Notre Dame preview

Arizona State's proverbial four-game gauntlet of the season has been talked about for months now and on Saturday it comes to an end as the Sun Devils will travel to Arlington, Tex. to play Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are coming off a loss to Oklahoma but can still pose a stiff challenge for a confident ASU squad following their USC win. Joe Healey examines this contest and its various matchups

Offense Preview

Following the season-long suspension levied upon starting quarterback Everett Golson in the spring, head coach Brian Kelly tagged senior Tommy Rees to return to the starting lineup after having to hand the torch to Golson the previous season.

Rees started four of nine games as a true freshman in 2010, 12 of 13 in 2011 and two of 11 last seasons, giving him 18 total starts entering his senior season. A 57.6% career passer entering 2013, Rees also came into the season with 4,413 career passing yards and an all-time ratio of 34 touchdowns to 24 interceptions.

The 2013 season statistically started very well for Rees as he compiled 300-yard passing games in each of Notre Dame's first three contests, though he did throw two interceptions in the team's loss to Michigan. The past two games, however, Rees' productivity has plummeted against Michigan State (142 yards) and Oklahoma (104 yards) as he has collectively completed under 40% of his passes in that two-game stretch with as many touchdowns (three) as interceptions. Last week, Rees threw three picks to the Oklahoma defense, including a pair of early turnovers that created an insurmountable deficit for Notre Dame to overcome.

In total on the year, Rees has completed 53.3% of his passes for 1,215 yards with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions and has suffered major criticism from media and fans.

Behind Rees, Andrew Hendrix has seen action in four games and provides a more versatile option but his numbers are limited as he's rushed for only 10 yards on five carries and has completed but 1-of-6 passes for nine yards.

In the wake of Rees' recent struggles, Irish fans have called for Kelly to rip the redshirt off of Malik Zaire, though Notre Dame's head coach insists the quarterback pecking order will remain unchanged.

With the departures of last year's key runners, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, Notre Dame struggled to find much of a rushing identity until last week when George Atkinson III burst to a career-best 148 yards on only 14 carries. Earlier in his career, Atkinson was primarily known as an elite kick returner, but after a performance like last Saturday's he might be poised for a consistently greater role on offense. On the season, Atkinson has totaled 269 rushing yards on 38 carries with two scores.

Cam McDaniel (48 carries, 177 yards, two touchdowns) and Amir Carlisle (36 carries, 170 yards) also see extensive action in the run game, while true freshman Tarean Folson (11 carries, 69 yards) has also gained reps this season.

ASU's rush defense concerns are well known—as are Notre Dame's concerns at quarterback—so the logical prediction is that the Fighting Irish will push a variety of backs against the Devils in the run game. Notre Dame's receiving options aren't wide in quantity, but the Irish do feature two standout receivers and a budding star at tight end.

T.J. Jones, one of the team's best overall players, enters Saturday with 25 catches for 346 yards with three touchdowns, while fellow wide receiver DaVaris Daniels has caught 21 passes for 318 yards with four scores.

Troy Niklas, an excellent combo tight end, is often used as a glorified extra lineman at 6-foot-7, 270-pounds, while he also boasts one of the team's best yards-per-catch averages (18.3) with his 11 receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

Outside this trio, no player has more than seven receptions and no touchdowns have been caught by a player not named Jones, Daniels or Niklas.

Chris Brown ranks third among wide receivers with seven catches for 125 yards, while true freshman receiver Corey Robinson—son of NBA great David Robinson—is a potential red zone nightmare with four receptions for 66 yards thus far.

Running backs Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III have been used a bit in the pass game, combining for 13 receptions for 80 yards.

If Rees is able to make sound decisions when the Fighting Irish pass, ASU absolutely must account for the skill sets and experience of Jones, Daniels and Niklas.

Notre Dame's offensive line (left-to-right) figures to consist of tackle Zack Martin, guard Chris Watt, center Nick Martin, guard Christian Lombard and tackle Ronnie Stanley.

Zack Martin, a Second-Team All-American last year, is the headliner as he's poised to make his 45th consecutive start when he takes the field against the Sun Devils. Watt is prepping to make his 32nd straight start, while Saturday will make 19 straight starts for Lombard. Nick Martin and Stanley are first-year starters.

Offense in a Nutshell

Notre Dame very well should run the ball well over 30 times Saturday against the Devils—the fear from the Irish faithful is that Kelly will opt not to and levy too much responsibility on the throwing arm of Tommy Rees.

While Rees has talented receivers at his disposal in Jones, Daniels and Niklas, he is prone to poor decisions and can be as much of a hindrance as a helper to the Notre Dame offense.

If Notre Dame places greater focus on the run game behind Atkinson and his mates, it will attack what is perhaps ASU's most notable team weakness and lighten the pressure off of Rees.

