Know Your Foe: Notre Dame

With two loses on the season, Notre Dame is effectively out of the national championship picture. Yet, will last week's loss have a lingering effect as they face Arizona State in Arlington, Tex. on Saturday or can the Fighting Irish overcome that disappointment? We invited Publisher, Tim O'Malley, to discuss the upcoming contest and its various matchups.

As Notre Dame stands at 3-2 at this juncture of the season, is there a general feeling of disappointment or was 2013 expected to be a rough transition season? Additionally, now that the Irish are out of the national championship picture what do you think their mindset will be for this week's game?

O'Malley: Once Everett Golson was suspended, and as the off-season hits piled up vs. Notre Dame (two crucial defensive line backups removed from the mix due to defection, injury, and the loss of starting linebacker Danny Spond), I lowered my pre-season projection from 11-2 to 9-3 with a chance at 10-3 pending the bowl foe. But I can't remember a more disappointing season than this, not only because they're out of the title hunt in October, but because the team doesn't in any way resemble the well-coached, mentally tough and physically rock-solid unit that was developed last season.

Irish fans figured that with just three starters missing from their defense (the fourth, Spond, was lost in August camp), that the unit would be nearly as strong as it was in 2012. Head coach Brian Kelly noted in his pre-season address that if the defense could play in "the same area code" as last year's group, the team could be better in 2013 because the offense would be more versatile and thus improved. None of that has come to fruition.

Notre Dame was among the nation's true elite last season for the first time in 19 seasons. The fact that they're not close to that status one year later has been a tough pill to swallow.

As for the team's mindset, I think the fact that this game is off-site (and not in a hostile environment), and in a marquee pro stadium is to Notre Dame's advantage, because they need to enjoy the game again. They (the staff) were booed at home at the half last week and there's an angst (and sense of bitterness, to be blunt) that only a win can remove. Notre Dame needs to beat Arizona State, heal during its subsequent bye, and win over rival USC on Oct. 19 to save its season.

From both a skill perspective and a leadership perspective, what are the similarities and differences between Everett Golson and Tommy Rees? How has Rees impacted the offense for better and for worse compared to last year?

O'Malley: A redshirt-freshman last year, Golson didn't' emerge as a leader until extremely late in the season, and he still didn't have much of a burden on his shoulders because seniors such as Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, Zeke Motta, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Theo Riddick did the heavy lifting. If you're wondering why I listed so many departed players (only 5th-year senior Martin returned), it's because leadership was the remarkably undervalue aspect of last year's squad.

Rees is respected by his teammates, both because he's a team-first guy and because he's been through the ringer while in South Bend. But that's likely the last place he has an advantage on the up-and-coming Golson, and that includes the senior's purported passing accuracy, because Rees' accuracy comes from short passes to the open man, while Golson began to fit passes into small windows as the season progressed.

Rees' strength is that he gets the team into the right play -- he's a heck of a conductor at the line of scrimmage. But the offense's potential is far below what it was last season. Brian Kelly kept the training wheels on Golson for much of 2012 but when he needed to be bailed out, Golson rode to the rescue (a great game at Oklahoma, a solo-effort in a comeback 3OT win vs. Pittsburgh).

In short, Notre Dame has no offensive identity this year. It would have been a quarterback-driven attack with Golson.

Notre Dame is ranked 93rd in the country in rushing and has only four touchdowns on the ground. What are some of the factors contributing to this?

O'Malley: Ask a Notre Dame fan and they'll give you a one-word answer: Kelly.

Accurate assessment or not, Notre Dame established a run-first identity last season for the first time since the successful days of the Bob Davie era (there were a few). Golson's feet were part of that, but most media and fans expected a solid offensive line -- "all-star" level on the left side -- and a bevy of 'backs would lead to another run-heavy attack. It's not been the case, at least until last week vs. Oklahoma when the offensive line handled Oklahoma's front seven in the running game and speedster George Atkinson had a career day that included an 80-yard touchdown run.

The Irish have four running backs that will play vs. Arizona State. And they're all viable weapons. The 93rd ranking is a source of massive frustration for the fan base because when Notre Dame has actually tried to run (Michigan, late vs. Purdue, Oklahoma), it's been successful.

