Notre Dame Preview

The stage is set for one the biggest games in the in Arizona State’s football history. After all, the College Football Playoff Committee views both squads as Top 10 teams, with Notre Dame coming in at no. 10 and ASU at no. 9. The winner keeps their playoff hopes alive and the loser will have to reset their goals. What can the Sun Devils expect from the Fighting Irish on both sides of the ball?

Notre Dame Offensive Personnel

In 2012 as a redshirt freshman, quarterback Everett Golson helped guide Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season and a spot in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama by way of efficient—if unspectacular—game management as the Irish relied largely on a dominant defense paced by the likes of Manti Te’o.

Suspended for the 2013 season, Golson returned this year with a vengeance and has improved dramatically as a passer while remaining a dynamic rushing threat as well.

After totaling a stat line of 2,405 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions and a 58.8% completion rate in 2012, Golson has skyrocketed this season with 2,311 passing yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight games, also completing 62.8% of his passes.

Still a threat on the ground, Golson leads Notre Dame with seven rushing touchdowns and ranks second on the team with 272 net rush yards, already close to his 2012 season total of 298 yards on the ground.

Golson’s maturation and improvement have helped the Irish bounce back from a four-loss 2013 season in his absence and back to the level of national prominence Notre Dame had when Golson started two years ago.

At running back Tarean Folston leads the way for the Irish with 532 yards on 101 carries with three scores, while tough-running Cam McDaniel, a rusher who made a handful of important runs against ASU last year, ranks third on the team with 205 yards with two touchdowns. Greg Bryant rounds out the Notre Dame running backs stable, having totaled 203 yards with two touchdowns.

Folston, McDaniel and Bryant also see action in the pass game, combining for 24 receptions thus far in 2014.

With the graduation of T.J. Jones and suspension of DeVaris Daniels, Notre Dame has called upon a handful of youngsters to contribute at receiver and the results have been positive for the Irish, headlined by sophomore Will Fuller’s team-highs of 46 receptions for 599 yards with nine touchdowns.

Sophomore Corey Robinson—son of NBA legend David Robinson—ranks second on the team with 29 receptions for 393 yards with four scores and provides Notre Dame with a mismatch opportunity in jump ball situations. Robinson’s size and receiving skills give Notre Dame and Golson a dynamic pair of pass-catchers ASU certainly has to account for.

A school with a rich recent history at tight end with the likes of Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and most recently—as ASU fans certainly remember—Troy Niklas now of the Arizona Cardinals, Ben Koyack has been the primary target at the position this year for Notre Dame.

Ranked by as the No. 1 tight end prospect and a five-star member of the 2011 class, after catching only 14 passes his first three seasons, the 6-foot-5 senior has 23 receptions for 233 yards with two scores through eight games of his senior year.

Receivers Chris Brown (23-303-1), C.J. Prosise (19-294-2) and Amir Carlisle (16-181-2) can all be counted on to chip in a few receptions as well, giving Golson a list of qualified targets.

From left-to-right, Notre Dame figures to start tackle Ronnie Stanley, guard Nick Martin, center Matt Hegarty, guard Steve Elmer and tackle Christian Lombard.

Beside the sophomore Elmer, the line is filled with juniors and seniors, headlined by Stanley at left tackle.

Notre Dame Offensive Summary

With his combination of big game experience, versatility and noted improvement this season, Golson is right up there with Brett Hundley in terms of the best and most widely threatening quarterbacks ASU will face in the regular season.

Far from simply the cliché “game manager” he was during Notre Dame’s 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game, Golson is a playmaker in every form and fashion this year and will pose a major threat to the greatly improved Sun Devil defense.

Containment of Golson is priority one for the Sun Devils, but focus cannot just be paid on the Notre Dame quarterback as his list of backs and receivers can damage the Devils if left open.

Notre Dame Defensive Personnel

Up front, the Notre Dame defense has a different look from recent years both in terms of scheme and personnel, as the Irish use more four-man fronts and gone are the All-America caliber players such as Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Slated to start up front are Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara, with Day as the most noteworthy member of the bunch and Jones as a high-level contributor as well.

On the year, Day and Jones’ statistics are very similar, with Day having totaled 31 tackles, including 5.5 for loss with nine quarterback hurries, while Jones also has 31 total stops, including 5.0 for loss, 1.0 sack and seven hurries.

Okwara is the team leader in sacks (3.5) and also has 23 total tackles to his credit, while Rochell has posted 20 tackles including 3.5 for loss.

At linebacker, Notre Dame will be without leading tackler Joe Schmidt (65 tackles), causing freshman Nyles Morgan in his first collegiate start who has eight tackles to his credit in reserve duty this year.

The clear highlight of Notre Dame’s linebacking corps is Jaylon Smith, an elite national recruit as a high school prospect who with Schmidt out of the lineup is the leading tackler on the Irish (59) and also leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss.

Former wide receiver James Onwualu now starts at linebacker and has 15 total tackles on the year.

In the secondary, Chandler native Cole Luke has developed into a fine cornerback and starts alongside Cody Riggs, a graduate student and transfer from Florida.

On the year, Luke leads Notre Dame with three interceptions and has 27 total tackles while Riggs has posted 28 stops with one interception.

