards per game.
Should Arizona State allow the Irish offense to establish the run, the Sun Devils' most potent weapon—its offense—will be watching from the sideline.
Thus, the Sun Devils front seven must do its job and control the line of scrimmage so as to prevent Notre Dame from running wild as Wisconsin, Stanford and USC have done during the previous three weeks.
What They're Saying
Brian Kelly spoke on a number of subjects during a press conference, per Douglas Farmer of IrishIllustrated.com.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly on slowing the Arizona State offense:
Well, I think it still comes down to, for us, if you look at the Oklahoma game, the two big plays that we gave up were critical. We can't afford to give up any big plays. They catch the ball very well. They're a team that will challenge you on the perimeter throwing the football, and you have to keep Kelly in check running the football, as well. He's very capable through their zone-read package of running the ball. Containing the quarterback, running the football, and obviously not giving up the big chunk plays. We gave up a ball that got over our head in cover three and then the 56-yard slant. Eliminating the big plays defensively is absolutely crucial to our success.
Kelly on backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix:
I don't know that you can go into the game and say, well, I'm just happy with a half dozen snaps. I hope that, and the way we presented it to Andrew is, look, you've got to help us win. You've got to help us win football games. So his mindset has to be, look, I want to keep adding more to my plate. I want more and more. But he's got to be more effective than he was on Saturday. He can't go in there and we get two false start penalties. We can't miss a wide open receiver. We've got to do a better job on our zone-read. So if he's going to get more on his plate, he's got to be more productive, and we need him to be more productive. To answer that question is probably a little bit too premature. We've got to get him to be more effective when he goes in the game because he's going to go back in the game on Saturday, and he's got to be more effective in that role and then let's look to add on to that, and then maybe get to your initial question of, hey, you know what, I'm going to push Tommy Rees as the starter.
Kelly on whether playing in Texas will aid Notre Dame's recruiting efforts:
I think it helps. I certainly think that any time that you're able to ... go down there on Friday and get out and see some games with our coaches, so certainly being able to get down there will help us in that perspective. Certainly getting some recruits locally to come to the game. We certainly can't see them but we can provide tickets, that helps in that respect. A bump would probably be a good word. Is it going to seal the deal for us in a lot of these instances? Probably not, but it certainly helps to have the kind of exposure there.
Concisely, things haven't been pretty for Notre Dame in 2013.
Beginning with the ugly loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship in January and leading through last week's loss to Oklahoma, life has been rough for the Irish this calendar year.
Winning is the only surefire cure for such struggles, though doing so against a hot Arizona State team on Saturday is anything but certain, particularly with the Sun Devils' potent offense in tow.
And with a dynamic quarterback in Taylor Kelly capable of beating any defense with both his arm and feet, the Irish defense is in for 60 minutes of quite the challenging task.
It won't be a blowout, but Arizona State will escape with a close victory because of Kelly's play at the quarterback position.
Prediction: Arizona State 27, Notre Dame 17
*All quotes via IrishIllustrated.com.
*All stats courtesy of NCAA.org.