Defense Preview

The catalyst in Notre Dame's BCS National Championship appearance last season was its powerful, stifling defense, a group that lost all-everything linebacker Manti Te'o but ultimately returned seven starters.

What didn't return, however, was the same prowess, as Notre Dame ranks no higher than 45th nationally in any major defensive statistical category.

The Fighting Irish operate out of a 3-4 alignment with two of the most imposing linemen in the country in Louis Nix III at the nose and Stephon Tuitt beside him. Both players were listed as preseason All-Americans but have fallen short of expectations thus far as the pair has combined for 34 tackles, 4.0 TFL's and 2.0 sacks.

Sheldon Day, who has missed the last two games, is slated to round out the defensive line trio and has collected seven tackles in three games this year.

Kona Schwenke (five tackles) is the most established reserve lineman, while Issac Rochell (three tackles) and Jarron Jones (two tackles) also add depth.

A major strength last season guided by the leadership of Te'o, Notre Dame's group of linebackers has suffered tremendous criticism through the early half of the 2013 season.

Poised to start versus ASU are true freshman Jayon Smith and Prince Shembo outside with Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace inside. Grace and Calabrese are one and two on the team in tackles with 22 and 21, respectively, while former five-star prospect Smith has collected 18. Shembo has carved out 13 stops through five games on the year.

Dan Fox (29 tackles) also sees substantial playing time at linebacker and has split starts with Grace at inside linebacker. Ben Councell (six tackles) is a key reserve at outside linebacker, though he will be suspended for the first half against ASU after being flagged and ejected for targeting last week against Oklahoma. Ishaaq Williams (11 tackles) also figures to see the field a great deal against ASU at outside linebacker.

At cornerback, Bennett Jackson brings senior experience to one starting spot while Keivarae Russell, a standout freshman last season, occupies the other. Jackson currently stands third on the team with 31 tackles, ranks second on the squad with 3.0 TFL's, has one of the team's four sacks and one of the team's three interceptions. Russell has posted 17 tackles and a team-best four pass breakups on the year.

Behind the starting tandem of Jackson and Russell, senior Lo Wood (two tackles) and true freshmen Devin Butler (two tackles) and Cole Luke (three tackles) round out the cornerback depth chart.

Notre Dame has three safeties each with starting nods this season, as Matthias Farley (24 tackles), Elijah Shumate (17 tackles) and Austin Collinsworth (10 tackles) have all seen substantial reps in 2013.

Former blue chip prospect Max Redfield has chipped in two tackles in reserve duty at safety and backup Eilar Hardy has one stop this season.

Defense in a Nutshell

Statistically on the year, Notre Dame has no defensive area of expertise—an absolute shock considering the Irish returned seven starters from perhaps the nation's best overall defense last year.

Additionally shocking is the fact that Notre Dame ranks 113th nationally in tackles-for-loss (20) and 119th in sacks (3.0), making a once ferocious Irish front seem more pillowy than pulverizing.

A task of the Notre Dame defense will be to slow down the suddenly sensational Sun Devil offense, a group that has helped ASU score 90 points in its past six quarters of play.

ASU will look to various ways to gain small chunks of yardage—both on the ground and through the air—in the hopes of using the nationally-prominent combination of Taylor Kelly to Jaelen Strong to smoke the Irish secondary like a Texas brisket in the pass game.

This objective, however, is far from a given as the likes of Nix and Tuitt are each about as big and imposing as Big Tex himself, despite playing a subdued form of football compared to last season.

The secondary ranks 67th nationally in terms of pass defense and if Taylor Kelly is able to extend his 300-yard passing streak to five games he'll be the first to surpass that total against the Irish since Landry Jones of Oklahoma nearly a calendar year ago.

Special Teams Preview

Kyle Brindza is Notre Dame's jack-of-all-trades in the kicking game, as he handles placekicking and punting duties as well as kickoffs.

On the season, Brindza has connected on 5-of-7 field goal attempts with a long of 44, is a perfect 12-of-12 on PATs and averages 40.6 yards on 19 punts.

In addition to his skills at running back, George Atkinson III is one of the nation's premier kickoff returners and averages 27.6 yards on 12 returns thus far in 2013. As a true freshman in 2011, Atkinson earned Honorable Mention All-America recognition at kick returner after running two back for touchdowns throughout the season.

T.J. Jones serves as Notre Dame's primary punt returner and has a 7.3-yard average on six returns this season.

Keys to a Sun Devil Victory

Embrace the Stage

Sure, ASU has played in three straight nationally televised games, but the opponent and overall magnitude of Saturday's game is something Sun Devil football rarely encounters.

Big ticket games have unfortunately intimidated the Devils in the past several years—matchups with the likes of Oregon, USC and Stanford ring bells of embarrassment for the maroon and gold faithful.