At safety, Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are poised to be the starting duo. Thus far in 2014, Shumate ranks third overall on the team in tackles (42), with Redfield behind him at fourth on the squad with 38 total stops.

Veteran Matthias Farley has been a part-time starter this year and is Notre Dame’s most qualified reserve as he has 29 total tackles and ranks second on the team with 2.5 sacks.

Notre Dame Defensive Summary

Using a look different from the traditional Irish 3-4 front college fans grew to know in recent years and without the national names such as Te’o, Nix and Tuitt, Notre Dame has generally overachieved defensively this season.

Despite not terrorizing quarterbacks in terms of sacks, the Irish bring solid pressure and frequently hurry quarterbacks—a trend Notre Dame surely wishes to continue against Taylor Kelly and ASU.

Before allowing a very Navy-like rushing total of 336 yards on the ground last week against the Midshipmen, Notre Dame had been very stout against the run. After a solid bounce back effort on the ground against Utah, ASU will be greatly challenged to keep its momentum going Saturday on the ground.

In all, Notre Dame’s defense has been somewhat enigmatic this season, as in the first five games of the year the Irish allowed 60 total points to Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse and Stanford, but after that point allowed 43 points by North Carolina, 31 by Florida State and 39 by Navy.

The Irish defense has also been affected by suspensions and various injuries and Saturday will prove what impact is created with the loss of Schmidt from the starting defense.

Notre Dame Special Teams Summary

Kyle Brindza quite literally is a do-it-all kicker for Notre Dame, as he handles field goals, punts, extra points and kickoffs. At placekicker, Brindza is 10-of-16 on the year, having missed four of his past seven, but is perfect on all 35 PAT attempts thus far. Brindza also averages 41.8 yards on 30 punts.

Notre Dame has modest figures in the return game, as Amir Carlisle is the primary kick returner with a 20.5-yard average on 13 returns, while Cody Riggs averages 7.3 yards on 13 punt returns.

Final Analysis

In the history of the two programs, three opportunities have existed for ASU to make a national statement against college football’s most storied team; however, losses in 1998, ’99 and 2013 thwarted the Devils’ desire to rise beyond the Fighting Irish.

Last year’s game in Arlington, Texas can honestly be reviewed as a stage that gave the Sun Devils some jitters. Poor tackling and other basic mistakes were witnessed on multiple occasions and despite the fact that ASU likely was—and certainly proved to be over the course of the season—a better team than the Irish, the Devils came home with a heartbreaking 37-34 loss.

This time around, the variable of the “stage” not only does not adversely affect ASU, it certainly helps the Sun Devils, as a sold out Sun Devil Stadium crowd is primed and ready for what could prove to be one of the most significant games ever played at Arizona State.

Saturday will, however, prove how ready ASU is to play against a proven, battle-tested national power. Regardless the opinions of Notre Dame—as a whole or this season—this team has shown surprising talent this season on both sides of the ball in the face of off-field adversity, has a highly successful coach and a quarterback that has played on college football’s largest stage and has advanced admirably since that point.

The magnitude of this game cannot be overstated; a victory for ASU continues the budding dream season and legitimizes the Devils’ recent top-10 College Football Playoff ranking. Most onlookers are waiting to see just how good this Arizona State team is and Saturday will provide every chance for that measure of proof.

Notre Dame brings an inherent buzz and hype to any football Stadium, and when that Stadium contains two top-10 teams, every play is amplified and the outcomes can make or break a team’s season.

On the field, if the Taylor Kelly of last October/November shows up, ASU can and should move the ball on Notre Dame. Kelly’s two starts since returning from his foot injury have been filled with question marks and variables—ridiculous weather at Washington, the nation’s leading pass rush against Utah—making this game one that ASU fans expect to be where Kelly puts his signature not just on his senior season, but his career at Arizona State.

Quarterback play in general likely will be the determining factor in this game. At their best, both Golson and Kelly are mobile, accurate passers with multiple backs and receivers at their disposal. Golson certainly has outplayed Kelly to date thus far in 2014, but Notre Dame does not have athletes that match up to Arizona State’s combination of Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster.

The Sun Devil defense will hope to offset the loss of veteran lineman Jaxon Hood with the return of solid contributor Demetrius Cherry, while generally working to continue the incredible turnaround the defense has showcased the past three games compared to its lackluster start to the season.

The leaders need to lead this game and the stars need to standout. Kelly, by leaps and bounds, needs his best game of the season. Foster needs to utilize his generally unparalleled versatility. Strong needs to out run, out muscle and outleap every defender. Randall, Simone, Moeakiola and company need to play sound, attacking football and have sideline-to-sideline awareness on every snap.

In all, Arizona State has lightning in a bottle this Saturday with a home game that can keep hope alive for ASU to remain in the College Football Playoff hunt—a concept that would have been met with tearful laughter as recently as seven weeks ago but now is legitimate in every measurable way.

The Devils must rise to the occasion in a way perhaps not seen by any ASU team since the legendary defeat of top-ranked Nebraska in 1996, and if Arizona State can do that, this 2014 season could follow the same unforgettable path of that ’96 squad.

Familiar Faces

• Notre Dame CB Cole Luke is an Arizona native and attended Chandler Hamilton High School, as did ASU DL Jaxon Hood and LG Christian Westerman. Luke is also the nephew of ASU Hall of Fame member Darren Woodson.

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

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

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