Saturday, October 5, 2013
Five things: ASU-Notre Dame
By Matt Fortuna
Notre Dame "hosts" No. 22 Arizona State at 7:30 p.m. ET tonight in the latest edition of the Shamrock Series, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Here are five things to keep an eye on from the Irish when they take the field at Jerry World.
Ball security: More often that not, this is what it comes down to for Notre Dame. Tommy Rees threw interceptions on consecutive passes during the Irish's first two drives last weekend against Oklahoma, which gladly took the 14-0 lead less than three minutes into the contest. His other pick led to seven more Sooners points. Not all of that was on Rees, though, as his offensive line did him no favors on one pick, and his receivers were not-so-sharp in their route-running on another. Still, Brian Kelly is 12-0 at Notre Dame when his team does not turn the ball over, and that cannot be stressed enough coming out of last week's 35-21 loss.
The ASU defense has struggled against the run, which could make George Atkinson III a key factor.
Ground game: We harp on the run game again in this space, this time for different reasons. Notre Dame finally broke out of its shell in the backfield last weekend and piled up a season-best 220 yards on the ground, marking just its second 100-plus-yard rushing output through the season's first five games. George Atkinson III had a career-best 148 yards on 14 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run. ASU has shown some vulnerability against the run, so it is imperative for the Irish to establish that attack early against a defense that is giving up 192.3 rushing yards per game.
Defensive line play: Back in the summer, many looked at this game as a potential showcase between arguably the two-best interior linemen in the country in Louis Nix III and ASU's Will Sutton. But with the Irish's two September losses, there are bigger things to worry about -- mainly, if their defensive line can be effective against an offense that likes to spread the field and keep the opposition on its toes. The Sun Devils run 80.75 plays per game, tied for 13th-most nationally, and they have the weapons, like Marion Grice that can expose holes in any defense. Notre Dame has notched just three sacks on the season and has been burned for several big plays because of missed tackles. The Irish will need to be better in both departments against ASU. Notre Dame also is expected to have Sheldon Day back after he missed two games with a sprained ankle.
QB packages: Rees is still the starter, and that might not be changing anytime soon unless Andrew Hendrix has something to say about it. Hendrix saw extended meaningful action last week for the first time this season, as the Irish implemented some zone-read packages for the versatile redshirt junior. Kelly said earlier this week that Hendrix needs to perform better in those situations before he can be considered as a viable Rees replacement, but the coach said Thursday that Hendrix was much more engaged in practice this week. Expect to see more of him, in one fashion or another, against ASU.
Little things: Kelly showed his team clips this week of last year's tight wins against Purdue, BYU and Pitt. It is easy to forget just how close Notre Dame was to not running the regular-season table last year, and why even coming close to doing it again this year after suffering some key personnel losses is a challenge. But those three games are great illustrations why. Kelly said the team needs to do the little things better, citing the margin for error as "razor thin." The Irish treaded that line lightly last year, protected the ball and bunkered down on defense in the season's tightest moments. With a 3-2 start, such a film session should shake the players into shape and convince them that they are not as bad as their record says they are. We'll know more later tonight, as ASU provides little room for some of the mental lapses that have plagued the Irish so far.