Devils Get Set to Host Irish in Rematch
With its win over Utah last weekend, #11 Arizona State (7-1, 5-1) entered the week, arguably its biggest in over a decade, on a season-high four game win streak and positioned nicely at ninth in the latest college football playoff standings. Yet, the only thing on ASU’s mind is its narrow 37-34 defeat to Notre Dame last year at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. After jumping ahead to a 13-7 lead late in the second quarter, the Sun Devils were besieged by turnovers, committing one fumble and two interceptions in the second half, all of which resulted in points for the Irish, as Notre Dame pulled away for the win. While ASU was able to rebound for seven consecutive wins to close out the regular season following its loss to Notre Dame, the Sun Devils have been patiently waiting for their chance at redemption. That opportunity comes on Saturday when #8 Notre Dame (7-1) makes just its second visit ever to Sun Devil Stadium in a non-conference clash with enormous implications for both teams. The winner will earn its right to stay in the national playoff picture for another week while the loser, in essence, will be dropped from the discussion. “It’s cool but I don’t want to get over-excited because we still have to get ready to play,” said freshman running back Demario Richard after practice this week. “I don’t want to get too excited and too erratic because then I won’t be focused on game day. “I don’t really look at it like ‘Notre Dame.’ I look at it just like it’s another game to play and we’re going in as a playoff contender and for the championship game, so I’m coming in ready to play.” ***** Fighting the Irish Defense While ASU has faced its share of formidable defenses over the last month, its toughest test awaits them this weekend. The Notre Dame defense comes into the this Saturday’s contest as one of the best in the nation, limiting opponents to just 21.6 points and 359.1 yards per game. While the Irish had eight players selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, including four from a defense which sacked quarterback Taylor Kelly six times a year ago, they still appear every bit as challenging as they did a year ago. “It’s the same,” said Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell. “You turn on the film and obviously see some really talented athletes. They’ve got great size up on the defensive front. A lot of guys with an explosive twitch. “I know they lost their linebacker, who I thought was a tremendous player, but they have a couple other really athletic linebackers so we know, once again, it’s going to be a great challenge.” Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they’ll be without senior linebacker Joe Schmidt who suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle in the team’s 49-39 win over Navy last Saturday. Schmidt, a former walk-on who entered the season with just 21 career tackles, had led the Irish in tackles in 2014, registering 65 through the first eight games of the season. He’ll be replaced by former five-star freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan, who’ll make his first career start on Saturday. However, the Irish still have plenty of fire power on defense even with the loss of Schmidt, including sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith who as a freshman last season started all 13 games for the Irish while recording 67 tackles, the third most ever by a freshman in Notre Dame’s storied history. Smith currently leads the Irish with 6.5 tackles for a loss in 2014 to go along with 59 total tackles. “He makes plays all over the field,” said Norvell. “He can make plays in the passing game, he can make plays sideline-to-sideline running guys down, and then he’s an explosive blitzer. He pretty much presents every challenge that you could ever have with one player.” Of course Smith is also aided by another talented sophomore in defensive back Cole Luke, a Valley native who attended Chandler Hamilton High School. In just his second season at Notre Dame, Luke has started in all eight games and leads the team with three interceptions. “He’s a tremendous player,” added Norvell. “He’s a player that we obviously know a lot about. He played some as a true freshman last year and you can see the confidence that he has. We’ve just got to do a great job of getting separation at receiver and make sure we’re staying between him and the ball.” Arizona State comes into the game averaging 483.6 yards of offense, including 291.1 through the air, while averaging 34.4 points per game. For the season, Notre Dame’s defense is allowing an average of 227.3 passing yards a game, which ranks 64th in the nation. However, the Irish have shown an ability to be extremely opportunistic against the pass by totaling 12 interceptions so far this year, thanks in large part to the play of Luke. “They’ve