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Franz: Journey far from over for ASU

The best team won the Shamrock Series.

Notre Dame didn’t win because it’s used to the moment and ASU isn’t. Arizona State did not choke. The Sun Devils didn’t collapse under the weight of the building or being the featured game on NBC. Arizona State lost because Notre Dame is better.

This is not a white flag blog. Most fans are tired of waiting for a national attention-grabbing win that isn’t marred by controversy. Frustration is mounting and there’s nothing wrong with it. On a macro-level, it is completely justified. However you choose to judge this game, there’s no getting around the fact the University of Notre Dame has a better football team this year than ASU does.

Notre Dame receivers TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels are better wide receivers than Robert Nelson is a cornerback. No matter what Todd Graham does schematically to hide Nelson, Notre Dame was able to exploit him.

The best way to protect the secondary is to get pressure. For the first time in years, the opposing interior offensive line was better than Will Sutton. This wasn’t a game where Will Sutton was getting held or constantly double-teamed or even cut-down. Will Sutton went up against a top-notch offensive line and wasn’t able to create pressure. Since Notre Dame had him contained, the other defensive lineman weren’t able to take advantage of the same mismatches they normally receive. Therefore, ASU had to try to manufacture pressure with a blitzing, which hurts a secondary that was getting beat by the receivers anyway.

This game was lost on the offensive side of the ball. Before discussing play-calling and game plan, one point cannot be emphasized enough: Notre Dame was the better team.

Accepting that point is important before moving on to address other issues. because if one team is better, the other team can only win through luck, extra hustle or tremendous scheme. Arizona State didn’t get any of those three. Mike Norvell did not fumble the football, Richard Smith did. Mike Norvell did not allow a punt to bounce in front of him and roll to the 1-yard line, setting up a need for a 99 yard drive.

Before saying anything about Mike Norvell, re-read the last paragraph.

Arizona State did not lose the game because of play-calling on Saturday. However, the game plan drawn up Sunday through Friday was a contributing factor. Arizona State was dominating on one drive. On that drive, ASU went horizontal.

Notre Dame is so thick on the defensive interior. The Sun Devils didn’t do enough in the first half to make the Irish defensive line run laterally. Huge defensive linemen want to run north and south. They can’t stand running east and west. They can’t stand repeatedly picking themselves off the ground because of a cut block on a sweep. Even if the play is only a two-yard gain due to speedy linebackers, the exhaustion takes a toll on the defensive line which will pay dividends in the second half. Arizona State never paid it forward.

In the second half, ASU’s offensive line was physically whipped by the Irish front. About 80 percent of that issue can only be fixed through recruiting. A coach can’t wish a player to be better. Sure you can coach them up but no matter what ASU coaches are teaching the present starters on the Devil offensive line, Notre Dame’s defensive line is better. Coach Norvell didn’t realize that during the week. There was never a reason to run any read-option plays. There was never a reason to “keep the defense honest.” Every play had to accomplish one of two goals: either gash them for yards or exhaust them sideline to sideline.

Mike Norvell is an excellent young coordinator. Mike Norvell will be a head coach at the college level. This game was a learning experience for an aggressive play-caller. Mike Norvell got the receivers open. His game plan was outstanding against Notre Dame’s secondary. The problem was ASU can’t take advantage of what’s going on in the defensive backfield if Notre Dame’s defensive line is in ASU’s backfield.

As a whole, this loss is not the end of the world. Arizona State didn’t play that well. Arizona State didn’t coach outstanding. Arizona State did nothing to show anyone other than UCLA is better than it is in the Pac-12 South.

That is not saying UCLA is better than ASU, it’s just that nothing has been proven. With UCLA’s win at Nebraska, it’s fair to speculate that UCLA is better heads-up, but it has the trio of Washington, Oregon and Stanford on its schedule.

Arizona State has a long way to go to be even a regional power. It does not have a long way to go to be Pac-12 South champions. Be frustrated. Be somewhat angry. Just don’t stop believing.