Know Your Foe: Notre Dame

No. 11 Arizona State may have defied many pre-season predictions, but so has No. 8 Notre Dame, a team that is one controversial game ending penalty from an undefeated season thus far. In this feature, Publisher Tim O'Malley answers Sparky Huddle members’ questions on ASU’s next opponent and the challenges the Fighting Irish present on both sides of the ball.

Are your surprised at the current 7-1 mark or do you feel that it’s a true reflection of the pre-season expectations for Notre Dame?

I expected Notre Dame to lose its third game at some point in November, so they're at least one game ahead of my projected pace. But more important, they're simply a better team than I thought they could be. The performance in Tallahassee was no fluke -- the Irish when they're dialed in are (arguably) one play worse than the nation's best.

The defense is fast, confident, and capable of causing confusion and the offense has one of the nation's five best quarterbacks at the helm. Those two factors, combined with Brian Kelly, make them a true contender.

Is it virtually impossible to overstate how much quarterback’s Everett Golson’s return after the year suspension has meant to this Irish offense? How has he improved from 2012?

Yes. He makes the running game better, not only because he can run, but because opponents must first respect his downfield passing ability. As opposed to 2012 when he was asked not to make mistakes and let the defense win games, he's the 2014 team's focal point -- it's leader offensively and the one player that can get them out of most jams. Since he's barely six-feet tall, it's an ideal situation for Kelly and Irish fans, because Golson has as season of eligibility remaining and is unlikely to test the NFL waters early.

Golson's ability to strike any point of the field, from the pocket or rolling left/right, is the greatest change from last year's dink-and-dunk offense.

How would you characterize the strengths and weaknesses of this Notre Dame offense? Who are the key players on this side of the ball?

Golson's the straw that stirs the drink, but he's not exactly bereft of talent around him. The best skill position players are true sophomores: leading receiver Will Fuller, leading rusher Tarean Folston, and walking mismatch 6'5" wideout Corey Robinson. Fuller has emerged as the go-to target -- he's easily the fastest player on the field and has good ball skills. Robinson has the best hands at the program since Golden Tate, that, coupled with his size and leaping ability makes the red zone an issue for opposing defenders. (The Admiral's son elevated over Florida State uber-athlete Jalen Ramsey for a back-corner score at Doak Campbell.)

Folston has emerged over the last three games as the clear-cut No. 1 runner, compiling more than 475 yards of total offense. The offensive line's best is junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley, but it's a group that can occasionally be had -- five players changed four positions at the end of September. They've been far better since and were quite good at Florida State, but they're not a rock-solid unit.

The Irish’s defense, much like ASU’s, has erased a lot of inexperience question marks raised in the off-season. What has contributed to their success?

As noted above, they play fast and confident, and have somehow, to the surprise of most, absorbed first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's complex NFL scheme.

Notre Dame is fortunate to have a top-tier player at each level of its defense: junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day is the best player of the group, sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith the best future pro, and fifth-year senior transfer Cody Riggs has proven to be an invaluable addition at cornerback, especially after the Irish lost their best defensive back, Keivarae Russell, to academic suspension in August.

Augmenting Day's efforts along the front four has been a pair of first-year starters up front, sophomore Isaac Rochell who has eight QB pressures but is a player best known for stout run defense, and junior (redshirt-sophomore) nose tackle Jarron Jones, who was dominant vs. FSU with three tackles-for-loss. At the second level, Smith lost his inside 'backer mate Joe Schmidt, gone for the season due to ankle surgery (more on the potentially irreplaceable Schmidt below).

The back line has been solid with sophomore Cole Luke emerging in coverage, sophomore Max Redfield as the single-high safety, and junior Elijah Shumate as a thumper to the strong side. It's fair to say the strength of the Irish defense to date has been 1.) DL, 2.) LB, 3.) DB, in that definitive order.

