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ASU Game Review: Still Perfect in the Shamrock Series

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A review of Notre Dame's 37-34 win over Arizona State in Arlington, Texas.

Ronald Martinez

The play-calling still leaves us scratching our heads, there were a few too many penalties, but a nice team effort led to a win over a ranked opponent before heading to the bye week.

Play Call of the Game: Jones 8-yard TD Reception from Rees

Typically this will be a great play-call but other times it's just a big play that the team really needed. This one is the latter.

The Irish had just given up a big 36-yard touchdown pass to Arizona State on third down and took possession with just 1:25 left in the first half. Trailing by 6 points Notre Dame was able to drive 63 yards down to the Sun Devil 8-yard line. With just 16 seconds left in the half Rees found Jones in the end zone, Brindza tacked on the extra point, and the Irish went into the break leading and really changed the complexion of the game with this score.

Armchair Quarterback

As always, things never appear as crazy and boneheaded upon a second viewing of the tape. I'll focus on the empty sets and a few other play-calls.

Rees threw the ball from 20 empty sets on a total of 38 pass attempts. Yeah, that seems like a ton but that includes 7 empty sets on the last series of the first half when there was very little time and they ended up scoring a touchdown anyway.

So, 13 empty set throws on 12 other drives really isn't egregious although I still think it's being over-used. Here are some things I focused on:

  • Drive 3, 3-0 ASU, 3rd & 11 from the Sun Devil 38

This situation screams for a draw (or run play) to set up a nice opportunity for a 4th down conversion or a field goal opportunity. Instead, an empty set incompletion and a punt.

  • Drive 8, 17-13 ND, 1 & 10 from the Sun Devil 43

This was immediately following TJ Jones' 27-yard punt return(!!!) and the Irish were slowly beginning to take all the momentum in the game. Again, creeping towards field goal territory and the Irish throw 3 straight incompletions---the latter two both from empty sets. They punt the ball in ASU territory again.

  • Drive 10, 24-13 ND, 3rd & 10 from the Irish 25

This is 20/20 vision, but Notre Dame is nursing an 11-point lead as the fourth quarter begins. Kelly called a couple of runs by McDaniel to start this drive but they only netted 5 yards. Then a false start by Watt backs them up another 5 yards. A run play probably wasn't going to get the first down but going real conservative here and punting the ball when your defense was beginning to turn it on wouldn't have been a bad idea. Throwing a pick six (from an empty set) was the worst thing possible.

  • Drive 13, 30-27 ND, 3rd & 9 from the Sun Devil 49

This play wouldn't have been as controversial if not for the way it played out. Another inaccurate sideline pass that had no chance of working. In these situations, like the ones above, it's perfectly fine for a coach to get conservative, run the ball, and force the opponent to use their last timeout.

Turning Point: Dan Fox 14-yard Interception Return for Touchdown

There's been a bunch of discussions about Fox going down after picking Kelly's pass off, but a 10-point lead with 1:08 sealed the deal nonetheless.

Surprising Stat: 6 sacks

We're allowed to sack the quarterback again!

In a weird twist of fate Prince Shembo is now not very far off his 2012 sack pace following 3 sacks against Arizona State. Credit to the defense for really taking Kelly's wheels out of the game as well as getting after him in the passing game. The ASU signal-caller finished with just 5 yards on 12 carries thanks mostly to those sacks taking away 45 yards.

Unheralded Star: Ben Koyack

Mostly because he's been playing well over the past 6 or 7 quarters and he finally scored his first career touchdown. I'd also throw Cam McDaniel's name in the mix here, too. He wasn't always effective but he had several very important runs in this game and finished with a healthy 82 yards on 15 carries.

Missed Opportunity: Rees Pick Six

I truly thought anything but a turnover on that drive keeps momentum on Notre Dame's side and could have led to a much more comfortable victory.

Bad Flag of the Game: DaVaris Daniels False Start

Daniels has been getting his fair share of tongue lashings in recent weeks as there's some sort of disconnect between him and Rees on several plays over the past two games.

False starting as wideout didn't endear Double-D to Kelly one bit.

Rees Reaction

It was an okay performance from Rees. Obviously his pick six was awful and came at a bad moment---when do they ever come at a good moment? He also nearly threw another pick six early in the game on a screen pass to TJ Jones.

Still, he had 3 touchdown passes and had his moments as he usually does when not facing a great defense. Rees also moved around in the pocket fairly well, and along with the O-line, prevented Arizona State from registering any sacks. Further, his pass down the sidelines to TJ Jones in the second half might have been his best pass in his career.

It's just so hard to be a good team on offense when you have 21 incompletions. 279 yards on 17 completions is nice productivity but the offense is still throwing so many plays away. It's amazing that they could average 5.7 yards per play when 28% of your total plays are incomplete passes.

Red Zone TD Success: 50%

Converting touchdowns on half your attempts in the red zone doesn't look too great but when you get points in all four opportunities it feels a little better. The Irish also scored a touchdown from the Arizona State 21-yard line but also missed a field goal from the ASU 21-yard line.

Fun fact: The Fighting Irish entered Arizona State territory on 11 of 13 drives, including on all 6 drives to begin the game. The Rees interception was one drive that didn't cross mid-field and the 7th drive of the game that started with Atkinson losing 9 yards on a rushing attempt was the other.

Trench Analysis

The run blocking was solid and handled most of the ASU blitzes off the edge really well. The team only netted 146 yards on 36 non-kneel down carries but the offense lost a whole 20 yards on a handful of carries due to mostly bad decisions and poor cuts by running backs.

The pass blocking remains phenomenal and for the first time in the Todd Graham era the Sun Devils were held without a sack. The huge blemish on the offensive line was 7 penalties---5 false starts and 2 illegal snaps. That has to be cleaned up ASAP.

The defensive line really played up to their potential on Saturday keeping Marion Grice in check on the ground (12 carries, 51 yards) and harassing quarterback Taylor Kelly, especially in the second half. Notre Dame finished with 7 tackles for loss and the aforementioned 6 sacks.

Freshmen Update

5-star sensation Jaylon Smith had the best game of his career leading the team with 9 tackles, and chipping in 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass breakup, and several super athletic plays.

The usual suspects are still getting in games: Elmer, Rochell, Luke, Fuller, and Robinson on offense and defense plus Butler, Redfield, Onwualu, and Folston on special teams.

Final Thoughts

Damn proud of this team winning this game with their backs against the wall and the fan base ready to revolt if 3-3 came to fruition. 4-2 heading into the break is right where many thought this team would be after losing Golson. With all the doom and gloom suddenly 9-2 heading into Palo Alto doesn't seem that crazy.

That's a very tough break for such a good kid and an improving player. The Irish will have to lean on Calabrese and Fox for the rest of the season but if you weren't sweating about the middle for 2014 this injury by Grace should make you wipe your brow.

Perhaps an even tougher break for Smith who sees his career come to an end after breaking his ankle.

This will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks. My sense is that they will still try to preserve Deeb's redshirt if they can. That means Kendall Moore is going to need to step up.

The safety play has been by far the worse position on this entire team. Hopefully the bye week provides an opportunity for Max Redfield to make a move.