In many ways, the magnitude of this game and the mystique of the opponent is more opposing than the actual "X's and O's" of Saturday's contest. That said, the Sun Devils must avoid wide-eyed jaw-dropping from playing in football's fanciest facility and lining up across college football's most storied program.

Slow Down Atkinson

Combining outstanding size and speed, Atkinson proved last week that he can be more than just a stellar kick returner for the Irish. As Sun Devil fans are well aware, run defense has been a major Achilles' Heel dating back to the 2012 season and Atkinson has the manpower to continue that unfortunate trend for ASU's defense.

Atkinson is not the only weapon in Notre Dame's rushing arsenal as Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston also figure to also obtain some totes.

To the Sun Devils' benefit, however, are the major struggles suffered by Notre Dame's pass game the past two weeks, so ASU can be expected to load the box in preparation of the intention by the Irish to attack ASU on the ground.

Harass Rees

Through his past few weeks have been difficult to watch, over the course of his career, Rees has shown the ability to add up yardage through the air and lead Notre Dame to victories. If the Irish coaching staff opts to put much of the onus of responsibility in this game on Rees' throwing arm, ASU will have to bring efficient pressure to the backfield and also restrict throwing lanes for the turnover prone Notre Dame passer.

One of Notre Dame's greatest strengths this season is its pass protection as the Irish offensive line has allowed only three sacks in five games, ranking the squad 19th in the nation, posing a formidable challenge for the likes of Carl Bradford, Will Sutton and company.

The Sun Devil defense, coming off season-highs in tackles-for-loss, sacks and interceptions, will look to buck Notre Dame's trend of pass protection and compel Rees into game-altering turnovers similar to his early interceptions last week against Oklahoma.

Gain Some Ground

After the team's best rushing effort of the season in which ASU totaled 261 yards on 7.5-yards per carry, the Sun Devils bring some rushing momentum to Arlington.

It remains to be seen whether ASU can maintain that level of play or revert to resembling the team that averaged 2.9-yards per carry over the first three games of the season.

Notre Dame is highly susceptible to short-range passes to essentially replace run plays on early downs, but that is no excuse to not work to establish a true ground presence.

Collectively, Notre Dame was gashed for 212 rushing yards by Oklahoma last week and the Irish rank 45th nationally in rush defense (133.8 avg.). If ASU can effectively assert Marion Grice and the resurgent Deantre Lewis on the ground—as well as Taylor Kelly on keeper plays—the Sun Devil air game can open up to battle Notre Dame's 67th-ranked pass defense.

Conclusion

Though ASU and the Irish haven't met in nearly a decade-and-a-half, Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham is no stranger to Notre Dame as this will be his third meeting with the Fighting Irish in four years. In 2010, Graham coached Tulsa to a shocking upset over the Irish and the next season, as Pittsburgh's head coach, Graham's Panthers held a fourth quarter lead over Notre Dame before the Irish claimed a late victory.

In seemingly just a week's time, the momentum has swung tremendously in ASU's favor as an offensive outburst against USC for the Sun Devils and an underwhelming loss suffered by Notre Dame at the hands of Oklahoma have generally tipped the scales in favor of Arizona State.

Despite the disappointment of Notre Dame's start, the Fighting Irish still remain a program that carries an aura that places massive magnitude on this contest for the Sun Devils.

On offense, the Sun Devils should be able to find openings in the short-range pass game to create eventual windows downfield. Though the Notre Dame defensive front has collectively been a mysterious disappointment, the Sun Devil offensive line still has a challenging task ahead in terms of opening holes for ASU's backs.

Notre Dame built some momentum last week in the run game behind the speedy feet of George Atkinson III, and that weapon could prove highly damaging if the Sun Devils aren't able to once-and-for-all put the clamps on an opponent's ground game. However, if Notre Dame allows much of its offensive fate to be determined by Tommy Rees, ASU undoubtedly will serve up severe pressure and look to capitalize on plausible turnover opportunities.

Due to its own very recent success and its opponent's struggles, ASU enters this game with confidence and a comparable sense of momentum. If the Sun Devils can embrace and not be intimidated by the limelight of such a prominent opponent in one of football's elite facilities, ASU, on paper, has the personnel and strengths to exit with a "signature" caliber victory the program has lacked for several years.

Familiar Faces

• Notre Dame WR Josh Anderson attended Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame High School, as did ASU RT Tyler Sulka.

• Notre Dame CB Cole Luke attended Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton High School, as did ASU's Jaxon Hood, Anthony Jones and Christian Westerman. Luke's uncle, Darren Woodson, played for ASU and is a member of Arizona State University's Sports Hall of Fame. Luke is the only Arizona native on Notre Dame's roster.

• Notre Dame RB Cam McDaniel attended Coppell (Texas) High School, as did ASU WR Cameron Smith.

• Notre Dame DL Justin Utupo attended Lakewood (Calif.) High School, as did ASU CB Rashad Wadood.


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