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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Arizona State

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Ralph Freso

asu helmet

Notre Dame (+2.5) at Arizona State

Sun Devils Stadium in Tempe, Arizona

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Television: ABC

Series: 3-0-0 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's game against Arizona State.

5 Factoids

  • Scoring Average

Heading into this season there was talk that this could be Arizona State's best offense of the Todd Graham era, and maybe ever in school history in terms of scoring average. The Sun Devils averaged 38.4 points per game back in 2012 and 39.7 PPG last season, both good for Top 20 national rankings. Right now, the Irish have a higher scoring average (35.4) than Arizona State (34.4) which is interesting to see at this point in the season. Over their last 5 games ASU has only topped 30 points once and are averaging 26.8 PPG since week 5.

  • Game-Winning Field Goal

Last week against Utah sophomore kicker Zane Gonzalez hit his first game-winning field goal to boost his confidence in what is blossoming into a very productive career for the ASU kicker. Last year as a true freshman, Gonzalez hit both field goal attempts against Notre Dame and he connected on 4 last week against the Utes. For his career, he is 39 for 47 on field goal attempts. We'll see if Kyle Brindza can shake off his two misses last week and relatively disappointing 10 for 16 senior season in what should be a close game.

  • Forcing Turnovers

Most people think 'offense' when Arizona State or Todd Graham are brought up, however, last season the Sun Devils were one of the best defenses in the country at generating turnovers. In 2013 ASU gained 33 turnovers in 14 games but with a very young and much less experienced defense they've been unable to come close to that production this season. Through 8 games in 2014 the Sun Devils have only caused 11 turnovers and intercepted just 4 passes. Notre Dame, which had serious problems for the bulk of the Diaco era generating turnovers, has been able to do a little better this year under Brian VanGorder with 16 gained in 8 games with 12 interceptions.

  • Big Game Ability

With lots of talk lately about strength of schedule and the college football playoff poll it's interesting to note how many challenges Arizona State has faced in recent years. Over their last 22 games going back to the beginning of last season the Sun Devils have faced 9 teams that were ranked (in 2013) or are currently ranked. This will be ASU's 10th game against a ranked team in just over a year and a half--that's quality competition.

  • Getting Them Touchdowns

I talked above about Arizona State's scoring average above and one of the issues this year is settling for field goals once they reach the red zone. So far in 2014 they are tied for 22nd nationally in red zone scoring but only Oklahoma State is a team above them with a worse touchdown percentage. The Sun Devils are only converting 55.2% of their attempts into touchdowns (89th nationally) a problem Notre Dame has known well in the past but have improved greatly this year with Golson back under center.

4 Players to Watch

  • RB D.J. Foster

The junior from Scottsdale made 13 starts last year sharing time with Marion Grice (6th round pick, San Diego) in a two-back offense that saw Foster split out wide quite often. This season he's the primary running back (120 carries, 701 yards, 6 TD) but is still a huge threat to catch the ball with 38 receptions, 452 yards, and 2 more touchdowns. Through last week Foster has accumulated 3,333 yards from scrimmage over his career and may be the best all-around running back the Irish face this season.

  • WR Jaelen Strong

The redshirt junior from Philadelphia exploded on the national scene last year after playing a year in the JUCO ranked at Pierce College. At 6-3 he has very good height and plenty of speed to match. Now considered one of the top wideouts for the upcoming 2015 NFL Draft, Strong has totaled 132 receptions, 1,943 yards, and 15 touchdowns in his 22 career games in a Sun Devil uniform. You can expect Notre Dame to give him plenty of attention on Saturday.

  • CB Lloyd Carrington

A transfer from Pitt back in 2012, Carrington is now a redshirt junior and has made 10 career starts for the Sun Devils including every game this year. He's putting up solid stats with 34 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, and 3 broken up passes.

  • LB Laiu Moeakiola

This redshirt sophomore made 6 starts last year and is one of the few experienced members of the ASU defense. Moeakiola plays the SPUR position for the Sun Devils as a hybrid safety/linebacker and has totaled 43 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks, and 2 broken up passes.

