Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Arizona State
Notre Dame will always have a special appreciation for Sun Devil Stadium. It was in the stadium nestled beside the Arizona State campus in downtown Tempe that the Fighting Irish claimed their most recent national title with a 34-21 victory over West Virginia in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl.
They’ve returned to that stadium four times since that January afternoon 25 years ago—Fiesta Bowl losses to Colorado, Oregon State and Ohio State and a win at Arizona State in 1998. The number increases to five this November when the Irish return to the desert.
Before leaving for Texas last fall, Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson fought hard to keep the game with Notre Dame, despite the Irish needing to drop multiple games after joining the ACC. Patterson held his ground, and it was announced last summer that the game would be played as scheduled with Arizona State not having to make a return trip to South Bend.
Arizona State gave the Irish all they could handle last season in a Shamrock Series game at AT&T Stadium, a 37-34 Notre Dame victory. The defending Pac-12 South Champions are again dangerous behind third-year head coach Todd Graham and third-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly.
The Sun Devils open spring practice Mar. 18 and will play their spring game Apr. 19. Let’s preview the challenge the Irish will have in store for them come November with an early look at Arizona State.
For previous Notre Dame opponent preview, click on the links below:
Date: Nov. 8 (Time and TV TBD)
Site: Sun Devil Stadium (Tempe, Ariz.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 37, Arizona State 34 (2013)
Last Meeting in Tempe: Notre Dame 28, Arizona State 9 (1998)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame—3
Record: 10-4 (8-1 Pac-12)
Bowl: Holiday Bowl (lost to Texas Tech, 37-23)
Leading Passer: Taylor Kelly (Jr.)—302-of-484, 3,635 yards, 28 TD, 12 INT
Leading Rusher: Marion Grice (Sr.)—191 carries, 996 yards, 14 TD
Leading Receiver: Jaelen Strong (So.)—75 receptions, 1,122 yards, 7 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Arizona State—6.27 (28th nationally, second in Pac-12); Opponents—5.37 (46th nationally, eighth in Pac-12)
Turnover Margin: +15 (seventh nationally, first in Pac-12)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Arizona State—61.33 percent (67th nationally, ninth in Pac-12); Opponents—65.22 percent (92nd nationally, ninth in Pac-12)
Third-Down Conversions: Arizona State—39.07 percent (77th nationally, eighth in Pac-12); Opponents—36.92 percent (44th nationally, fifth in Pac-12)
Explosive Plays*: Arizona State—86 (seventh nationally, third in Pac-12); Opponents—74 (111th nationally, 10th in Pac-12)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gains 20-plus yards.
There were obvious concerns at the quarterback position when Todd Graham arrived from Pittsburgh in December 2011. Graham ran a spread offense that required a mobile quarterback, while predecessor Dennis Erickson still ran the pro-style, one-back offense that made him so successful at Miami (Fla.) a quarter-century ago.
Fortunately for Graham, Erickson had taken a chance on Kelly, a little-known recruit from Eagle, Idaho, who had an affinity for Arizona State due to former Sun Devils quarterback and fellow Idaho native Jake Plummer. Graham and Kelly have turned out to be a match made in heaven.
Entering his final season, Kelly has thrown for 6,716 yards in his career. Barring injury, he’ll pass Plummer to become No. 3 on the Sun Devils’ passing yardage list with an outside chance to catch leader Andrew Walter. Kelly was extremely efficient in defeat against Notre Dame last year, completing more than 70 percent of his 47 pass attempts.
Backup quarterback Michael Eubank elected to transfer to Samford. Because of losing Joshua Dobbs to Tennessee just before National Signing Day in 2013, the Sun Devils are thin behind Kelly. Junior Mike Bercovici, who has thrown just seven career passes, is next in line.
Graham’s spread offense isn’t the aerial show that many of the Texas-bred college head coaches run. While it also won’t ever be confused for the zone-read attack run by Rich Rodriguez 100 miles down Interstate 10 at Arizona, Graham wants to run the ball, doing so more than 600 times a year ago.
Marion Grice finished fourth in the Pac-12 last year with 91 yards per game, but now gives way to D.J. Foster. The junior brings versatility, finishing his sophomore season with 93 carries and 63 receptions. His nine catches against Notre Dame last year were a career high.
Foster showed he can be effective between the tackles as well with 23 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns in a key win over Arizona after Grice was lost for the season.
Fifth-year senior Deantre Lewis, who has battled injuries and position switches, should be a bigger factor in the offense this year with Grice out of the picture. A deep group of incoming freshmen is highlighted by 4-star recruit Kalen Ballage, whose size (6’2”, 216 pounds) should help make him an early contributor.
Like Ballage at running back, Arizona State should receive immediate help from a newcomer at wide receiver. Junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale, a one-time Tennessee commit who chose the Sun Devils over the Volunteers and Florida, among others, could crack the starting lineup right away.
Lauderdale needs to look no further than his own position group to find hope for immediate playing time. The Sun Devils signed Jaelen Strong out of junior college a year ago, and the rising junior had over 1,100 yards in his first season in Tempe. Of those 1,100 yards, 136 came against the Fighting Irish. At 6’4”, Strong will often find himself in mismatches against smaller cornerbacks.
Junior Richard Smith is the top returner behind Strong, finishing 2013 with 276 yards. Foster will often line up in a slot receiver position, but Lauderdale is the key to the productivity of this group. An eight-touchdown, 800-yard season from Lauderdale would go a long way for the Sun Devils in their defense of the division title.
