ASU vs. Notre Dame game preview

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

Arizona State (3-1, 1-1) vs. Notre Dame (3-2)

Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. PST / 7:30 p.m. EST

Location: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Point Spread: ASU -6

TV/Radio: NBC/620 AM

Weather Forecast: Domed stadium

Series History: Notre Dame leads the series 2-0 after beating ASU in 1998 and 1999.

Fun Fact of the Week: No team in college football history has ever defeated both USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. ASU has such a chance this week.

ASU on Offense: Some numbers to consider: Under head coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame is 2-12 when allowing an opponent to score 21 or more. Under head coach Todd Graham, ASU is averaging 39.7 points per game.

Last year, the Irish defense was among the nation's elite, but despite returning seven starters, the same results have not been there in 2013. Heading into Saturday, this looks like a match-up that favors the Sun Devils.

The key battle will be upfront. ASU's offensive line had struggled mightily throughout the year in both pass protection and run blocking, but had a much better effort last week against USC. They helped pave the way for a season-high 261 yards rushing and did not allow quarterback Taylor Kelly to be sacked. 

They will be facing a Notre Dame defensive front led by linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III, each of whom earned some All-American honors a year ago. The battle between the 342-pound Nix and ASU center Kody Koebensky (298) will be a critical one to watch. While Nix and Tuitt have yet to play up to last year's standards, they are both capable of shutting down a run game and getting to Kelly, so quality offensive line play will be imperative. 

Should the offensive line hold their ground, ASU has the playmaking talent to put up points on the Irish. 

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has made stopping the running back duo of Marion Grice and D.J. Foster a top priority, and rightfully so. Grice leads the nation with 12 touchdowns, and both he and Foster are explosive playmakers in both the run and passing games. With the emergence of Deantre Lewis as another weapon in the ASU backfield, Foster may continue to see most of his time at wide receiver. Notre Dame has a solid set of linebackers in their 3-4 scheme, including inside 'backers Jarrett Grace and Carlo Calabrese, but should ASU's trio of backs get the ball into the second level, they should be able to get chunks of yards in a hurry.

Sun Devil wide receiver Jaelen Strong has emerged as one of the top pass catchers in the Pac-12, and is Kelly's clear No. 1 target. The Irish secondary will look to key on him downfield, led by top corner Bennett Jackson, as the rest of ASU's wide receivers have been non-factors this year, combining for just four catches over the last two weeks. Tight end Chris Coyle is coming off his best game of the season, and should he be able to find space in the short-to-intermediate routes, it will help create room for Strong on the outside. 

For the first time all season, Kelly used his legs to run, and mobile quarterbacks have been an issue for Notre Dame this year. Look for some more runs by Kelly off the read option this week.

Key Match-ups:

  • ASU offensive line vs. DL Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III: It's not often a single line has this much heralded talent, but Notre Dame's duo is just such a pair. Both players have a world of talent, yet have yet to produce to their All-American levels of 2012. That doesn't make them any less dangerous to an ASU line still looking for consistency.
  • WR Jaelen Strong vs. CB Bennett Jackson: Strong has established himself as ASU's go to passing weapon, and Jackson is the Irish's best cover corner who will be counted on to limit Strong's damage.
  • RB Marion Grice vs. ILB Carlo Calabrese: All Grice does is score touchdowns, and he is the focal point of ASU's offense. Calabrese has been a tackling machine in 2013, and will get very familiar with Grice on Saturday night.

ASU on Defense: Can ASU stop the run?

That's really what this side of the game will come down to, as the Irish will look to keep things on the ground on a vulnerable Sun Devil defense for a number of reasons.

After struggling for much of the year, Notre Dame was finally able to have success on the ground last week against Oklahoma, led by the 148-yard game by George Atkinson III. The talented junior has both size and speed, and will get plenty of chances on Saturday. The Irish also use USC-transfer Amir Carlisle and the burly Cam McDaniel to grind out yards, and both Carlisle and Atkinson can be factors out of the backfield.

