Rabino: The improvement on defense, as you pointed out, has been remarkable and is undoubtedly the biggest reason for ASU’s current four-game streak that followed the miserable loss to UCLA.
The short answer to your question is inexperienced players coming into their own after a handful of games under their belt, as the proverbial light bulb finally came on for them. More importantly the coaching staff making all the right moves in shifting personnel around.
Demetrius Cherry and Mo Latu were added to the front four, not only changing the look from a 3-4 to a 4-3, but giving it serious physicality upgrade as this unit averages over 300 lbs. across the board. It allowed ASU to get more pressure on the quarterback and elevate its run defense allowing its talented linebackers more room to operate.
Speaking of linebackers, another significant move was Antonio Longino shifting to WILL linebacker, a role that fits his skills like a glove, and he has the stats and game film to prove that. The ASU secondary has been the most consistent group on this side of the ball with plenty of talent, but now with an improved front seven, ASU’s back four has been phenomenal the last few weeks.
Granted, the ASU defense only played well since late in the 4th quarter against USC, yet well enough to put ASU’s in the Hail Mary position that ultimately yielded a dramatic victory. Additionally, the last three offenses it faced, Stanford, Washington and Utah are anything but your typical explosive Pac-12 offensive group. So the Sun Devils have been feasting on lesser opponents as of late, but that doesn’t take away from the dramatic and impressive turnaround they have been experiencing.
This is a group that is playing with high levels of confidence and swagger right now, as they are going through a very positive snowball effect.
2. The Sun Devils have a backup quarterback in Mike Bercovici that hit USC for more than 500 passing yards in a victory. Is Taylor Kelly the clear-cut starter over his backup that won two games vs. quality foes (USC and Stanford)? And is Kelly, after two starts back, close to his pre-injury form?
Rabino: Excellent question and one that has been debated during Kelly’s two starts back from injury. Yes, Kelly is the clear-cut starter and the coaching staff has repeatedly said that this is Kelly’s team and he is the undisputed starter. So he seemingly has a very long leash.
Truth of the matter is that even before his injury in week 3, Kelly looked to regress in terms of his passing game and being back just the last two weeks hasn’t signaled any improvement in that department. Not going through his progressions and locking in on Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster way more than he should is probably the biggest shortcoming we are seeing these days. He did have very adverse conditions at Washington to work under, but that obviously wasn’t the case back home versus Utah.
Could Bercovici have done a better job the last two weeks? Not against Washington for the reasons I mentioned, but against Utah I think to, some extent, yes, and he surely does a better job distributing the ball among different receivers. To me, Kelly does look like someone who has some rust still to shake off that is affecting his decision-making too. However, even though Bercovici has more than proven to be up to the starting task, I still feel that Kelly will get quite a few more chances to work through his issues and doesn’t really have to look over his shoulder too much to see if Bercovici is about to spell him.
3. Compare D.J. Foster to last year's RB sensation Marion Grice, whom the Irish unexpectedly held in check inside Cowboys Stadium last October. What will Foster bring to the table vs. a quicker (than last year) Notre Dame defense?
Rabino: Against inferior opponents early in the year, Foster was sensational. As the competition level increased, Foster has been generally struggling and he certainly wasn’t getting any help from the offensive line. Foster does take a lot of reps at wide receiver and has often found more success as an aerial target than a feature back.
Foster is more explosive than Grice and more of a home run threat. Grice is probably savvier as he doesn’t have the athletic ability that Foster has to fall back on, and his running style is just smoother and more gliding like in nature. Foster unlike Grice finds more success running off-tackle and on the perimeter. Foster is also more versatile, as mentioned seeing a lot of reps at wideout where can be just as effective as a ball carrier, if not more.
4. Have the Sun Devils found a complementary receiver to take some of the pressure off of Jaelen Strong? Irish fans likely remember Strong for his 39-yard fourth-down touchdown from the slot last season -- does he line up all over the field? (Notre Dame struggled to cover Florida State's potent freshman slot receiver Travis Randolph in their only loss.)
Rabino: Strong normally lines up in the Z or X role, but not at the slot. He does most of his damage on the perimeter with his back-shoulder fade sideline catches. That is truly his niche, and he is having a very good season with 821 yards and eight touchdowns to date.
As far as wide receivers who can shoulder the load, ASU does have those in D.J. Foster and Cam Smith who have a combined 780 receiving yards and five touchdowns. However, Kelly as we mentioned doesn’t always do a good job with his progressions so that puts that much more pressure on Strong. Last week against Utah, Strong was targeted 17 times, which is obviously an excessive figure no matter how gifted a wide receiver he is.
So until Kelly does a better job distributing the ball among several targets all throughout a contest, it’s almost a moot point as to whether ASU does or doesn’t have a complementary receiver to Strong. It surely has the talent for that role though.
5. Four interceptions is an unusually low total for a quality PAC-12 team. (It's reminiscent of Notre Dame's bend-but-don't-break defense from last season.) Why hasn't the Sun Devils back seven made more plays in congress with what appears to be a disruptive front?
Rabino: Well, ASU’s front has only become truly disruptive in the last three weeks so that is one reason for that low number. But with figures such as 25 pass breakups and 29 passes defended I have no qualms about ASU’s passing defense and the ball hawkish skills of its secondary. Furthermore, being 3rd in the pass-happy Pac-12 in passing yards allowed with 204.4 yards per game is another flattering stat for what I believe to be perhaps ASU’s most talented secondary unit this century.
