The Irish face off against their highest ranked remaining opponent of the season in the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday. ASU features some interesting gameplay on the special teams front. Let's get into it. As a head's up, none of the GIFs here have been annotated. The ones I wanted to add annotations to had poor angle and the others I felt they spoke for themselves.
Arizona State has had limited opportunities to return kickoffs this season, as they only have 10 total on the year. This is very surprising, considering Amir has 19 on the year. Despite the low number, ASU has done their best to make the best of them. Kyle Middlebrooks has taken the bulk of the kick returns on the season, 7 for 174 yards, an average of 24.9 yards per return. His longest return was for 47 yards against Southern Cal. Kalen Ballage has taken 3 returns for 53 yards, a pedestrian average of 17.7 yards per return.
You can see on this return that Middlebrooks simply followed his lead blocker almost the whole way, eventually breaking this one to the outside. The hole was barely there but it was there and he did what every good kick returner does: just run full speed at it. The reason why I didn't annotate this is because I wanted to show that fact: Middlebrooks never changed speed until he was eventually tackled. He is a good return man and needs to be bottled up, assuming he gets any returns.
Kyle Middlebrooks has been Arizona State's best punt returner this season--3 returns for 19 yards, an average of 6.3 per return--but he is not the primary return man. That would be Damarious Randall, who has 6 returns for 6 yards on the season. Both Randall and Middlebrooks have a long return of 8 yards, so yes, that means Randall has lost yards on some of his returns. I could not find any video of Randall's return--it was against Bob Davie's New Mexico--but here is Middlebrooks' long return.
Yes, this is one of two punt returns that ASU has taken for a long return. Now, despite the fact that this seems simple and not a good return, there are some things to worry about. You can see at the outset, at the bottom off the kick, that ASU is doubling the gunner on the bottom. You can also see that the gunner up top is effectively double-teamed. Despite this great blocking on the outside, ASU did not get it from the middle, and there are 5 Stanford players crashing on Middlebrooks by the time he makes it 5 yards. Barring some sort of catastrophe in coverage, I anticipate similar outcomes for the Irish. ASU has playmakers at the return positions but they just have not shown consistent enough blocking for my liking.
ND Kick Return
Alex Garoutte is Arizona State's primary kickoff man. He has 52 kicks on the year for 3,186 yards, an average of 61.3 yards per kick. Despite the large number of kicks, Garoutte has one of the worst kick-to-touchback ratios that the Irish have seen all year: only 16 touchbacks to 52 kicks. That is 30.8%. Suffice to say, Notre Dame will get its fair share of kick returns on Saturday afternoon.
Against the Sun Devils this season, opponents have 34 returns for 778 yards, an average of 22.9 yards per return. For the first time all season, Notre Dame will be facing an opponent that has given up a kickoff return for a touchdown. This came in ASU's blowout loss against UCLA at the hands of Ishmael Adams.
This return, unlike the ASU one above, I slowed down in the middle just to show you how well Adams made cuts. You can see in his return that ASU was far too spread out, failed to keep their lanes, and took absolutely horrendous angles. Some players on this return (#4 and 12, for example) just appear to give up entirely. Adams made some excellent cuts, but this was just absolutely awful coverage. I am hoping we can get something like this to help us on Saturday. It is an outlier, obviously, but ASU has shown the ability to lollygag on special teams. If they have done it before, it is possible they do it again.
ND Punt Return
ASU's primary punter is Matt Haack. I say primary because they have used three punters, which I will address in a second. After watching ASU's game against Utah, I would have thought that Haack was hot garbage, but his stats are very good. He has 32 punts on the year for 1,361 yards, a fantastic average of 42.5 yards per punt. He has a blistering long of 64, only 3 touchbacks, 3 fair catches, 10 inside the 10, and 7 over 50+. The 7 over 50+ is the amazing stat to me, because that accounts for over 20% of his punts. This also means that he was punting from a far enough distance that he could get 50+ without a touchback. He is a fantastic punter. Fingers crossed that he punts like he did against Utah, because his numbers against the Utes (4 punts for 146 yards, average of 36.5 per punt) were significantly below his average.
As for ASU's opponents, based on the distance of the punts, you would assume there to be some "outkicking." And you would be right. I should note that Haack is very good at directing these kicks out of bounds. From above, you would think that there would be 26 returns (32 punts minus the 6 fair catches/touchbacks), but it is much less. Opponents have only 9 returns. However, these 9 returns have gone for a stunning 128 yards, an average of 14.2 yards per return. This is bolstered by one man, who had the longest return against ASU on the season. The longest return against ASU this year came at the hands of a familiar face: Nelson Agholor, from Southern Cal. Guess what happened.
You can see from this that ASU runs the spread punt formation (unlike Michigan) and like the kickoff coverage with UCLA, this punt coverage was too slow getting downfield, took poor angles, and failed to maintain lanes. Agholor takes this to the house with only a handful of clear blocks. He was untouched and essentially just ran straight forward at top speed. I said it above--that ASU has shown the ability to lollygag on special teams--and this is another example.
As for the other 9 punts that ASU has booted on the season? Those came from Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici. Yes, that's right, Todd Graham has been calling for pooch punts. And the QBs are not terrible at them. Kelly has 5 punts on the season for 169 yards, an average of 33.8 yards per punt. He has a long of 46(!) and 4 of his 5 punts have ended up inside the 20. None of his punts resulted in touchbacks. Mike Bercovici has 4 punts on the season for 140 yards, an average of 35 yards per punt. His long is 39, 2 of the 4 ended up inside the 20, and 1 resulted in a touchback. Just like ND is facing a lot of firsts this season, pooch punters might be one of them.
Here is one from Taylor Kelly that went for 43 yards just last week against Utah:
It is understandable why Graham does this, after seeing this play. Having a QB on the field, in this field position and that down and distance, forces teams to play it safe and not form a return and, on the other hand, gives his team the option to go for it. I am hoping ND has seen extensive gametape of this because this is a tricky play to defend successfully. What I would do is somewhat similar to what Utah did here: play it safe with the front 7, man coverage on the receivers, and drop a safety to try and prevent a kick from going too deep. What I wouldn't do is exactly what Utah did, because if Kelly decided to run an out to the TE/wingback, he possibly could have made the first down. I love long returns but it is better to be safe than sorry.
Zane Gonzalez is ASU's primary kicker. He is 14 for 17 on the season. He is 100% from inside the 40 (5-5 from 20-29, 6-6 from 30-39), 3-5 from 40-49, and 0-1 from 50+. His long on the season is 49 yards. Gonzalez's misses this season have come from 44 (vs. New Mexico), 48 (vs. Stanford), and 50 (vs. Utah). Kickoff man Alex Garoutte is 1 for 1, with his make from inside the red zone. 10 of ASU's 18 field goal attempts came against Stanford and Utah, with 2 of the three misses also coming in these games.
On the defensive front, ASU's opponents have not attempted many field goals. Opponents are 10-12 against ASU this season. 3-3 from 20-29, 4-5 from 30-39, 2-3 from 40-49, and 1-1 from 50+. A surprising 4 of these attempts came from Utah. Weber State and New Mexico did not attempt a single field goal. The low number means two things: either ASU is keeping teams out of field goal range, or teams are scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. Based on the scores against the Sun Devils (and the 51 punts against on the season), it is a combination of both.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below.