No Change in M.O.From an outsider's perspective, it seemed Notre Dame's defense held a field-side party last Saturday, and every one of Oklahoma's dangerous perimeter athletes was invited. The Sooners repeatedly hit the Irish successfully with five to eight yard chunks as part of their "long hand-offs" (to borrow from OU coach Bob Stoops) attack.
In fact, the visitor's first touchdown drive -- albeit just 32 yards following an interception -- consisted of four snaps, each of which attacked the field (or wide) side of the Irish defense, first for 5, 8, 8, and ultimately a 11-yard touchdown and 14-0 early lead.
But Irish head coach Brian Kelly is less concerned with the number of yards gained against his defensive perimeter than he is with an unexpected plague affecting the back line.
"If you look at how we defended it, they got the ball outside a couple of times, but it didn't go to winning and losing the football game," Kelly said of the Sooners tactic that made his defense defend horizontally. "Winning and losing the football game last week was (due to) turnovers and the two big plays. I thought that by and large, we minimized most of those (perimeter) plays to under 10 yards.
"But we will get attacked on the perimeter, there's no question, we will have to continue to be on top of our game there."
Saturday's foe Arizona State has athletes to do serious damage employing the same strategy.
"They catch the ball very well," Kelly said of the Sun Devils. "They're a team that will challenge you on the perimeter throwing the football, and you have to keep (quarterback Taylor) Kelly in check running the football, as well. He's very capable through their zone read package of running the ball. Containing the quarterback, running the football, and obviously not giving up the big chunk plays.
"Eliminating the big plays defensively is absolutely crucial to our success."
In addition to the opening drive, the Sooners added field-side gains (on handoffs or quick passes) of 3, 8, 10, 5, 6, 9, 17, 6, 11, no gain, 9, 7, and no gain before going into clock-killing mode on their final, 5-minute-plus possession.
Kelly noted part of the opponent reasoning behind the quick throws to the perimeter is to minimize the impact of his defensive line.
"It's clearly a reason for them getting the ball out quickly, getting the ball on the perimeter, but I will go back to what I said earlier, if you break down the game, (Oklahoma) did not win the football game by throwing bubble screens and getting it out on the perimeter.
"What we need to do a better job in is … staying above the cut when we're in three deep, not giving up quick slants for 56 yards," he offered of two crippling touchdowns suffered at the hands of the Sooners. "Obviously if we minimize the big plays and the turnovers, we're talking about a different football game here."
Kelly reminded the gathering that Oklahoma's method of attack was similar in last year's Irish win. "That's how Oklahoma played us last year: the ball was quick, it was out on the perimeter, we kept it in front of us, we kept the points down. They kicked a lot of field goals.
"(Saturday) We just gave them four touchdowns, one on a scramble in Cover 3, one on a 56-yard slant, and two that our offense coughed up to them. There's 28 of their points. If you break it down, that stuff on the perimeter, as long as we can keep it to a minimum, we're okay with that."
Coming to Their DefenseWhile Notre Dame has proved susceptible to mid-yardage gains to the wide side, the Sun Devils have, at least statistically, proven they can't stop the run. 231 yielded to Wisconsin; 240 to Stanford, and 237 to USC. Nine total touchdowns in those three games (two of which Arizona State prevailed).
Kelly suggests caution considering the raw data.
"You would think at first looking at it, that, 'Boy it's easy to run against them.' But you're in a lot of negative plays. If you really go through the numbers, you're in a hit-and-miss situation because they bring so much pressure (thus creating negative plays for an offense.) You have to do a great job of managing the negative plays against them.
"If you're not on (point) in terms of picking up a lot of their pressures, you can be turning the ball over and putting yourself into some negative down-and-distance situations. Those numbers are a bit misleading because a lot of those yards were USC late in the game, the ballgame was over. Again, we have to run the football, there's no question about it, but we have to solve some of their pressures to be effective running it."
Kelly is all-too-familiar with the exotic pressures from the mind of Sun Devils second-year coach Todd Graham. While with Tulsa in 2010, Graham's Golden Hurricanes defense produced five pressures, three tackles for loss (from just 24 ND rushes), three interceptions, a sack, a fumble recovery, a blocked PAT returned for two points, seven pass break-ups, and an interception touchdown (one that resembled the sack/pick/score quarterback Tommy Rees suffered Saturday vs. Oklahoma) as Tulsa upset Notre Dame, 28-27.
One-year later, Graham's Pittsburgh team came up with two sacks, five hurries, two interceptions, five tackles-for-loss, a blocked punt, a fumble recovery, and five pass breakups in a 15-12 defeat vs. the visiting Irish.
"You're going to get a lot of different pressures," said Kelly of a Graham-coached team. "I think there are a lot of exotics on special teams. You're going to get the quarterback lined up in an offensive set punting the football, swinging gate, offensively misdirection. Again, I go back to Tulsa and Pittsburgh and now at Arizona State, you've got a lot of different offensive and defensive looks.
"You're not going to get a cookie-cutter approach to playing the game in any one of those facets, and that's been his kind of philosophy, if you will, and what he's staked his success on, and he's done a great job at it."
Favored by 8.5 and 6.5 respectively in his previous matchups with Graham, Kelly and the Irish began Tuesday as underdogs of 4.5 points to the high-scoring Sun Devils.
Texas ForeverNotre Dame is 4-0 in its four previous neutral site Shamrock Series contests, winning in San Antonio, the Bronx, Washington D.C., and Chicago.
This Saturday's return to the Lone Star State not only brings with it the trappings of an NFL Stadium, but a potential boon from the deepest talent pool prep football has to offer.
"I think it helps," said Kelly of the recruiting benefit his program might gain from the contest. "For example, we'll be able to go down there on Friday and get out and see some games with our coaches, so certainly being able to get down there will help us in that perspective.
"Getting some recruits locally to come to the game, you know, we can't see them but we can provide tickets, that helps in that respect. A bump would probably be a good word. Is it going to seal the deal for us in a lot of these instances? Probably not, but it certainly helps to have the kind of exposure there."
Six more current Irish hail from state, injured sophomore S Nicky Baratti (Tomball/Klein Oak HS), junior CB Jalen Brown (Irving/MacArthur HS), freshman walk-on WR Omar Hunter (Harlingen/Harlingen HS), freshman WR Torii Hunter, Jr. (Prosper/Prosper HS), freshman TE Durham Smythe (Belton/Belton HS), and 5th-year senior PK Nick Tausch (Plano/Jesuit HS).