Who, and What, to Watch

Our weekly game preview offers a six-pack of questions for Irish fans entering Saturday's matchup with No. 9 Arizona State at Sun Devils Stadium.

1.) Morgan's the Man -- Now What? From former walk-on to former five-star, that's the change at middle linebacker this Saturday and for the rest of Notre Dame's football season. Injured senior Joe Schmidt played at a level among Notre Dame's top 10 players through eight games this season. More important, he was in charge of the Irish defense: at practice, on game day, and most important, pre-snap.

That role falls to (potential) future star Nyles Morgan. He doesn't have to be Schmidt's clone Saturday in Tempe, but he does have to control the proceedings as the team's new defensive signal-caller.

"Nyles handled pretty much all of the communication. He did a great job this week and he’ll be the guy making the calls out there," said head coach Brian Kelly. "He had a really good week and he’s extremely confident. Look, he’s not gonna be perfect. Certainly there’s gonna be a hiccup here or there, but he’s got a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and I think he had an excellent week…(defensive coordinator) Brian (VanGorder) and I feel, that he can handle the duties of the middle linebacker position and coordinating what we need to get down out there."

A blown assignment is almost guaranteed from a rookie in charge of VanGorder's complex scheme. Yardage gained and the result of that err will help determine if Notre Dame's defense can be at its best Saturday afternoon against the No. 9 ranked Sun Devils.

Of note, Morgan's physicality and athleticism offers VanGorder's unit an upgrade over Schmidt. If he can trust his eyes and play fast, look out.

2.) Has attrition kicked In, and will Strong benefit as a result? In addition to the loss of Schmidt, Kelly noted Tuesday a list of crucial defensive performers that suffered mild to troublesome injuries in Notre Dame's 49-39 win last Saturday over Navy. Among them, a stinger for star defensive tackle Sheldon Day, a concussion for starting SLB James Onwualu (cleared to practice), and a foot strain for 5th-year senior cornerback Cody Riggs.

Riggs is the team's top player on the back end and his "strain" is rumored to be more serious than the staff has offered.

Should freshman Nick Watkins or sophomore Devin Butler be forced into starting cornerback action in Riggs' stead, the Sun Devils offense -- notably star receiver Jaelen Strong -- gains a huge advantage.

Notre Dame survived the loss of three starters and a key backup to academic suspensions over the first two months. Can they make it out of the desert still in contention following last week's rash of injured Irish?

3.) Can They Win A Shootout? In this case, "they" refers to the hosts. Admittedly, Question #3 might seem a tad askew for followers of both programs over the last few seasons, but it's legitimate to wonder if this group of Sun Devils has the offensive chops to win a shootout with Everett Golson and Notre Dame.

Arizona State has played its best football over the last three weeks, defeating quality foes Stanford, Washington, and Utah by a combined score of 69-36. And "36" is the key number as it came on the heels of thrilling win over USC (38-34 culminating in a last second Hail Mary completion for the victory) and a 62-27 drubbing at the hands of enigmatic UCLA.

That's a lot of points, and those offenses are closer to Notre Dame than are the recently vanquished trio of ASU foes.

Head coach Todd Graham's Sun Devils have broken their usual mode, settling in as a team that wins grinders (reminiscent of Kelly's 2012-13 Irish). They were more physical than Stanford (seriously!), were more mentally tough than Washington under adverse weather conditions (wind and rain), then outlasted Utah in a Tempe slugfest, out-gaining the Utes by 200 yards but failing to capitalize with points commensurate to yardage. (The latter is a recurring theme for the Sun Devils and their struggling red zone offense.)

Does Arizona State have to hold the slight underdog Irish under 27 points to win?

I think so, and that's a tall task vs. a locked in Notre Dame team.

4.) What Does Graham Have Planned? Saturday's contest marks the second between head coaches Graham and Kelly with the former at the helm for Arizona State, but it will be the fourth between the pair since Kelly took the reigns in South Bend. (The two faced off with Graham at Tulsa in 2010 and at Pittsburgh in 2011.)

In the first three (the last two won by Kelly), Graham's defenses combined for 11 QB hurries, 12 tackles-for-loss, 19 passes defended, six interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), two fumble recoveries, three sacks, a blocked punt, and a two-point conversion attempt by Notre Dame that Graham's Tulsa squad returned for two points of its own. Throw in a punt return touchdown for good measure.

In other words: Calamity.

Fast forward to the present where over the last three games, Graham's Sun Devils have registered 26 TFL, 7 sacks, 15 PD, 2 INT (one returned for a touchdown), forced three fumbles and blocked a kick.

Said Kelly of Graham prior to last year's contest: "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."

Kelly and the Irish offense must avoid further calamity at the hands of the aggressive, gambling Graham.

5.) Will These Five Continue To Thrive? Everett Golson, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, and Tarean Folston.

Why list five of Notre Dame's top 10 players in a column spot normally reserved for supporting players? If these five come to play, almost regardless of what happens around them, the Irish will win Saturday afternoon.

But a letdown effort by any among the quintet could spell trouble against a confident Arizona State squad that's surged to the fore over football's last month.

6.) One Play, or One Year, Away? For one night in mid-October, Notre Dame appeared to be the best team in football. It ultimately fell one called-back touchdown short of shooting up to No. 3, perhaps higher among the nation's ranked teams with little argument against them to be had.

On Oct. 18 in Tallahassee, at Florida State, Kelly's Irish took it to the defending champs for 60 minutes. They weren't perfect, but they played like champions (as did, fittingly, the Seminoles over the final half.)

Three weeks later, Kelly and the Irish have a final shot to cement a place among the dwindling list of contenders for the inaugural FBS playoffs.

I don't think they'll be denied -- at least not this week.

Notre Dame 33 Arizona State 24


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