got guys with tremendous ball skills,” said Norvell. “They like to play the football and keep an eye on the quarterback, seeing the ball out of his hands. The front seven ties into that as well. If you’re able to get pressure on the quarterback and the ball comes out a little early, you give those guys an opportunity to make plays on it. “This is another top quality defense. One that, we’ve got to go out there and play fast and we’ve got to be able to establish the run, just like every week, for us to be successful. And the number one thing is, we can’t give them the football. We’ve got to be able to own the ball and can’t hurt ourselves.” ***** Kelly Continuing to Improve For the first time this week, Arizona State Head Coach Todd Graham admitted that quarterback Taylor Kelly broke his foot against Colorado on September 13th and required surgery. A pin was inserted into the senior’s foot, a large reason why the signal caller has been slowly on the mend for the last seven weeks. After shaking off the rust in ASU’s 24-10 road win over Washington two weeks ago, Kelly continued to show signs of improvement against Utah last weekend, completing 18-32 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown. Perhaps an even better sign for the Arizona State offense was Kelly’s ability to make plays with his feet. After only rushing for seven yards against Washington, Kelly rushed for 55 yards against Utah, helping keep the Sun Devils balanced in their attack. “I think you were able to see him get out to the perimeter and he had some nice runs,” said Norvell. “That was something that was big for us. He’s going to do nothing but continue to get better. I think his timing is still something that we’re getting back. Every day that he’s out there you see the quickness, the timing in his drops. All of those things we’re focusing on improving.” For the season, Kelly has completed 74-125 (.592) pass attempts for 1,010 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. In the fourth quarter against Utah, the senior looked more like himself, completing 8-11 passes for 98 yards as ASU marched late to tie the game before winning in overtime. For his career, Kelly is 23-9 at Arizona State and currently sits in third place on the school’s all-time passing touchdown list with 66, one ahead of former Sun Devil Jake Plummer. “It’s not the first big game that Taylor’s played in,” said Norvell. “He’s won a lot of big games here. We’re excited about where he’s getting to. He’s still, right now, the only quarterback in the Pac-12 that hasn’t lost a game (this season) so he’s a guy that has a tremendous amount of confidence. “It’s just little things. It’s getting back that timing, doing the little things right and we have all the confidence in the world in him.” ***** Re-Energized Rushing Attack Regardless of the opponent or whomever is at quarterback for Arizona State, the goal each week for the Sun Devils has been to establish the run game. After a couple subpar outings on the ground, ASU was able to return to its running ways last week against Utah, rushing for 239 yards against the Utes in its 19-16 double-overtime win. A big reason for the spirited Sun Devil rushing performance last Saturday was the play of true freshman Demario Richard who ran for a career-high 116 yards on just 14 carries. “I think Demario had a tremendous performance,” said Norvell. “He ran the ball extremely hard. That was a good run defense that we went against and to have the success that we had was really impressive.” After showing signs of apprehension against Washington the week before, quarterback Taylor Kelly also got into the rushing mix against Utah with 55 yards on 14 carries. “I loved the way our backs ran,” added Norvell. “I thought the o-line did a great job creating some space in there and then Taylor did a great job of pulling and forcing the defense to account for him. All those things kind of tied together and we were able to see some better success.” After averaging just 72.5 yards on the ground against USC and Stanford in previous weeks, the Sun Devils averaged 172.0 rushing yards in their last two outings with Kelly back in the line-up. “I think we’ve run the ball pretty well against some of those groups,” said Offensive Line Coach Chris Thomsen. “Going back to Stanford and Washington, I think we got enough run game going to win the game and control the clock a little bit. Last weekend I thought we ran the ball really well against one of the top run defenses. But the big story last Saturday and the focus going forward for ASU is the development of Richard. In limited action against the Huskies, the Palmdale native provided a glimpse of what was to come, rushing nine times for 54 yards. But against the Utes last week, the talented freshman showed no signs of mercy, averaging 8.3 yards per carry in the breakout performance. “I’m just blessed, man,” said