ASU's defense has been very susceptible to the run this year, yet with Tommy Rees it seems as though Notre Dame has been more of a passing team. What do you expect the offensive game plan to be against the Sun Devil defense?

O'Malley: I expect Notre Dame to run for a minimum 200 yards on at least 35 carries. if they don't, there'll be fan base mutiny heading into the bye week. The Irish might not have enough offense to keep up with the Sun Devils, but Arizona State fans are going to see a quartet of 'backs, the Pistol formation, stretch runs, and 'backs with varied skill sets for as long as the game is close. When the opponent pulled away in 2010-11, Kelly tended to abandon the run. He's at the very least neglected it often this season.

Rees is a much better quarterback when he throws less than 30 times, is in 3rd and 5 or less, and has play-action in his repertoire. Most important, the Irish are 29-1 under Kelly when they run the ball more than 30 times in a game. (The one loss was an 18-14 slugfest vs. Florida State.)

Aside from Rees who are some of the more notable skill players we should look out for on offense?

O'Malley: George Atkinson is the starting running back but until Saturday, he wouldn't have been the first that came to mind. He's 6'2" 220 pounds, and the fastest athlete on the team and legitimately one of the fastest players in the nation. But he's not among the quickest, neither out of his cut or hitting the hole. He ran like an All-Pro Saturday vs. the Sooners; previously, he more often resembled a track star playing tailback.

The receiving tandem of T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels is a quality pair. Jones is the better route runner and more reliable player, but Daniels will be an NFL'er if he can mature and harness is substantial skills. Jones is the go-to-guy for Rees, but it's worth noting he tied Tyler Eifert for the team lead in receptions last year and actually caught more chain-moving passes than did the 2013 first-round pick.

Texas-native Cam McDaniel was the fans' choice prior to Atkinson's breakout effort. He's the least likely player to break off a 20-yard run -- he's also the most likely to turn three yards into five; five yards into eight, etc.

The Irish are always strong at tight end. 6'6" 270-pound athlete Troy Niklas (he could be a solid linebacker, defensive end, or offensive tackle) is a tough matchup for a linebacker and is a key factor in the running game.

Moving over to defense, do you feel this group improved or regressed from last year and why?

O'Malley: Last year's Irish defense gave up nine touchdowns in the 12-game regular season. N-I-N-E. It's almost impossible to imagine. They allowed two drives of 75 yards (or more) -- one vs. Navy in the opener, then again vs. USC in the finale. That's it.

It's worth mentioning again: NINE TOUCHDOWNS. The defense has already surrendered 14 through five games this fall, and Irish fans are alternately shaking their heads in collective amazement at the fall from grace while also coming to grips with the fact that Manti Te'o was one heck of a college football player last season.

They've regressed, in a major way, and there's no chance they'll right the ship and join the nation's elite by season's end because the key to the 2012 season, Te'o, chip-on-his-shoulder safety Zeke Motta, and defensive line depth, are a thing of the past. But the unit does have potential for improvement because it has a collection of front line players that can influence the game.

What are Notre Dame's strengths on defense as well as their weaknesses? Do they blitz frequently or try to get a pass rush with the front four? In the secondary, do they tend to play more man, or zone coverage?

O'Malley: Their strength is stopping the run. It's not an impenetrable group like last year's, but when you look at the final game stats, the Irish front does its job vs. opposing runners. They play solid gap control, and if you want to run power, you're playing into their hands.

The secondary is a heavy zone defense. They played man vs. Michigan and it did not go well -- the coverage was decent, the tackling was horrendous. The unit has improved since though, as Notre Dame played a lot of man vs. Michigan State, but the Spartans don't have a receiver that could start in the state of Arizona….or Indiana.

They've been forced to blitz more this year because the front four, a group that posted 31 of the team's 34 sacks last season, has just three -- THREE -- through five games in 2013. At some point, (and I keep saying/writing this) at some point, an offensive line is going to feel the wrath of the Irish front four in the passing game. But that's just an empty threat at this point.

Notre Dame's current weakness is its inside linebackers in coverage or in space of any type. Wow.

Granted, this is a faster Notre Dame team than just a few years ago, but do they feel that their speed will be heavily tested against ASU? Do you feel that the coaches will try to change things up on defense and how?

