Pac-12: George Atkinson III

Notre Dame kicks off the first of three games this year against the Pac-12 with Saturday’s showdown against No. 22 Arizona State in Arlington, Texas. What should you be looking for? Glad you asked. Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell talk it over.

Matt Fortuna: Arizona State is a newcomer to the Pac-12 portion of Notre Dame's schedule this year, Kevin. The Sun Devils have looked great against USC, not so great against Stanford and, well, fortuitous in their win over Wisconsin. They put up 62 points last week against what was believed to be a good Trojans defense, getting Lane Kiffin fired in the process. So I guess we'll start there, given Notre Dame's defensive struggles so far this season: What makes Todd Graham's unit so explosive offensively, and what do the Irish need to really keep an eye on Saturday to keep the points down?

Kevin Gemmell: Tempo, tempo, tempo. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who Graham trusts to run the show offensively, uses “tempo” as a verb, not an adjective. As in, he wants to tempo teams into submission.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriNotre Dame will have to find a way to slow down D.J. Foster and the Arizona State offense.
They want to have as many possessions as possible. And they get that with a fast-paced attack that stretches and then compacts a defense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is off to another outstanding start, and a huge reason for that is the addition of wide receiver Jaelen Strong, a junior college transfer who already has 31 catches for 433 yards. He gives Kelly that sideline threat the Sun Devils were lacking last season, and Kelly has been fantastic at spotting him on the outside shoulder and letting him make plays. Strong has been targeted 51 times, so it’s only a 60-percent completion rate when they look to him. But when he does catch it, it’s usually for a substantial gain; he averages 14 yards per reception.

They use running backs Marion Grice (12 touchdowns already!) and D.J. Foster in creative ways in the screen game and like to splt Foster out into the slot. Tight end Chris Coyle has also emerged as one of the top players at his position in the country.

How about the Irish? Things don’t seem to be going as swimmingly as they did last year. Only 25.4 points per game. ASU is going to blitz early and often. What does Notre Dame have to do to get its offense moving in the right direction?

Matt Fortuna: It will get overlooked because Notre Dame lost Saturday, but the Irish were finally able to establish a ground game, tallying 220 rushing yards against the Sooners. They had eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark as a team just once before, in the opener against Temple. Junior George Atkinson III, who was the No. 1 back entering the season, finally played like it, lowering his shoulder and looking more like a downhill runner. He finished with a career-high 148 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

Aside from not turning it over on their first two possessions and falling behind 14-0, it is very important for the Irish to continue to establish the ground threat early, as they often can become predictable in second- and third-and-long with a non-mobile quarterback under center in Tommy Rees, though Brian Kelly did insert Andrew Hendrix in for some zone-read, change-of-pace packages against the Sooners. Receivers must run better routes, too. TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels have been big playmakers, but they both had route-running miscues Saturday that were costly. Kelly has said that ordinary things need to be done better. The Irish also regularly play three true freshmen wideouts (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller).

I'm interested in ASU's defense, particularly Will Sutton. Before the season, everyone had pegged this as a matchup of the two best interior defensive linemen in the country, between Sutton and Notre Dame's Louis Nix. It's been hard to gauge Nix's performance so far, as the Irish have faced some mobile quarterbacks and quick-strike offenses that have utilized the short passing game early to essentially take the line out of the game. What challenges do Sutton and the rest of the Sun Devils' defense present?

Kevin Gemmell: They like to blitz a lot. Todd Graham fashions his defense as a “hybrid attacking defense,” meaning at times they’ll substitute speed for bulk to create pressure from anywhere on the field.

Sutton hadn’t made much of an impact the first few games for a couple of reasons: One, they were facing mostly run-based power teams like Wisconsin and Stanford; two, he’s been seeing a lot of double and triple teams. Makes sense. His first step is so quick that it precedes his reputation. But he finally broke out against the Trojans with two tackles for a loss and a sack. I think, as the season pushes on, we’re going to see more pressure from the front seven based on the teams they’ll face.

That said, you have to look out for safety Alden Darby, who is coming off a fantastic performance against the Trojans. He had two picks (one returned for a touchdown) and has 19 tackles on the year. Hybrid linebacker Carl Bradford is explosive and Chris Young has really emerged, leading the team with 29 tackles.

The front seven is a little undersized, but it’s quick and if your protections aren’t set, someone will get missed with as much as the Sun Devils like to blitz.

Now that the Sun Devils are back in the top 25, it’s a huge game for them to keep some of that momentum going on a national stage. The Pac-12 is already coming off of the nonconference season with a 29-4 record.

