Rabino: The caliber of opponents both teams played up until last Saturday was night and day, which is why USC's then 4th place national ranking in total defense was deceiving and objectively speaking you can say that they experienced a dramatic rise in competition that they simply were not ready for. However, the Trojan defense had to contend with two turnovers by their offense late in the first half and a couple of more in the third quarter the clearly broke their spirit and opened the flood gates for the explosive ASU offense to operate.
After a very disappointing loss to Stanford where the Sun Devils simply didn't show up in the first half, this was a group eager to redeem itself and deep down they knew that they would have their way with the USC defense who presented a much lower challenge than the Cardinal a week before. Playing against a less physical unit helped ASU maintain the high pace which fueled its offense and quite honestly is vital for them to be at their best. They had great balance running the ball and passing it, kept their turnovers and penalties to a minimum and capitalized on all the miscues and deficiencies USC presented.
2 - Is quarterback Taylor Kelly a true dual-threat quarterback? He has impressive rushing stats for a guy that's thrown for 1,300-plus and 11 touchdowns already. Are his runs designed, or making the defense pay as a scrambler?
Rabino: Absolutely a dual-threat signal caller and operates in an offense that fully suits his skills. Funny you mentioned the rushing statistics because his 79 yards versus USC more than tripped his combined output in the three games preceding that contest, and that is more a reflection of the run defense, as well as the pass rushing, by Stanford and Wisconsin which was considerably more effective than USC. In the zone read scheme a lot of the runs are naturally designed, but Kelly is just as effective improvising when needed and running the ball when the original play breaks down.
Yet, Kelly's passing skills shouldn't be overlooked at all. He has yet to throw for less than 300 yards in a game this year, and while he isn't as sharp efficiency wise (has four interceptions) compared to this time last season his 61.4 percent completion rate is impressive considering the fact that he has averaged nearly 43 passing attempts per contest. Anyone who watches his game film from 2012, a season where he was ninth in the nation in efficiency and one touchdown pass shy from the school's single-season record, and watches him today sees a signal caller who has improved in many facets of his game.
Rabino: When you talk about the makeup of the ASU receivers, you would have to make the distinction between the players who are actually listed as wideouts and those who play other positions, yet are integral to this offensive aspect.
Junior college transfer Jaelen Strong came to Arizona State with a plethora of accolades and sky-high expectations. It would hardly be a stretch to say that the wide receiver has lived up to the hype and hit the ground running in a very impressive way averaging over 108 receiving yards a game and 14 yards a catch. 20 of his 31 receptions resulted in first downs.
Problem is that the gap between Strong and his wide receiver teammates is as wide as the Grand Canyon itself. Returning players such as Richard Smith and Kevin Ozier, who were expected each to have a solid season haven't been able to benefit from the extra attention Strong is drawing from defenses and have disappointed all season long.
Luckily for ASU, running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, as well as tight end Chris Coyle have proven to be reliable aerial targets for Kelly to say the least. The three combined thus far for 55 receptions, 654 yards and seven touchdowns. All in all not a deep group of wide receivers per se, but plenty of capable players on offense who can contribute to the passing game.
4 - Tell us about running back Marion Grice, because 12 TD in four games, including four out of the backfield, is an alarming stat.
Rabino: The Arizona State offense prides itself on being a run first team and one that its ground attack is the basis for everything they do. Nonetheless, its running backs are far from being a "three yards and a cloud of dust" type of players, but rather shifty and dynamic downhill runners who also must be above average receivers. Marion Grice epitomizes those qualities which is why his skill set fits the Sun Devils' scheme like a glove.
Todd Graham joked that when Grice runs it looks like he's not putting in full effort, but is also quick to say that his running back is very smooth when carrying the ball and looks like he glides across the field. He isn't the most physical running back out there, but rarely goes down after the first tackle, so his strength much like his speed is deceiving. All in all, one the more well-rounded and explosive running backs in college football.
5 - Notre Dame's best unit is its defensive line, especially against the run. Does ASU have the chops up front to battle for 60 minutes if the Irish respond and play the game on their terms? (Relatively low-scoring, each possession counts, third-downs aplenty, etc.)
Rabino: I would agree that if Notre Dame can really contain ASU's running game, that this would put in the Sun Devil offense in a pretty big bind. As mentioned, while you usually think about explosive offenses using schemes where the quarterback sits back and attempts 40 plus passes, peppering the ball all over the field, that is hardly ASU's game plan in any given contest. In 10 of his 13 games last year Kelly never attempted more than 30 passes. In a loss to Stanford he attempted 55 passes and in a too close to comfort win versus Wisconsin he slung the pigskin 51 times. Those are very tale telling stats.
Therefore, disrupting the run can put this squad in a real bind and play right into the Irish's hands. It will also impact the high tempo this offense relishes in, as it's a pace that often wears down defenses. ?
Note: Click here for Part II and Rabino's thoughts on the Sun Devils defense, head coach Todd Graham, and his game keys and prediction.