ASU's front seven will need to eliminate the alignment mistakes and mental errors that Graham has blamed for the poor run defense. Defensive tackle Jaxon Hood is likely to miss the game, with end Davon Coleman sliding inside to replace him. More pressure will fall on All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton to disrupt the interior of the large Irish offensive line (average weight: 310) to cut down on the running lanes.

Most of the damage on the ground against ASU has come along the edges due to bad angles, and the Sun Devils have made changes in their linebacking unit as a result. Chris Young will move back to SPUR, Steffon Martin will reclaim his spot at SAM after a great showing last week, and Salamo Fiso takes over at WILL. If they are unable to control the edges, Notre Dame's line and backs will eat up both yardage and the clock.

It will also keep the ball out of the hands of quarterback Tommy Rees, who once again became the team's starter after Everett Golson left school this spring. Rees is coming off a dreadful effort against the Sooners, as he completed just nine of his 24 throws with three interceptions. 

If given time, Rees can be an effective game manager, but under pressure he is very prone to mistakes, earning the nickname "Turnover Tommy" from Notre Dame fans. Look for defensive coordinator Paul Randolph to continue bringing pressure from all angles, and levels, of the defense in an effort to disrupt Rees.

Should Rees get comfortable, he will have some effective weapons.

T.J. Jones is his No. 1 target, and while not overly flashy, Jones is a consistent player and sure-handed option and leads the team with 25 catches for 346 yards. Maybe the most dangerous target is DaVaris Daniels, who combines great deep speed with good size at 6-foot-2, and he leads the team with four touchdowns receiving. Look for ASU's safeties to provide deep support on that side of the field. In keeping with their recent tradition, Notre Dame has another large tight end they like to throw to, this time the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Troy Niklas. Despite his size, Niklas can get downfield, and he averages over 18 yards per catch. 

Key Match-ups:

  • DT Davon Coleman vs. Interior OL: With Jaxon Hood out, Coleman slides inside to the nose. He will be counted upon to tie up the much larger Irish interior offensive line and hold the middle against the run.
  • Devilbacker Carl Bradford vs. QB Tommy Rees: Bradford has played well of late, and is arguably the team's best pass rusher. Rees has shown he will commit turnovers in bunches if pressured, so if Bradford can get through the line, ASU will benefit greatly.
  • CB Osahon Irabor vs. WR T.J. Jones: Irabor continued his All-Pac-12 caliber season with another strong showing against USC, and he'll need another big performance to limit Jones, a steady contributor and the Rees' go to target.

Special Teams: If one aspect could undo ASU this week, it may be special teams. The unit had another rough outing last week, marking the third straight week of disappointing—and avoidable mistake-filled—results.

It was another week, another ASU punter. Kicker Alex Garoutte handled the duties with his rugby style against USC, marking the fourth ASU punter in four games. However, it looks like freshman Matt Haack will handle the job this week after a strong week of practice. Kicker Zane Gonzalez made both short field goal attempts last week, but has yet to hit with consistency. The return game has yet to make a lengthy return on the year.

Kyle Brindza handles the kicking and punting for Notre Dame. He has hit on five of his seven field goals with a long of 44 yards, and has a 40.6-yard average on his 19 punts. 

Atkinson handles the kickoff returns for the Irish and is very dangerous, topping 27 yards-per-return this season. T.J. Jones is the team's punt returner, and is steady yet unspectacular.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Stop Notre Dame run, force game on Rees
  • Make sure tackles
  • Keep pressure off of Kelly
  • Don't lose focus on the big stage

What It All Means: ASU has continued to struggle away from Sun Devil Stadium under Graham, especially in big game situations. This may be the biggest game of his ASU tenure, in terms of national exposure, even if Notre Dame is not the team it was last year. The Sun Devils should be able to score plenty of points on the Irish, with another big game between the aerial combo of Kelly to Strong. Ultimately, it should  come down to whether ASU can avoid making mistakes and limiting the Irish running game. While Notre Dame will be able to get some yards on the ground, a Rees-led offense should fail to keep up with the Sun Devils.

Prediction: ASU wins 38-24