3 Concerns

  • Giving up Negative Plays on Offense

Arizona State was tied for 6th nationally last year with 40 sacks and while they are down to 20 sacks in 8 games (tied-50th) this remains a very aggressive defense. Case in point, the Sun Devils are tied for 15th nationally in tackles for loss and were 9th last year. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson sends all different types of players into the backfield which is how Arizona State has 13 defenders who have at least 2 tackles for loss.

  • Adjustments on Defense

In case you haven't heard yet, Notre Dame lost its quarterback of the defense last weekend. Redshirt junior Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt will miss the rest of the season with a dislocated ankle which propels true freshman Nyles Morgan (and his 8 career tackles) into a starting role. Kind of concerning.

  • Pace of ASU's Offense

Notre Dame has done a good job utilizing an up-tempo offense on a consistent basis throughout the entire season. This is a first for the Brian Kelly-era and it's been a welcome addition to the offensive attack.

However, the defense now has to prepare for another offense that can hustle to the line and get snaps off with the best of them in the country. With Schmidt out--and the struggles we saw with the lack of substituting against North Carolina--the pace of ASU's offense is a major concern.

2 Sides of the Ball

Last week was the first game since the start of the 2013 season that Arizona State lost a starter on the offensive line due to injury. Former 5-star recruit and Auburn transfer Christian Westerman (6-4, 305) is a redshirt junior who missed the Utah game with a leg injury and was replaced at left guard by redshirt junior Stephon McCray (6-2, 305). Westerman is in his first year as a starter and is expected to be back for the game against the Irish.

At left tackle is 5th-year senior Jamil Douglas (6-4, 300) now in his third year as a starter having moved from guard to the edge during the off-season. Center Nick Kelly (6-2, 290) is a redshirt junior and former JUCO recruit in his first year as a starter. On the right side of the line redshirt junior Vi Teofilo (6-3, 305) will be making his 26th straight start at guard while 5th-year senior Tyler Sulka (6-4, 295) is making his 24th straight start at tackle.

The Sun Devils did not bring back anyone from 2013 along their defensive line who made the majority of the starts at their position. Todd Graham typically employs a 4-2-5 defense although in recent weeks he's been using a heavier front to get some added size on a young defense.

Junior Jaxon Hood (6-0, 300) is the most experienced having made 6 starts at nose tackle last year. He's made every start there in 2014 and has 10 tackles with 2.5 for loss. Also on the interior true freshman Tashon Smallwood (6-0, 275) has made 6 starts this season with 7 tackles and 1.5 TFL. You may remember, Notre Dame scouted Smallwood very hard last year but he never made a visit to South Bend. Also adding depth inside is redshirt junior and former JUCO recruit Demetrius Cherry (6-5, 300) with 12 tackles and 1 TFL, sophomore Vi Latu (6-2, 260) with 8 tackles and 1.5 TFL, plus the massive redshirt junior Mo Latu (6-2, 360) with 4 tackles.

On the edge senior and former JUCO recruit Marcus Hardison (6-4, 300) is in his first year as a starter and has racked up 30 tackles, 7.0 TFL, and 5 sacks. Arizona State's hybrid DEVIL position has been split between redshirt sophomore JUCO recruit Edmond Boateng (6-3, 265) who has made 5 starts with 15 tackles, 4 TFL, and 2 sacks plus redshirt junior and former JUCO recruit Antonio Longino (6-2, 230) with 51 tackles, 5 TFL, and 1 sack. When the Sun Devils go to their heavy front--which we may see plenty of this weekend--the staff likes to play Hardison at defensive end, Cherry as a jumbo end, with Mo Latu and Hood eating space in the middle and Longino moving out to weak-side linebacker.

UPDATE: Jaxon Hood is not expected to play this weekend due to some personal issues. Demetrius Cherry missed last weekend's game against Utah after being arrested for DUI although he's been practicing with the first team defense this week and is likely to play against the Irish.

1 Prediction

The major story line for Arizona State heading into 2014 seemed to be a limitless offense but a program that needed to work some serious miracles on defense following the loss of nearly everyone on that side of the ball. Here's what I had to say during our summer preview of the Sun Devils:

I've never previewed an Irish opponent that had to replace as much defensive talent as ASU does this fall. Zero defenders come back who started every game last year. Only two players (5th-year senior safety Damarious Randall with 9 starts and redshirt sophomore linebacker Salamo Fiso with 10 starts) return after having started more than half of the games in 2013.

