Notre Dame Football: 10 Things We Learned in Irish's Win Against Arizona State
After Notre Dame's 37-34 victory against Arizona State, the discussion points concerning the Irish's progress are abounding.
The slate has been wiped clean after a humbling 35-21 loss to Oklahoma last week that put the Irish's BCS hopes on life support. But nothing takes the pressure off like a thorough victory over a Top 25 opponent in prime time at a neutral site.
Yes, there are still a number of concerns facing head coach Brian Kelly and Co., but there are also plenty of positives to take away from this evening's game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Rushing Attack Has Come Together
It took longer than expected, but Notre Dame has, at long last, pieced together a semblance of a rushing attack.
A week after posting a season-high 188 rushing yards against Oklahoma, the Irish racked up 145 against Arizona State. Cam McDaniel led the way, piling up 82 yards on 15 carries.
The performance by the rushing attack was to be expected, though, as the Sun Devils entered the contest ranked 92nd nationally in rushing defense. In fact, Notre Dame's rushing output could be considered disappointing after USC, Stanford and Wisconsin each rushed for more than 200 yards against Arizona State.
Either way, signs of life from Notre Dame's rushing attack are encouraging, as some of the weight could be lifted off quarterback Tommy Rees' shoulders.
Tommy Rees Is Struggling with Accuracy
He threw for three touchdowns, but Rees' performance Saturday evening was underwhelming in context.
The senior quarterback completed just 17 of 38 passing attempts, while also tossing an interception that was returned for a touchdown, which brought the Sun Devils to within four points. Without that interception, the Irish could have built upon the 24-13 lead they possessed prior to the devastating turnover.
Opposing defenses continue to take their chances pressuring Rees, and it often results in errant Rees throws and poor decisions in general.
Thus, don't be blinded by his three touchdown passes.
LB Jarrett Grace Is Likely Out for the Season
Just as he was coming into his own, Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace's season has come to a shocking halt.
Per the NBC broadcast, Grace suffered a broken right tibia, which is in all likelihood a season-ending injury. That's a massive blow to the middle of the Irish defense, which is already a thin unit.
But it's always saddening to see a bright, young player go down like this at the onset of his playing career (Grace is a first-year starter). The hope here is that Grace makes a speedy recovery that may possibly allow him to return this season.
The Secondary Is Still Questionable
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As I wrote about earlier in the week, Notre Dame's secondary is quietly the most vulnerable unit of the Irish defense.
Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly had no issues picking apart Notre Dame's secondary on the way to 362 passing yards and three touchdown strikes. Kelly picked on safeties Matthias Farley and Elijah Shumate in particular, which was a smart strategy pieced together by Kelly and head coach Todd Graham.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, film of this game will be dissected by USC, which presents its own respectable passing attack (Marqise Lee, anyone?).
In essence, if the Irish secondary doesn't see improvement, added pressure will be on the front seven.
Notre Dame Is Unbeatable in Shamrock Series Games
Since the inception of the Shamrock Series, the event has proved to be a success.
Beginning with a 40-14 victory against Washington State at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio in 2009, Notre Dame has won each of the first five Shamrock Series games.
Whether Notre Dame prefers playing in a neutral site environment (even though it's technically an off-site home game), the Irish have always played well in the annual event. And with next season's Shamrock Series game scheduled to be against a lowly Syracuse program at MetLife Stadium, the winning streak is likely to extend to six.
The Offensive Line Has Been Quietly Dominant
Its streak of excellent play continued Saturday evening, as the Irish offensive line consistently dominated the line of scrimmage against Arizona State.
The big guys up front cleared the way for Notre Dame's running backs to pile up 145 rushing yards, while providing quarterback Tommy Rees with consistently excellent pass protection, especially in the face of a variety of exotic blitz packages from the Sun Devils defense.
Left tackle Zack Martin rebounded from the Oklahoma game, in which he blew an assignment early that led to Rees being crushed from his blind side and throwing a pick-six. Martin, a fifth-year senior captain, has been the most consistent presence along the line thus far.
But one name to keep an eye on is Ronnie Stanley, who continues to solidify his starting right tackle position.
The Running Back Position Is Still Unsettled
Having plenty of quality options at a position is typically a good problem to have, but in the case of Notre Dame and its running backs, it has become a nuisance.
Each and every week, there is speculation as to who "the guy" will be, but no concrete answers ever present themselves. One week it's George Atkinson III, the next it's Amir Carlisle and the next it's McDaniel.
But will freshman Tarean Folston remain in the mix?
The real question to be asked is if one of those four will eventually claim the role of No. 1 running back.
Inside Linebacker Is a Position of Worry
With the loss of Grace, inside linebacker has become a position of extreme worry for Notre Dame.
The Irish are now left with Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Joe Schmidt, Kendall Moore and true freshman Michael Deeb to man the two inside positions.
Fox and Calabrese have proved themselves as liabilities in pass coverage, allowing for opponents to take advantage of intermediate routes down the middle of the field. And without Grace, that plan of attack has become even more viable than it already was.
We'll see if USC takes advantage of that weakness in two weeks at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Tight Ends Had a Big Night
Notre Dame has earned the label of "Tight End U," and that reputation is being upheld by Troy Niklas and, at times, Ben Koyack.
Koyack began the festivities by reeling in his first career touchdown reception, which was also his first reception of the 2013 season. If he wants to become a larger presence in the rotation, his blocking skills will need improvement.
But Niklas possesses the most potential of the two, as the 6'7", 270-pound freak athlete reeled in his third touchdown reception of the season, outdueling a smaller cornerback in the end zone for an acrobatic touchdown grab.
Notre Dame's BCS Hopes Are Still Alive
At 4-2, Notre Dame is still very much alive in the race to the BCS.
It's a slippery slope, as the Irish must win each of their remaining six games, but it's not an implausible task. Three losses would have killed the aspiration, making the "must win" game against Arizona State even more impressive.
As long as Notre Dame doesn't drop a game to an inferior opponent between now and the showdown with Stanford Nov. 30, the Irish will be in the thick of the chase for an invitation to either the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl (the Rose Bowl is an unlikely destination due to conference tie-ins).