O'Malley: Faster than a few years ago but a much slower Irish team than the one that took the field last year, because no matter what Te'o's 40-time was, he was the fastest player from snap to screen pass -- standard, bubble, tunnel, etc. -- in the nation last year. He eradicated the short passing game from opposing game plans, allowing the rest of the back seven to read their keys, play their roles, and excel (Notre Dame allowed seven passing TD last season, just one longer than 14 yards).

The Irish will likely play a preponderance of zone coverage with a game plan to allow some short receptions and come up and make the tackle. Notre Dame's linebackers can't keep up with quality runners and slot receivers/tight ends, because three of the regulars simply aren't fast enough; two others are young and a touch hesitant at times. Their thinking rather than reacting.

Who are some of the players of note on the Notre Dame defense?

O'Malley: Nose guard Louis Nix is among the nation's best. Two Sun Devils will be assigned to him on 80-85 percent of the snaps, otherwise there'll be a center bouncing at Taylor Kelly's feet. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was a destructive force of nature as a 6'6" 300-pound sophomore last season -- he's regressed to the level of a quality defensive end this year after having off-season hernia surgery and gaining bad weight.

Senior Prince Shembo is a hybrid boundary linebacker/defensive end. He earns his keep as the latter, but Shembo was a dark horse All-America candidate entering the season -- he's instead been a player that offers an occasional push from the edge. Playing well of late is 5th-year senior thumper Carlo Calabrese. He's running downhill and hitting every runner and lead block that moves, but he's not a pass-coverage option at 6'1" 250 pounds, and will likely spend time on the sidelines Saturday.

The Irish secondary has not played well this season, neither as a unit nor consistently as individuals. Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson has made a handful of big plays (including a game-changing interception touchdown at Purdue), but he's added a handful in favor of the opponent, too.

What players and general schemes on ASU can pose a serious problem for the Irish's defenders?

O'Malley: And you thought Carl Sagan thrived in space. Arizona State's perimeter could have a field day vs. the Irish back seven, a group that's missed crucial tackles in three of its last four games, the open field proving an unexpected challenge.

Tackling was at a premium last season but Notre Dame's linebackers and defensive backs left their fundamentals on a swath of dirt somewhere near USC's goal line last November, because it's been downhill since. The team's best tackling effort this year was against Michigan State, and that's largely because the Spartans are bereft of wide receiver and quarterback talent.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco plays his field-side defenders (CB, OLB, S) weak in an effort to stop the run. Arizona State can hit for 10-12 easy throws to that side -- if they block well or ND is sloppy thereafter, the Sun Devils will put up five touchdowns.

Because Notre Dame still has NFL talent up front, I could see Marion Grice being contained, but Taylor Kelly killing the Irish outside.

What are your keys to the game and score prediction?

O'Malley: Notre Dame needs to turn this into a slugfest, on both sides of scrimmage. It might seem like I'm overstating the defense's fall from grace, but in comparison to last year…there isn't one, and Notre Dame made the national championship game and reached 12-0 because of its defense last year. Period.

The Sun Devils have already seen a better group in Stanford, though these Irish, flawed as they are, are better than the Badgers and Trojans on the defensive side of scrimmage. Arizona State will move the football, which means Notre Dame's absentee red zone defense must make its return. It can still be tough sledding inside the 10 vs. the Irish (it used to be impossible), and Taylor Kelly will have to make quick reads and hit a pass with a player in his face, because the Irish bring the heat in goal-to-go situations.

Offensively, Notre Dame needs to run the ball. Run to impose their offensive will. Run to maintain possession. Run to punt when necessary. And most important, run so they don't have to pass too much. The offensive staff -- Kelly and coordinator Chuck Martin -- trend too much to the pass when the running game proved to be the program's bread and butter in most winning situations during their tenure.

But the ultimate key to this game is a strong start by Notre Dame. Aside from the opener vs. Temple -- which shouldn't count -- the Irish haven't had one since they beat USC last year to finish #1. If the Irish can't dictate the tempo for the bulk of the contest, Arizona State will win.

I made a game prediction mistake last week, changing from OU by 11 to ND by 3 by week's end. Since this column is due Tuesday, I'm off the hook in that regard. Until proven otherwise, I have to go against Notre Dame as currently constructed:

ASU 37 Notre Dame 27

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