Notre Dame, however, seems to be scrambling to salvage its national reputation. And with three games against the Pac-12, which many believe is the deepest conference in college football, it seems the Irish could restore some of that lost credibility. How do you see them matching up with the now Lane-less Trojans or Stanford in the season finale?

Matt Fortuna: Based on everything we have seen from both Notre Dame and Stanford so far, that matchup might not be a very pretty one for the Irish. Fortunately for them, it is not until the regular-season finale, meaning they have plenty of time to fix their issues in the six games before then.

The bigger question pertains to what kind of team the Irish will be heading into that matchup in Palo Alto, a status that will largely be dictated by their performances in both the ASU and USC games. The Irish need to get it together, fast, and Rees has to avoid a repeat performance of this past Saturday (three first-half interceptions) and get the offense going again. In theory, that should be enough to beat a USC team that looks to be reeling after the firing of its coach, though that kind of midseason move can have different lingering effects, good or bad. It's not like the Trojans aren't talented, and it's not like they won't be up for another night game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Still, I say the Irish win that one, especially coming off a bye. And especially with the threat of falling under .500, as a loss to ASU would make them 3-3 on the season. Notre Dame might be the better team, but the Irish have shown me little over the last four weeks that suggests that they are capable of keeping up with the Sun Devils' offense.

So that's an early 1-2 prediction for Notre Dame against the Pac-12 this season. What say you, Kevin?

Kevin Gemmell: I’m an ASU lean right now simply because of how explosive that offense can be. And if the Sun Devils can fix a couple of assignment issues on defense, I think they have the firepower to be a top-20, maybe even top-15 team. But they have to show they can do it away from home. A neutral field setting provides a nice opportunity. It’s close enough for their fans to travel, but it’s not a true road game.

As of today, we’re in lock-step when it comes to the Stanford matchup. The Cardinal offense is looking better and better each week. I thought back in April that Tyler Gaffney was going to be a game-changer for Stanford, and so far he’s shown that he is. That season finale could also have huge BCS implications, and I don’t see the Cardinal tossing one away at home in a game that could potentially lock them into a fourth straight BCS game.

As for USC, well, who knows? Haven’t heard any USC players come out and condemn the firing of Lane Kiffin. Maybe this move reinvigorates them? The Trojans certainly have talent. But as of today (as always, I reserve the right to change my mind), I’d go with Notre Dame at home.

Nonconference primer: Stanford

June, 27, 2013
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We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.

Stanford

San Jose State, Sept. 7
  • Coach: Ron Caragher, first year
  • 2012 record: 11-2, 5-1 WAC
  • Returning starters: seven offense, six defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback David Fales returns as the FBS's most accurate quarterback from 2012. Last year he completed 72.5 percent of his throws while tossing 33 touchdowns and 4,193 yards.
  • Defensive headliner: Defensive tackle Travis Raciti returns after earning All-WAC honors last season. He posted 13 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks.
  • The skinny: Mike MacIntyre revitalized the struggling program and in three years had them at double-digit wins. Now Caragher shepherds them into the Mountain West Conference. Stanford has dominated the Bill Walsh Legacy Game -- though the Spartans gave them quite the scare last season. The Fales-to-Noel Grigsby connection could end up being one of the most dangerous in the country and should not be taken lightly.
at Army, Sept. 14
  • Coach: Rich Ellerson (17-32) fifth season
  • 2012 record: 2-10, Independent
  • Returning starters: seven offense, eight defense
  • Offensive headliner: Running back Raymond Maples is just the third Army player in school history to post consecutive 1,000 yard seasons after rushing for 1,215 yards and two touchdowns last year, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
  • Defensive headliner: Defensive back Geoffrey Bacon returns after leading Army with 136 tackles last year -- which was fifth nationally in tackles per game at 11.3. This year he's moving from linebacker to the secondary.
  • The skinny: Despite the record, Army still had the No. 1 rushing attack in the country last year, averaging almost 370 yards on the ground per game. Match that against a Stanford front seven that was fifth nationally against the run and second in tackles for a loss and there should be plenty of helmet paint being traded.
Notre Dame, Nov. 30
  • Coach: Brian Kelly, (28-10), fourth year
  • Returning starters: six offense, eight defense
  • 2012 record: 12-1, Independent
  • Offensive headliner: We talked about left tackle Zack Martin in the ASU nonconference primer. He'll be clearing the way for George Atkinson III, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry last year and scored five touchdowns on 361 rushing yards.
  • Defensive headliner: We mentioned Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix in the ASU article. Nix is phenomenal at stopping the run, which is worth noting again, given what the Cardinal will want to do on offense.
  • The skinny: Stanford head coach David Shaw pointed to the Notre Dame game last year -- and its highly-controversial ending -- as a turning point for the Cardinal's run to the Rose Bowl. This one is the season finale for both teams so it's possible that it could have national-championship implications for both squads.
Thoughts: A fairly challenging nonconference slate. Remember after the season opener last year, we were all wondering what was wrong with Stanford? Turns out San Jose State was pretty darn good. Shaw told us, we didn't listen. Considering who the Spartans have coming back, chances are they'll be good again. Interestingly enough, Caragher replaced Jim Harbaugh and Shaw at USD after the duo left for Stanford, so there's your Kevin Bacon moment for this game. Army doesn't pose much of a threat on the field and, of course, the Notre Dame game was one of the most controversial matchups in all of college football last season. The Cardinal are legitimate BCS championship contenders. Should they top San Jose State -- which should be considered a quality win, or at least, not a cupcake win -- it points them in the right direction heading into a difficult Pac-12 slate. Should they escape that unscathed, a home date with the Irish could determine Stanford's postseason placement. And for a team looking to add a fourth-straight BCS game, nay the BCS game, only 3-0 will do.

