A bowl game in early October?
That's the kind of feel the Arizona State-Notre Dame game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. has. Neutral site? Check. Pro stadium? Check. National television? Check. A lot of talk about recruiting boons and expanding "brands?" Check and check.
More importantly for the Sun Devils, it's a chance to notch a signature win against a high-profile non-conference opponent. ASU comes into Saturday's game with a 3-1 record and fueled by the momentum of hanging 62 points on a good USC defense in a three-touchdown win over the Trojans last week. Notre Dame is 3-2, but not nearly the same team it was in 2012 when they played Alabama for the BCS National Championship.
When ASU has the ball
The Sun Devils offense, outside of a first-half collapse at Stanford in Week 4, has been operating at a high level all season long. ASU comes into the game ranked 15th in the nation in total offense (505.0 yards per game) and they've done it without a reliable running game. The Devils are 86th in the nation in running (146.3 yards per game) and are averaging just over four yards per tote.
But there is hope on the horizon in that department. ASU ran for 261 yards last week against USC, including 189 yards in the second half. Marion Grice was his normal reliable self, running for 63 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. D.J. Foster had a season-high nine carries for 50 yards and Deantre Lewis got into the act as well, running for 64 yards and a score on five carries, which included a 45-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter. Add in quarterback Taylor Kelly's re-emergence in the running game (79 yards on four carries), and suddenly ASU's rushing attack looks downright formidable. It will be tested against a Notre Dame run defense that has allowed only 16 rushing touchdowns in its last 35 games -- the fewest allowed in the FBS in that time span (Alabama has also allowed only 16.)
Passing hasn't been a problem for Arizona State, either. Kelly comes into this game ranked third in the nation, throwing for 342.5 yards per game. His favorite target has been sophomore Jaelen Strong, who has caught 31 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns in ASU's first four games. No wideout had more than 37 catches all of last season for the Sun Devils. The Kelly-to-Strong combination is the best Notre Dame will face all season, and the Irish will have to try to combat the back shoulder throw -- particularly along the right sideline -- which has been a staple of the ASU passing game all season long.
Notre Dame's defense features two potential 2014 first-round selections in tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. But the Irish's pass rush has been fairly non-existent in 2013 -- they've registered only four sacks in five games (166 pass attempts). That's tied for 115th in the nation. Tuitt, who led ND with 12 sacks in 2012, has just two so far in 2013. ASU has given up six sacks on the season, but didn't allow one in their win against USC, who had one of the best pass rushes in the nation entering the contest.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham preaches 100 percent ball security every week, and again, that will be key Saturday. Notre Dame has forced just five turnovers this season, while ASU has coughed up the ball on five occasions.
When Notre Dame has the ball
It's no secret the Irish miss quarterback Everett Golson, who is not with the team this season because of an academic suspension.
Golson completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, while also making plenty of plays with his legs. With Golson gone and Tommy Rees at the controls, Notre Dame no longer features that dual threat. Rees played well in his team's first three games, throwing for 969 yards and seven touchdowns while completing almost 61 percent of his passes. But in the last two weeks, the senior has struggled, completing just 39.7 percent of his passes. His three first-half interceptions against Oklahoma (including one which was returned for a touchdown) doomed Notre Dame's chances to beat the Sooners for a second-straight season. If the Rees who excelled against Temple, Michigan and Purdue shows up Saturday, it bodes well for the Irish.
Notre Dame features running back by committee, with George Atkinson III, Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle all carrying the load. Atkinson has the most big-play potential -- the junior is averaging 7.1 yards per carry and busted off an 80-yard jaunt against Oklahoma. As a team, Notre Dame averages 135.4 yards per game on the ground, which has them ranked 93rd in the nation.
Arizona State made improving against the run a priority in 2013, but the Devils' defense has been gashed on the ground in three consecutive games. Wisconsin ran for 231 yards, Stanford had 240 and USC piled up 247. The Sun Devils have also been victimized by the big play. In their last three games, ASU has allowed nine runs of 20 or more yards, including touchdown runs of 80 yards to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and 58 yards to USC's Justin Davis. Notre Dame may not have the same firepower at the running back spot as those other teams, but Atkinson, McDaniel and Carlisle are all capable of damaging ASU's defense in similar fashion.
A few members of the Arizona State defense set lofty individual goals for 2013. Namely defensive tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford -- who both stated in the preseason they are both chasing former Sun Devil Terrell Suggs' record of 24 sacks in a single season. Well, Mr. Suggs can breathe easy because that particular record is safe. Sutton has been the subject of constant double-teams and has not been as productive as he was in 2012 when he was named the Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Sutton did have two tackles for loss and a sack against USC. Like his teammate, Bradford has also stepped up his production in Arizona State's last two games, accounting for two sacks and three tackles for loss in that span.
Ball security is also key for Notre Dame. The Irish are 12-0 under Brian Kelly in games where they don't commit a turnover and are 26-4 in their last 30 turnover-free games.
The teams employ different personnel strategies in the kicking game. For Notre Dame, Kyle Brindza does it all. The junior has connected on 5-of-7 field goal attempts, has planted 13 of 26 kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks and averages just over 40 yards per punt.
Arizona State on the other hand, uses freshman Zane Gonzalez on field goals (6-of-9 on the season) and junior Alex Garoutte on kickoffs. Garoutte, who has 20 touchbacks in 32 kicks, has also become the Sun Devils' punter, mostly out of necessity. Graham has used junior college transfer Dom Vizzare and freshman Matt Haack for punting duty and the results were disastrous. None of the three have averaged more than 39.2 yards per punt.
Atkinson has been a threat for the Irish on kickoff returns, averaging 27.6 yards per this season and he's taken two back for touchdowns during his career. ASU has used four return men, with middling results, but have done a nice job on kickoff coverage, allowing just 18.8 yards per attempt, which is ranked 29th in the nation. Notre Dame is among the worst in the nation on kick return coverage, allowing 25.6 yards per attempt.
Arizona State finds themselves in a unique position. Many view the Sun Devils as the underdogs, based solely on comparative pedigree and the fact that Notre Dame played for a BCS title just ten months ago. But ASU actually enters the game as a five-to-six point favorite over the Irish.
The Sun Devils are at a disadvantage playing in such a high-profile game, but they should draw from their horrific first half experience against Stanford earlier this year. Graham apologized to anyone who would listen following the Cardinal's 42-28 win, saying that he didn't have his team prepared to play.
In a return to his old stomping ground, and with the nation watching, Graham's team shouldn't repeat history. I believe ASU will come out sharp, put early pressure on Rees and will notch another signature win.
Arizona State 30.....Notre Dame 20