Richard. “I knew it was going to come sooner or later. I just had to be patient.” In a loaded backfield that already includes junior D.J. Foster and another talented freshman in Kalen Ballage, the emergence of Richard as potential featured back in the Arizona State offense gives Norvell and the coaching staff even more flexibility in terms of personnel. While Foster still had 10 carries against Utah last Saturday, it was also the first time this season in which Foster did not lead the Sun Devils in rushing attempts in a game. Instead, Foster spent more time lined up in the slot and led ASU with six catches, extending his streak to 35 consecutive games with at least one reception. “Demario, Deantre Lewis, Kalen Ballage, you’re seeing all of them having really quality outings,” remarked Norvell. “That’s something where, as those guys continue to come in and perform, it gives us a lot of flexibility with what we’re able to do.” After logging just 19 carries through the first six games this season, Richard has rushed the ball 23 times in the last two games as his role has expanded. Of his 42 total attempts this season, only one has resulted in negative yardage, further demonstrating his ability to keep the ground attack moving forward. “It’s boosting my confidence a lot but I still take it day-by-day and try to be patient because you never know what could happen,” he said. “I’m just going to continue to play my role and do what I’ve got to do on the field to spark the offense and spark the team. “The coaches say just keep coming and keep working hard at practice. They tell me just to keep focusing and make sure all my film studies are done and don’t bring anything else that’s not football related to the field. Just come to the field each day and be ready to play.” ***** Correcting the Little Details Last Saturday, Arizona State was flagged six times resulting in 55 yards worth of penalties, most of which came while the offense was on the field. It was both the most amount of penalties and penalty yardage called against the Sun Devils since committing six penalties for 59 yards against UCLA on September 25th. Luckily for ASU, the final outcome wasn’t the same as it was then. But still, Norvell wants to see things cleaned up immediately. “Going through the games, the thing that’s probably been the most disappointing has been the little details,” he said. “Last week, having five penalties on offense absolutely killed us. That was something where you sit there and look at it - we have a 30 yard catch that’s called back, two 15 yard runs, we’re down at the two yard line and get a procedure penalty - when you do that to yourself, you’re going to have a hard time scoring points. You’re going to have a hard time being successful. “That’s the thing we challenge our guys with; it’s about the details and getting better.” For the season, Arizona State has been the least penalized team in the Pac-12, averaging just 5.0 penalties and 37.6 penalty yards per game. The Arizona State coaches would also like to see the team cut down on the number of negative yardage plays that have plagued the Sun Devils as of late. Just a couple of weeks ago ASU had allowed the fewest sacks in the Pac-12 but in the last two weeks they’ve surrendered 11 sacks and 24 tackles for a loss. “In terms of pass protection, we’ve got to help Taylor more. That’s just the bottom line,” said Thomsen. “The last couple of games that he’s been back, I think obviously we’ve faced great people but we’ve got to help him out more, allow him to get his feet set and get his rhythm back because he’s been out. “We’ve got to give him more time to set up and protection is where we’ve got to do a better job.” Against Utah, that pressure resulted in ASU converting just 2-14 third down chances, thwarting a number of scoring opportunities for the Sun Devils. “We’ve got to continue to establish drives,” said Norvell. “When you’re not very good on third downs it hurts the tempo, so we’ve got to do a better job of extending drives so we can push the tempo. “We can’t have any negatives when it comes to penalties or mistakes like that, and if we do that, it’s going to be a tremendous ball game.” Kickoff for Arizona State and Notre Dame is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. MT and the game will be nationally televised on ABC. The Sun Devils are 0-3 all-time against the Irish, including a 28-9 loss to Notre Dame in 1998 in the only other meeting between the two teams at Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona State will be playing its fifth rank opponent in its last six games and its fourth straight home game against an AP-ranked opponent for first time in school history. The Sun Devils are 6-6 against AP-ranked opponents under Graham after holding just a 5-41 record in similar games the previous 13 seasons.
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