Unlike the staid, Cover 2 conservative approach employed by former (successful) coordinator Bob Diaco, VanGorder's first-year has been about causing confusion on third-down and flying to the football. The youth-filled Irish have played far above everyone's expectations.

On the other hand, does giving up 39 points to Navy last week raise any red flags in your opinion about this group?

Against Navy, no, because it’s unique to anything else the Irish will face. (There's a reason Kelly "challenged" others to play Navy rather than mock Notre Dame for what the Irish feel is an extremely difficult annual test.)

Notre Dame sees the option once a year and to a man, noted post-game they're glad they won't have to look at it or prepare for it until next October. When Navy has a healthy, talented triggerman, it's frankly tough to stop, especially with a two-deep populated by sophomores and freshmen.

As for the 31 points allowed to Florida State -- it marks the lowest game output of Jameis Winston's career. It was a job well done by most accounts.

The troubling game of note is a 50-43 win over North Carolina. The Tar Heels gashed the Irish due to a high-tempo attack that nullified effective situational substitutions by VanGorder and the frenetic pace showed on the legs of Irish defenders -- they had none. Missing tackles galore late. Kelly noted Tuesday the Irish have tweaked their defensive plan in preparation for ASU's up-tempo attack.

How have the suspensions of Daniels, Russell, Williams, Moore, and Hardy affected the team's play and what has this done to their depth as the season has progressed?

Russell was among the team's projected three best players; Daniels among its top six; Williams a starter; and Hardy a two-deep safety. (Moore was a special teamer.)

While Russell would have greatly changed the defense (his presence would have allowed Cody Riggs to start on the left side and shift to Nickel on third-down where the Irish now feature a safety with questionable coverage skills), the other losses have been overcome, as Will Fuller has played better this fall than the enigmatic Daniels did at any point in his career (and WR is not a problem for the Irish) while Rochell has been more productive as an 8-game starter than former 5-star prospect Ishaq Williams was over his entire 37-game career. (Williams backed up current NFL'er Prince Shembo the last two seasons in South Bend.)

Depth, however, has become an issue, as Hardy is one of three safeties lost since August camp (among six on the roster) and both DE (Rochell) and CB (Luke) would suffer major drop-offs if either is out for an extended period.

Notre Dame's wide receivers will be the nation's best group in 2015 because of Daniels' 2014 absence. None of the six contributors exhaust eligibility and they have a pair of four-star freshmen/redshirt-freshman behind them.

(Of note: Hardy has returned to practice with the team as he's decided to push his mandatory two semester suspension to Spring 2015 and Fall 2015. He's going to graduate in December, a semester early -- which is a bit odd for a player with an academic transgression. He won't be able to play at Notre Dame as a fifth-year in 2015 as a result. The remaining quartet took Fall 2014 retroactively as part of their suspension -- even though they attended classes to mid-terms -- and will also miss Spring 2015 before being allowed to reapply to the university. And yes, it's as confusing as it sounds.)

Hardy has not yet been cleared to play in games this year but Kelly expects that to happen.

With LB Joe Schmidt is out for the year, how much affect will that have on his position and how do you think they will fill that void? Any other key injuries for Notre Dame coming into this week?

I wrote a full feature on this Monday, breaking down the impact here.

The Cliff's Notes version: Schmidt emerged from former walk-on status to the leader of the Irish defense. He's been invaluable not only in terms of calling signals and making all pre-snap adjustments, but also as a player between the lines -- he leads the team in tackles and forced fumbles, is second in interceptions and third in QB pressures.

His replacement, Nyles Morgan, is a five-star true freshman, the No. 3 MLB prospect per for 2014. So the talent is there, but no one knows how Morgan will react to the myriad looks Arizona State will throw at him. Morgan's only competitive action this season came in the last 1.5 quarters vs. Navy after Schmidt was injured, and that in no way will resemble what he sees on the field Saturday in Tempe.

