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Arizona State Review: Mistakes Under the Sun

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Notre Dame couldn't get out of its own way on Saturday.

Christian Petersen

Notre Dame got off to one of the worst starts in recent memory, battled back with courage, but saw the whole house of cards topple late in the loss to Arizona State.

Play-Call of the Game: Golson 25-yard Touchdown Pass to Carlisle

The last Irish touchdown of the game closed the gap to 34-31 and was a beautiful play-call. Arizona State was playing aggressive in the secondary all day and Notre Dame finally got them to bite on a fake screen pass. Carlisle sold the play really well and burst past the defensive backs to score the most wide open touchdown of the year.

Armchair Quarterback

I believe most people are more concerned with the fumbles than the interceptions and I have to concur. Golson had 4 more interceptions on Saturday to take him to 11 on the season. On the surface this seems terrible but I'm still not too concerned about the picks being a long-term problem. They mentioned it during the broadcast but Golson was the school leader in interception ratio and he's never had a big problem throwing 'bad' picks. Even on Saturday he had 2 balls tipped off defenders, a third off his own receiver, and the fourth while being hit. You can't be happy with that many turnovers but there is some comfort in knowing that these aren't bad decision interceptions. Golson isn't making poor reads, delivering the ball with bad accuracy, or throwing the ball right at a defender.

Here are my primary concerns. The Arizona State gameplan (props to them) worked really well. They sent blitzers to fluster Golson and sat their ends to disrupt passing lanes. It was kind of like Golson Kryptonite. It unnerved him early in the game and he's not tall enough to be more effective passing over defenders or finding different passing lanes like shorter quarterbacks Drew Brees and Doug Flutie made a living out of throughout their careers.

Speaking of his height, it's a problem for Golson insofar as it's preventing him from taking that step from very good to great. Mentally I have no doubt that Golson has improved a lot compared to 2012 but he's still not stepping up into the pocket when pressured (IMO his single biggest problem), still floats to the sidelines while making dangerous spins away from chasing defenders, and isn't comfortable when blitzers are coming at him. Now, some of this is the line not playing too well but that's another story but Golson doesn't make life easy in this regard. Take those three criticisms above and I believe it's a virtual guarantee that he'll get poor draft grades from the NFL. Golson is full of immense talent but he's not at all ready to face NFL defenses at this point.

Now, Golson did mostly carry the offense with a career high 446 passing yards. So it's difficult to throw him under the bus completely. It wasn't like this was a major group effort to rally back into the game in the second half. He had no run game helping him out and a line unable to provide consistent protection. Golson started the game 5 for 5 but then went into a huge funk (0 for 6, 1 interception, 1 pick six, 1 lost fumble) that lasted most of the first half. From there on out I thought Golson showed a lot of poise in bringing the team to within 3 point of the home team. He was 16 of 24 for 387 yards from the beginning of the first touchdown drive right up to the last interception off Corey Robinson's hands. That's a really impressive amount of playmaking in about 26 minutes of football.

Turning Point: Demario Richards' 4-yard Touchdown Reception

Once the Irish scored to make it 34-31 it felt like the game had officially turned in Notre Dame's favor. The Sun Devils hadn't scored since late in the second quarter and hadn't put the ball in the end zone since 11:12 left in the second quarter.* They were on the verge of coughing up what would have been the second biggest comeback in FBS history when they took over on their own 25-yard line.

This drive was a complete dagger in Notre Dame's heart. D.J. Foster carried the ball quickly 3 times in a row for 31 yards before Taylor Kelly hit Richards for a 40-yard reception. Being able to hold ASU to a field goal would have been heroic but it wasn't meant to be as the Sun Devils scored on the very next play. That put the home team up by 10 with just over 4 minutes left and looking back felt like the beginning of the end.

*Upon review even I had forgotten that Arizona State was sitting at 31 points just under 19 minutes into the game. It's a small consolation but the Irish were lucky ASU didn't score 70 points and instead gave up the most points since the 1985 Miami game and not the most ever in school history. Things were downright scary early in the second quarter and the team deserves credit for stopping the bleeding until the fourth quarter.