Tight end Chris Coyle departs after a very nice career. Senior DeMarieya Nelson returns, but isn’t much of a blocker. Expect Nelson and sophomore Kody Kohl, a better blocker who is out for the spring with a shoulder injury, to share time at the position depending on play groupings.
Three Sun Devils return up front, with third-year starter Jamil Douglas as the anchor of a fairly veteran unit. Douglas was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last year as a junior and has started all 27 games the past two seasons at both tackle and guard (not at the same time).
All-conference left tackle Evan Finkenberg is the major loss on the line, but Arizona State adds in Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, who is eligible this fall after sitting out the 2013 season. The other loss is at center, where two-year starter Kody Kebensky must be replaced.
The number 40 will be ingrained in the heads of this group throughout the offseason. That’s the number of sacks Arizona State gave up last season, the worst in the Pac-12.
Kelly’s play-stretching ability was responsible for some of those, as was having to play Stanford twice, but this unit has to do a better job of keeping Kelly upright.
After an All-American season in 2012, defensive tackle Will Sutton surprised many by choosing to return for his senior season. While Sutton came nowhere close to matching his 2012 sack total (12), finishing with just four, he was still a dominant force and earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The Sun Devils run what amounts to a 3-4 scheme with two hybrid positions. All three primary starters from last year depart, but 2012 Freshman All-American Jaxon Hood returns at nose tackle after losing his starting role last season to senior Davon Coleman.
Arizona State again dug into the junior college ranks for help, landing Sutton’s likely replacement in Dalvon Stuckey. There is little experience at the end position, meaning newcomers Tashon Smallwood and Connor Humphreys could challenge for immediate playing time.
This unit has talent, but it needs to mature rapidly.
Carl Bradford waffled on whether or not to enter the NFL Draft before ultimately deciding to end his college career. He was the two-year starter at Arizona State’s “Devil” position and tied for the team lead in sacks in 2013 with 8.5.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a junior college signee, Darrius Caldwell, could help the Sun Devils here after the somewhat unexpected loss of Bradford.
At the inside positions, sophomore Salamo Fiso returns after a very nice redshirt freshman season with 71 tackles and three sacks. Chris Young is a key loss at the "Will" position, another position with little returning experience. Junior Antonio Longino and true freshman Derik Calhoun are the top contenders for this spot.
The "Spur" position manned by Anthony Jones last season also has a vacancy. Projected 2013 starter Carlos Mendoza could factor in here after playing in just six games last year due to injury. ASU has a whopping 91 sacks the past two seasons, but the attrition at linebacker makes a third straight 40-sack season a long shot.
If you’re waiting for a position where the Arizona State defense has experience, well, check back next spring.
The secondary, like the defensive line and linebackers, is down three starters from the 2013 team. That includes second-team All-Pac-12 cornerback Osahon Irabor, whose interception return for a touchdown last year against Notre Dame helped flip the momentum in a game that was trending heavily towards the Irish.
Irabor and first-team All-Pac-12 safety Alden Darby both started each of the past 27 games for the Sun Devils. Surprisingly, the Sun Devils pass defense dropped more than 70 spots in the national rankings from 2012 to 2013, much of that due to allowing an abundant amount of chunk plays. With three new starters, expect a more conservative approach from coordinator Paul Randolph’s defense this season.
The lone returning starter is field safety Damarious Randall, a junior college transfer a year ago who quickly seized a starting role. Lloyd Carrington was the third cornerback last season and figures to win one of the cornerback positions.
Beyond Carrington and Randall, the competition in the secondary is wide open to replace Darby, Irabor and Robert Nelson.
True freshman Zane Gonzalez surprisingly beat out returnee Jon Mora for placekicking duties last season. He performed like a seasoned veteran, connecting on 25 of 30 field goal attempts, including both of his attempts against Notre Dame. He was 9-of-9 in the Sun Devils’ five division games.
The Sun Devils rotated punters last year, using both senior Alex Garoutte and freshman Matt Haack. With Garoutte gone, Haack should earn the full-time gig this fall. Haack average just 38 yards per punt in 16 attempts last season. Arizona State could use some improved numbers at the position this season after finishing No. 120 in the nation last year.
Nelson was the primary returner last season, handling all punt returns and sharing kick return duties with Grice. Both are gone, creating open competition for both roles. Foster is the most dangerous player on the roster, but it’s probably too risky to use him as a returner.
Notre Dame fans are familiar with struggles in the return game. Sun Devils fans face a similar proposition this year.
Lost in Graham’s recent nomadic nature is the fact that he’s an excellent football coach. It took him just two seasons to awaken a sleeping giant in Tempe and lead the Sun Devils to the brink of the Rose Bowl. Now, Arizona State becomes the hunted instead of the hunter in the Pac-12 South.
An overlooked aspect of coaching changes is that oftentimes, the roster in Year 1 and Year 2 is in better shape than in Year 3. The members of the transition class between Dennis Erickson and Graham are now juniors. Attrition that arose at that time has forced Graham to hit the junior colleges hard to help with a major defensive overhaul.
Notre Dame’s trip to Tempe will be its third straight game away from home, the first instance of that for the Irish since 1997. On paper, with two rebuilding defenses, this game should be a shootout a la the 37-34 thriller last year in Texas.
Kelly and Graham have played three classics over the past four seasons (one at each of Graham’s last three spots) with Kelly holding a 2-1 advantage. Expect more of the same in the desert on November’s second Saturday.