Aside from Schmidt, Day has a brachial plexus injury (Navy), Luke a foot strain (Navy), and Jarron Jones is nursing a sprained ankle (Navy). Other than that, its special teamers, plus captain (and expected starting safety) Austin Collinsworth, who has only appeared vs. North Carolina this season due to a sprained knee and injured shoulder thereafter. They've played without him for more than 95 percent of the season's snaps.

What is your perspective on the near game and series cancellation fiasco between ASU and Notre Dame last year?

It would have been a shame not to fulfill the second-half of the two-game set, but more important, to have taken away my trip to Tempe, Arizona, in early November. It snowed in South Bend on Halloween. So…there you have it. Priorities.

But I know for a fact that ND wanted to cancel and that Arizona State would have sued (and won) as a result. No harm, no foul, I suppose.

What are the main differences between the Notre Dame team last year from this year and how do they match up with ASU?

Golson. And Golson. And Golson. Also, Notre Dame's 2014 defensive line isn't comprised of: A.) overweight players looking forward to the NFL, and B.) in-shape players looking forward to the NFL, while its linebackers aren't populated mostly by players built to stop Power-I offenses of the late 1980s.

The 2013 team seemed to rest on its laurels after making it to the BCS Championship game the season prior (you'd think the end-result might have lit a fire) and the Tommy Rees-led offense was not only boring, but predictable and (no offense to Arizona State) eminently stoppable by a good defense.

The 2014 Irish are a joy to watch from both a media and fan's perspective. To paraphrase Kelly on his junior, sophomore and freshmen-dominated squad: "Our senior's want to win a championship, but they know they need help from the young guys. And the young guys don't know any better, so they listen to everything I say."

The Irish are built for a No. 1 ranking entering 2015, but they'll have to learn to handle success, first. This team just doesn't know any better and has never lost its edge as a perceived underdog.

Notre Dame's team speed is far better than it was in 2013, but it is relevant to note that the ASU attack last season got the attention of those aforementioned future pros: Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and Prince Shembo all came to play in Cowboys Stadium and they won up front as a result.

We'll see if a more exciting and excitable, but less-experienced team, can pull out a win in the desert.

Offensively: this team would have scored 50 on last year's ASU defense that night in Arlington. But the present-day Sun Devils defense seems better equipped to handle a multi-dimensional offense than it was last Oct. 5. I expect the winner to go no higher than 34 points Saturday afternoon.

What are your key points to this game and final score prediction?

There are a pair of telling numbers for Notre Dame in nearly every relevant win:

-- Do they run the ball more than 30 times? Kelly is 40-5 at Notre Dame when the Irish hit that number.

-- Will they win the turnover battle? Kelly is 127-12 when he wins the turnover battle. A remarkable number.

Look for Golson to attack deep early in an attempt to soften the defensive front, and then rely on a healthy dose of Tarean Folston through the bulk of the first half. If the Irish stick to the run thereafter, they'll likely prevail. If Kelly gets a bit pass-happy, I think Arizona State can cause pressure on Golson and thus create a timely turnover or two.

Defensively, Notre Dame's front four has come to play in every big game. They dominated Florida State at times but Jameis Winston made championship level plays. It'll be up to Taylor Kelly to do the same.

If the Irish defense can win on first down, and thus put the ASU offense behind the chains, VanGorder's situational substitutions and blitz packages will likely be effective. Conversely, if the Sun Devils dictate tempo, the Irish will have trouble holding up defensively for 60 minutes.

After seeing Notre Dame perform on the road against Florida State, I have a hard time picking them to lose. But I do think if it's a low-scoring game as the last three have been for ASU, it favors the hosts. Call it either 34-23 ND or 20-17 ASU -- I'll have to choose one by the end of the week.

Of note for ASU fans: Notre Dame is 2-5 over the last seven years following its matchup with Navy, 2-2 under Kelly, with both wins of the sloppy, ugly variety. ASU is by far the best team they've faced in this spot.

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