Surprising Stat: 11 Pass Plays of 20+ Yards

One of the issues with the offense this year was the lack of big plays from scrimmage, especially out of the run game. That ground game didn't help again on Saturday with a 13-yard walk in the park early scramble by Golson being the longest for the Irish. That leaves Notre Dame still stuck at only 9 running plays of 20+ yards this season.

However, Golson was able to carve up Arizona State (hello, 20.2 YPC) and finished with 11 passes completed for at least 20 yards. Notre Dame now sits at 4th nationally with 47 passes of 20+ yards.

Unheralded Star: Amir Carlisle

With a career high 92 receiving yards Carlisle finally came back to life and found his groove again. He did that on only 3 receptions but displayed more speed, balance, and vision than I've ever seen out of him on the one catch where he carved his way through traffic down the sideline. He's never looked like a running back to me but he definitely did on that play.

Missed Opportunity: The Final Interception

I talked above about the turning point being the Arizona State touchdown to make it 41-31. It would have been tough but there was still some hope left when Robinson couldn't corral a pass at the ASU 42-yard line and it was taken back for the second pick six of the game. The Irish could have conceivably scored another touchdown on that drive to make it 41-38 with 3 minutes left and all 3 timeouts still in pocket.

Flag of the Game: Ineligible Receiver Downfield

What's that? This wasn't called at all on Arizona State's packaged play where Kelly kept the ball, acted like he was taking off, only to throw the ball down field?

Red Zone TD Success: 50%

This wasn't the game to regress in the red zone and that's exactly what happened. The first drive got down to the ASU 17-yard line before Golson lost 11 yards fumbling the ball. That drive stalled and the Irish settled for a field goal.

The next failed red zone opportunity came on the opening drive of the second half where on the 6th play of a 68-yard drive Golson was intercepted at the goal line. The final mistake came at the start of the fourth quarter when a drive got down to the 14-yard line but ended in a fumbled hold on a field goal attempt.

Schemes n Such

There were a lot of complaints in the first half that Kelly was getting out-coached. From a play-calling standpoint I don't know if I really agree with that sentiment. I thought this game was mostly was a lack of execution mixed with a very nice gameplan from Arizona State. Still, the offense did adjust well and finished with a healthy 6.2 yards per play and another 30+ point performance. With sack yardage removed, the offense went for 7.6 yards per play.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Kelly stay patient with the run game in the first half, although one could argue that was a mistake as Folston just could not get going on the ground. Up until the game was 31-3 the Irish had run 29 offensive snaps including 11 runs by Folston, 12 passes by Golson, 3 runs by Golson, and 3 sacks. Additionally, 4 out of those first 6 drives began with running plays by Folston.

However, when Folston could only gain 30 yards on those 11 carries and couldn't protect Golson that well he ended up on the bench. McDaniel was barely more effective with 24 yards on 9 carries, although 6 of those carries were all goal line carries on which he eventually scored 2 touchdowns. Once the game got to 31-3 the Irish running backs (well, just McDaniel) only got 3 non-goal line carries the rest of the game.

Some may have wanted more dedication to the run game at that point but if those who wanted such things were head coach they'd probably be dealing with a 48-13 loss.

Trench Analysis

You couldn't imagine a more dismal performance from the offensive line. Arizona State owned the line of scrimmage limited the Irish backs to just 54 yards on 20 carries. If that wasn't bad enough the line gave up an absurd 7 sacks. Some of those inevitably are on Golson's sketchiness in the pocket but the ND line did not hold up well at all to Arizona State's pressure, especially in the first half.

The play of the offensive line has been some of the most frustrating aspects to this team in 2014 and it gives me pause when looking toward 2015. The talent and recruiting are there--and nearly 600 rushing yards in the 3 games from North Carolina to Navy appeared to turn the season around--but this past weekend was a huge step backwards.

Coach Kelly assigned most of the loss to the offense (because turnovers, of course) and he is right in the sense that this was a game in which the Irish were going to have to out-score the Sun Devils. However, the run defense had some major break downs and couldn't control the game both early and late.

