Arlington, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - There is no rest for the weary, as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, coming off a loss to nationally-ranked Oklahoma, must get right back at it, taking on the 22nd-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils in an intriguing non-conference neutral site matchup at AT&T Stadium in Arlington as part of the Shamrock Series.
Brian Kelly's Irish fell to 3-2 on the season with last week's 35-21 setback to the Sooners in South Bend. The loss ended a brief two-game win streak that saw the Irish knock off Big Ten foes Purdue (31-24) and Michigan State (17-13).
Todd Graham's Sun Devils are coming off their own big game, but they came out on the winning end, rolling to a 62-41 shootout victory over USC. With the win, ASU moved to 3-1 on the season and into the Top 25. The team's lone loss in 2013 came two weeks ago at No. 5 Stanford (42-28). This game concludes Arizona State's non-conference slate.
This is just the third meeting all-time between these two teams. Notre Dame has won both prior meetings, including the last one, a 48-17 rout in South Bend in 1999.
The Sun Devils rolled up 62 points on USC last weekend, more evidence of the team's offensive firepower. Arizona State comes into this game averaging 44.3 ppg (11th in the nation), fueled primarily by one of the most potent passing attacks in the country (seventh nationally at 358.8 ypg). While the team doesn't put up big numbers on the ground (146.3 ypg), ASU does possess the best scoring weapon in the country in tailback Marion Grice. The senior tailback is averaging a modest 64.0 yards per game, but he leads the nation in scoring at 18.0 ppg with 12 total touchdowns through four games (eight rushing, four receiving).
Taylor Kelly has been an efficient passer this season, completing 61.4 percent of his throws, for 1,370 yards, with 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. Jaelen Strong (31 receptions, 433 yards, two TDs) and D.J. Foster (22 receptions, 258 yards, one TD) are dangerous threats on the outside, while both Grice (22 receptions, 183 yards) and tight end Chris Coyle (11 receptions, 213 yards, two TDs) complete a potent array of weapons for Kelly.
The ASU defense has not had the same kind of success that the offense has. The Sun Devils are giving up 385.3 ypg (60th nationally) and have really struggled to stop opposing rushing attacks, allowing 192.3 yards per game (92nd nationally).
Graham is understandably concerned with his rush defense at this time.
Obviously we're not doing that well in that regard. I think in the inside running game, I think we've made vast improvements, most of it has been alignment issues on the perimeter, but most of their yards are being made on perimeter runs. I think most of it we can definitely fix."
Senior linebacker Chris Young leads the ASU defense in tackles with 29 total stops. Senior cornerback Osahon Irabor is second on the team with 20 stops, while tied for the team-lead in TFL (4.0). Senior safety Alden Darby (19 tackles) has been a ball hawk, with two interceptions and one fumble recovery to his credit. All-American lineman Will Sutton has struggled to match last season's production, with only 13 tackles, 2.5 TFL and one sack through four games.
Despite getting a career performance from tailback George Atkinson III, the Irish were unable to overcome an early 14-0 deficit and saw a seven-game win streak against the Sooners come to an end. Atkinson finished with a career- high 148 yards and one touchdowns on just 14 carries. Unfortunately, quarterback Tommy Rees had a horrible outing, completing just 9-of-24 passes, for 104 yards, with two TDs and three INTs.
Kelly was quick to point out it was failures across the board offensively that led to the loss.
"This is about 11 players. We don't execute on the offensive line in the first fumble, we don't run the right route. It's natural for everybody to go after the quarterback, but there's 11 players out there."
Still, the rushing attack was a welcome sight for a team that is netting a modest 134.6 yards per game on the ground. Conversely, Notre Dame's struggles in the passing game against Oklahoma were not the norm, as Rees has thrown for 1,215 yards and 10 TDs. Wideouts TJ Jones (25 catches, 346 yards, three TDs) and DaVaris Daniels (21 catches, 318 yards, four TDs) are a potent one-two punch downfield.
Despite the team's lack of consistency on the ground, Atkinson (7.1 ypc, two TDs), Cam McDaniel (3.7 ypc, two TDs) and Amir Carlisle (4.7 ypc) give the Irish several options in the backfield.
It was the Notre Dame defense that was the driving force behind its undefeated regular season last year and run to the BCS Championship Game. Things have changed in one year. Despite having All-American type talent throughout the defense, Notre Dame is allowing 23.8 ppg and 364.0 yards of total offense.
Linebackers Jarrett Grace (37 tackles), Carlo Calabrese (36 tackles, 4.0 TFL) and Dan Fox (29 tackles, 3.0 TFL) lead the way in the middle. Cornerback Bennett Jackson (31 tackles, 3.0 TFL, one INT) highlights the play in the secondary, while nose tackle Louis Nix III (19 tackles) and All-American end Stephon Tuitt (15 tackles, two sacks) are the players to watch up front.