Irish prep for Luck, Stanford

November, 22, 2011
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Notre Dame enters Saturday's regular-season finale at Stanford as an underdog for the first time this season. But Brian Kelly is not quite playing the us-against-the-world card this week.

"I don't know that I see ourselves as a spoiler, to be quite honest with you," Kelly said Tuesday. "We have a great deal of respect for Stanford, and they've earned everything. They're a darn good football team. We see this as just another opportunity to play our last regular-season game. I know our guys are excited. It's a relevant game in November and it's on national television. That gets 18-21-year-olds' attention more than being a spoiler so to speak."

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI"It's a relevant game in November and it's on national television," Brian Kelly said. "That gets 18-21-year-olds' attention more than being a spoiler so to speak."
The stakes are high, but they are also unclear. The No. 6 Cardinal (10-1) are likely playing for a spot in a BCS-bowl game. The No. 22 Irish? At 8-3, there is a very remote chance they could jump eight spots and become BCS-bowl eligible themselves with a win -- with an emphasis on the very remote part.

More pressing, however, is the validation that would come with a road win over a top-10 opponent in the second year of a new regime, which would also give the Irish a chance at a 10-win season.

They finished last season on a four-game winning streak to go 8-5.

"Well, it's still about, for us, you know, preparing the right way and then performing on Saturdays," Kelly said. "I've said this a number of times. I like the way we've prepared. We haven't performed on Saturdays the way we need to consistently. We're showing that at times.

"This is just another one of those — it's not a referendum on our season, but it's another step towards where we want to be in consistency in November. We have done very well in November, and we want to continue to build on that in this game against Stanford."

Notre Dame has won all six of its November games since Kelly took over. The second-year Irish coach has actually won 16 straight regular-season contests in November and December, dating back to 2007, when he coached Cincinnati.

He has already faced quarterback Andrew Luck, the likely top NFL draft pick and a strong Heisman Trophy contender.

Luck has completed more than 70 percent of his passes this season, throwing for 2,937 yards, 31 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, and he will likely be playing the final home game of his career.

In a 37-14 win at Notre Dame last season, Luck was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

"Boy's under pressure more than anything else," Kelly said. "Some of the throws that he made against us last year. We brought an allout blitz inside the 15-yard line, and we had a freeblitzer and he just kept back-pedalling and hit a tight end on a choice route in the end zone.

"That's poise under pressure. He has the ability to make the throws when he's under duress as well. And to have that, you've got to have the skill, but also the utmost confidence in your ability. He has all this intrinsic things necessary to be a great quarterback."

The onus on Notre Dame's quarterback, Tommy Rees, may be heavier this week. Starting running back Jonas Gray's season is over after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Saturday, and a pair of unproven freshmen — George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel — will back-up junior Cierre Wood.

Freshman end Stephon Tuitt's status is uncertain after missing the last game with an illness as well.

"It's huge," Rees said after Saturday's game. "To go finish November strong, finish the season strong against a good opponent, and I think it would just give us some momentum heading into a bowl, and we look forward to it just like any other opponent. We can't focus too much on everything that's going around us. We're ready to play another football game."

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