O'Malley's annual "Trouble Spots" countdown continues its look at Notre Dame's toughest game situations for 2013...
Click the links below for the first three installments in our Trouble Spots series:
#12 Temple and for a full explanation of the rankings.
#10 Air Force
#9 Brigham Young
Second-year coach Todd Graham has his quarterback in dual-threat, 67 percent passer, Taylor Kelly
. He has a ground game, led by all-purpose threat Marion Grice
(1,104 scrimmage yards last year including 425 through the air). And he has a stout, penetrating defensive front (nine TFL per game led the nation).
That's a recipe for success in college football, and after an initial season in which Graham's Sun Devils finished with eight wins including four straight to end the season, more is expected from the vagabond head man.
Sun Devils fans will find out early if Graham can build on last year's late-season success: ASU hosts Wisconsin, travels to Palo Alto to take on Stanford, and hosts USC before hiking to Dallas for the neutral site game against the Irish.
There's nowhere else to slot the matchup with the possible exception of #7 behind Pittsburgh, and Arizona State is far better on paper than the Panthers. (Just ask Graham…)
The Sun Devils proved they could score last season, and though gashed at times as a result, disrupt offenses when the defense took the field.
On paper though it appears Notre Dame's calling card -- scrimmage dominance --- could come into play. According to our sister site, DevilsDigest.com, Arizona State "ranked in the nation's top-10 in pass defense, interceptions, pass efficiency defense, sacks and tackles for loss," but still managed to finish 81st in rush defense -- and this playing a pass-happy (save for Oregon) Pac-12 slate.
The Irish rushing attack should be clicking by Game Six.
Graham is 1-1 vs. Kelly during the latter's tenure at Notre Dame. Graham's Tulsa Golden Hurricane defeated the Irish in 2010, 28-27, then, during a one-year stint in Pittsburgh, fell short in Heinz Field vs. the Irish, 15-12 in 2011.
A look at the ancillary factors surrounding Notre Dame's matchup with the Sun Devils:
Shamrock Fact: Notre Dame is 4-0 in Shamrock Series matchups, defeating three wildly overmatched foes, and one, Miami, that proved to be when pitted vs. the stout Irish lines of 2012. Charlie Weis' last Irish squad beat Washington State in San Antonio, 44-14 in 2009. Kelly followed with a 27-3 win over Army at the new Yankee Stadium in 2010, then beat Maryland 45-21 at FedEX Field in 2011. Notre Dame crushed the Hurricanes last season in Chicago, 41-3.
Fast Fact: Graham-led teams (Tulsa 2010, Pittsburgh 2011) have recorded four interceptions, forced a fumble, and returned a punt for a touchdown vs. Kelly's Irish in their last two meetings, with a combined margin of just 42-39 in Notre Dame's favor. Notre Dame was a combined nine of 29 in third-down conversion attempts in the contests.
Look-Ahead Factor? None, Notre Dame has a bye week following its battle with Arizona State. USC comes to town two weeks later. The major factor for Notre Dame, as noted above, is that the contest with the Sun Devils follows four consecutive rivalry/national matchups: at Michigan, at Purdue, Michigan State, and Oklahoma.
The Sun Devils will be easily as battle-tested as the Irish, as noted above facing Wisconsin, Stanford, and USC in three weeks leading up to the contest. (That gauntlet alone almost caused a one-spot drop in our "Trouble Spot" rankings.)
Puncher's Chance? About nine teams have a puncher's chance to defeat Notre Dame, and Arizona State is doubtless one of them. The Sun Devils put up 62 in their bowl game, 41 vs. rival Arizona, 43 in a loss to UCLA, and scored in excess of 30 in seven of 12 contests vs. FBS competition last fall. Their offense illustrates the definition of the phrase.
Likelihood of an Irish defeat: If Notre Dame is similar to last season's squad and Arizona State is improved as expected, there's still a major gap between the programs in 2013. It won't matter that Arizona State's offense enters Year 2 under the Graham regime if Bob Diaco's defense continues to dominate as it did last fall.
Still, this is the best team previewed to date in our "Trouble Spots" series, and potentially the fifth-best college football team (if not collection of talent) on the Irish schedule.