6. As usual, Todd Graham has a team ranked near the top of the charts in tackles for loss. (No. 7 overall). Which scrimmage penetrators could give Notre Dame's spread attack trouble Saturday afternoon in Tempe?
Rabino: For the most part ASU’s front four isn’t a big playmaking group, but rather one that normally holds its ground, occupies more than one blocker and ultimately gives the linebackers and often times its secondary ample operating room to make plays near or beyond the line of scrimmage. The lone exception would be defensive end Marcus Hardison, probably the most improved player on this side of the ball from Week 1 until now. The defensive end has five sacks and 30 overall tackles and has become quite a disruptive force up front.
Linebacker Antonio Longino and Laiu Moeakiola (who has four sacks) are the main scrimmage penetrators from their group, as are safety Damarious Randall and cornerback Lloyd Carrington. All four have been exceptional playmakers for the Sun Devil defense as of late.
7. It appears red zone touchdowns are an issue for the ASU offense while the defense shines in that regard. Notre Dame's red zone offense is superb (28 TD in 39 trips) but the defense hasn't been great in that realm (allowing 18 TD in 26 trips). Why has ASU struggled in close offensively and conversely, what's the secret to their success stopping foes at the shadow of the goal?
Rabino: I don’t think it’s that uncommon for an offense that isn’t a power based running group to have issues scoring touchdowns when the field shortens. ASU’s running game has regressed to some extent in the last several weeks, sans the Utah game last Saturday where it had 239 net yards and their short yardage struggles have been evident. ASU has faced some of the best front sevens in the conference the last few games so that is part of the equation too, as is the progression issues in the passing game. ASU hopes that it can build on last week’s success on the ground, because that would be paramount to having a chance to beat Notre Dame.
8. Is this a game AND fans expect to win or do they look at it as a toss-up? Are most AND fans aware of the myriad differences between both the AND offense and defense of 2014 compared to last year’s squad?
Rabino: With the confidence level of this team these days at a very high rate, the fan base naturally follows and a win against Notre Dame is far from being viewed as a pipe dream. Even though both squads are quite different than 2013, last year’s contest is viewed as one that the Sun Devils should have prevailed in.
Having said that, there is no doubt in my mind that both ASU and its fans have the utmost respect for Notre Dame and know that this is highest caliber team, not only based on the standings but also in pure talent, that they will face during the regular season. The win against Utah was obviously too close for comfort and the game film session had a lot of constructive feedback attached to it. Yet, while there is a lot for ASU to clean up I still see this contest as one that ASU expects to win, especially being at home.
9. How has the Graham regime been received as we hit the midway point of his third season? Will this be Todd Graham's program, rather than just his team for the foreseeable future?
Rabino: ASU is a program that in the last 30 or so years, has been consistently inconsistent. One step forward, two steps back has unfortunately been the norm in Tempe during that period.
To say that Graham has turned around the fortunes of this program would be an understatement. 25 wins in just two and half seasons, a Pac-12 South championship in only his second year at ASU and a real chance to have this team achieve eight or more win seasons in three consecutive years for the first time since the early 1970s.
This is Todd Graham’s program through and through not only because of the play on the field, but a 180-degree change in team culture. The fact that he donated $500,000 towards the renovations of Sun Devil Stadium shows his commitment to the school and more importantly continues to squash the talk that he is about to leave Tempe in the near future as his critics desperately continue to claim.
When legendary Frank Kush was dismissed as ASU’s head coach, under much controversial circumstances, fans were yearning for a head coach that could even come close to achieving Kush’s feats. Todd Graham is rapidly becoming that caliber of a head coach, again in a ridiculous short amount of time. So the Sun Devil nation has zero qualms about the job Graham has been doing this season and really since he arrived in Tempe. And to think that he wasn’t even a Top 3 choice candidate in the head coaching search…
10. What do you expect to see if Arizona State emerges victorious? Conversely, what likely mistakes will plague the Sun Devils if the Irish prevail?
Rabino: I've said many times concerning the ASU offense that it is a unit that has to achieve run-pass balance to be fully potent. With the current struggles in the passing game and facing a very formidable Notre Dame run defense, that theory rings even truer this weekend. On defense, ASU has had issues containing mobile quarterbacks such as Golson and it’s imperative that they don’t allow him to extend plays and force him to be a pocket passer against a very good ASU secondary.
As mentioned, the win over Utah exposed some issues that are concerning when a week later you have to face a legitimate Top 10 team. I don’t see the passing game improving significantly enough from last week to be at a high level it needs to be explosive, and even though the rushing attack had one of its best showings of the season last week, I can see the Irish defense shutting it down. Furthermore, you know the Notre Dame defense received an ear full after a less than stellar showing against Navy last week and they will be motivated to erase that memory with a good performance in Tempe.
The offensive struggles of ASU will ultimately impact its defense which will face the best signal caller they have matched up with all season, and the Irish does have the balance offensively that can really stifle opponents. This is a game where I can see the ASU defense starting out strong but wearing down as the game progresses.
I don’t have a good feel about this game when it comes to ASU’s chances to win. It’s surely not a mental issue, since this team is a very confident squad, as they should be riding a four-game win streak. It will be a hard fought game and one that I see Notre Dame eventually pulling away and winning 27-21.