That leaves the Sun Devils looking to fill 9 new positions on defense. 10 out of their top 12 tacklers are gone. 34 out of their 40 sacks are gone. 83.5 out of their 9th best nationally 101 tackles for loss are gone. In total just 33 starts return from the entire defense from 2013. That is unbelievably crazy.

Being forced to replace all that production on defense while returning several key playmakers on offense has made it interesting to see the former unit exceed expectations and the latter be a little disappointing.

Having quarterback Taylor Kelly miss 3 starts hasn't helped the offense, although backup Mike Bercovici played pretty well in his absence. Since Kelly came back the offense has averaged only 5 yards per play and a combined 43 points against Washington and Utah.

The UCLA game in week 5 was an enormous black eye as the team gave up 62 points. However, the defense has only given up 30+ points in one other game (USC, 34 points) and that game against the Bruins is one of the strangest so far this season. Even though ASU did give up 580 yards at 10 yards per play (yeah, not good) they had 19 more first downs and actually out-gained UCLA but all of these events happened as presented here in chronological order:

  • Lost a fumble on their own 31-yard line
  • Gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass
  • Threw a pick at the UCLA 23-yard line
  • Threw a 95-yard pick six
  • Gave up a second 80-yard touchdown pass
  • Gave up a 100-yard kick return TD
  • Lost a fumble on their own 23-yard line
  • Turned the ball over on downs at the UCLA 26-yard line
  • Turned the ball over on downs at the UCLA 1-yard line
  • Turned the ball over on downs at the UCLA 44-yard line

That was infuriating just to type, I'd be inconsolable to sit through that entire debacle as a fan.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for Week 11

S&P 22 29
S&P Offense 17 34
S&P Defense 27 33
FEI 25 14
FEI Offense 35 8
FEI Defense 16 40
GE 16 38
F/+ 22 21

There was some hope in the pre-season that this would be a shoot-out and Notre Dame's offense would simply be too much for a green Arizona State defense. That defense has actually gelled pretty well over the last month giving up only 4.3 yards per play with none of their last 3 opponents topping 300 total yards.

Now, most Irish fans would hope that this year's offense under Golson is better than last year under Tommy Rees. And for as well as the ASU defense has gelled not many teams in the history of football have replaced 9 starters on defense and truly improved the following season. Last year, Notre Dame had a solid 424 yards and 5.65 yards per play against the Sun Devils, but more importantly, limited ASU to just 4 tackles for loss and 0 sacks--both tied for season lows by their defense in 2013.

This game is getting a lot of national attention for its Body Blow Theory from Bruce Feldman. Long story short, Notre Dame has been incredibly underwhelming the game after playing Navy with a 2-5 record going back to 2007. What's interesting is that all of those games came against decidedly average (or worse) teams. This weekend will be the first post-Navy opponent that should get all of Notre Dame's attention.

Very rarely do I think a win or loss can be broken down into one aspect of a football game but if this one can be it's whether or not Notre Dame succeeds in harassing quarterback Taylor Kelly. Last year he was sacked 6 times by the Irish, held to 5 rushing yards on 12 carries, and that seemed to take Arizona State's rushing game (65 yards) completely out of the game and neuter their explosive offense. The result was only 20 offensive points by ASU before a late garbage touchdown.

This game is a very tough call. Arizona State is dying for a win to propel them in national relevance and they have the opportunity to do so this weekend. Looking at the matchups and the talent levels of each team I think Notre Dame should win this game but big games hardly go to script on paper.

There are a bunch of factors outside of the stats that point to a ASU victory. They're at home, the line has been steadily moving in their favor all week, and this has looked like Notre Dame's most likely loss out of their last 4 games. This is one of those games where the difficult to discern psychology of college football's emotions and passion has me sensing a victory for Arizona State.

The loss of Hood is good news for the Irish but it doesn't even out the loss of Joe Schmidt. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the second straight overtime game for ASU.

Notre Dame 34

Arizona State 38