If I told you Taylor Kelly would only complete 17 passes for 224 yards I bet most would have believed Notre Dame would win this game. Yet, the Sun Devils out-rushed the Irish by 4.5 times and finished with 188 yards. When the game was closed to 34-31 it was really disheartening to see Arizona State rip off a couple long runs to get their mojo back.

Freshmen Update

Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, Justin Brent, Tyler Luatua, Nick Watkins, Drue Tranquill, Greer Martini, Grant Blankenship, and Andrew Trumbetti were the true freshmen to see the field on Saturday.

Morgan picked up his first career start and finished with 4 tackles. Trumbetti picked up his 3rd tackle for loss on the season.

Final Thoughts

  • The defense can't be held accountable for a pair of pick sixes and short fields against Arizona State but nevertheless the graduations, injuries, and suspensions have taken a toll on the unit. They've given up at least 5.5 yards per play in each of the last 4 games and have surrendered 42 points per game over that time span. It's not going to be easy to win out the rest of the regular season unless there is some improvement play by the defense.
  • Matthias Farely has somewhat quietly put up some impressive numbers this year. He's sixth on the team in tackles with 32 and also has 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, and 3 interceptions.
  • I've got plenty of pride for the way that the team fought back in this game and came close, briefly, to almost turning the tables and winning one of the biggest comebacks in college football history. I still think on the whole that Arizona State played better and deserved to win, though.
  • With the personnel losses duly noted, the shine appears completely off of Brian VanGorder's system. On Saturday the Irish only mustered 6 tackles for loss and 1 sack. We knew one of the defenses biggest weaknesses would be generating a pass rush and against ASU the 4-man front was rendered completely useless generating pressure on their own. Even the blitzes aren't as effective as they once were earlier in the season. The 1.62 sacks per game is only marginally better than the Diaco defense last year.
  • We've been talking about Notre Dame's improved red zone offense this year and while this weekend wasn't their best effort, that Irish defense hasn't been able to keep opponents out of the end zone much. Through week 11 the Irish are giving up 70.9% touchdowns when the opponent enters the red zone. That is tied for 114th in the country. The Sun Devils scored touchdowns on 4 out of their 5 red zone attempts.
  • Both Cole Luke and Devin Butler played shaky early but settled in and made some nice plays after that finishing with 5 combined broken up passes.
  • Jaylon Smith has officially entered sophomore slump territory. Since the start of the North Carolina game he has totaled just 22 tackles with 1 quarterback hurry and no tackles for loss or sacks.
  • Max Redfield had the quietest game-high 10 tackles I've ever seen.
  • The depth for pass catchers continues to be impressive. Six different players totaled at least 30 yards against ASU.
  • Notre Dame's scoring average dipped slightly after Saturday afternoon, however, the 34.9 points per game are currently 9th best for an Irish offense since 1960 and the second best since 1997.
  • No loss is easy to take. The team's ability to fight back and make it a game in the second half made this easier to swallow. Even though it was a 24-point loss on a big stage I don't think it would land on the Top 100 Worst Losses list from the summer, especially with a pair of pick sixes making that score look worse. Like Golson, this team is beautifully flawed. There is talent and ability to play very well but the cards just aren't lining up for a run to the playoffs. That's okay, the team is young and suffered too much attrition on defense. Moreover, we don't have to start looking to next year already and feel comfortable that we'll be awesome in 2015. This team still has a lot to prove in 2014 before we can start thinking about a big run next season. That run next year is not set in stone. Some more proof is needed in areas like the offensive line, limiting turnovers, and seeing if any young defenders like Nyles Morgan can turn some of their potential into reality.

Here's my projected Top 25 for the College Football Playoff Poll on Tuesday night:

  1. Mississippi State
  2. Florida State
  3. Oregon
  4. TCU
  5. Alabama
  6. Arizona State
  7. Baylor
  8. Ohio State
  9. Nebraska
  10. Auburn
  11. Ole Miss
  12. Michigan State
  13. Kansas State
  14. UCLA
  15. Arizona
  16. Georgia
  17. Notre Dame
  18. Clemson
  19. Duke
  20. Georgia Tech
  21. Wisconsin
  22. LSU
  23. Utah
  24. USC
  25. Miami