Tempe, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) – An intriguing Top-25 showdown is set in the
desert on Saturday afternoon, as the 11th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils
close out their non-conference slate with a showdown against the eighth-ranked
Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Sun Devil Stadium.
Brian Kelly’s Irish have certainly not shied away from competition this season
and this contest represents more of the same. Notre Dame has a marquee win
over Stanford on its resume, while its lone loss on the season came in the
waning moments of its clash with No. 2 Florida State in Tallahassee a few
weeks ago (31-27). The Irish were able to get some distant from that heart-
breaking loss to the Seminoles with last week’s 49-39 shootout victory over
Navy, moving the team to 7-1 on the season.
Todd Graham’s Sun Devils are an identical 7-1 on the year. ASU’s lone loss
came on Sept. 25 against UCLA (62-27), but the team has reeled off four
straight wins since, moving to 5-1 in the Pac-12 with last weekend’s 19-16
overtime win against Utah. The Sun Devils control their own destiny in the
Pac-12, sitting atop the South Division standings.
Notre Dame has won all three previous meetings with Arizona State, including a
hard-fought 37-34 decision last year in Arlington, TX.
The team’s 49 points last week against Navy wasn’t surprising. Notre Dame’s
offensive numbers have been stellar this year, with the team averaging 35.4
ppg on 458.2 yards of total offense. Balance has been the key, with 169.4
yards coming on the ground and 288.9 through the air.
The key has been the return of quarterback Everett Golson, who missed all of
2013. Golson has played well this year, completing 62.8 percent of his passes,
for 2,311 yards and 22 TDs. He has added seven more scores on the ground as
one of the nation’s top dual threats.
Tailback Tarean Folston headlines the ground attack. After amassing 149 yards
in the win over Navy, Folston now has 532 yards on the year with three TDs, on
5.2 yards per carry.
Wideouts Will Fuller (46 rec, 599 yds, 9 TDs) and Corey Robinson (29 rec, 393
yds, 4 TDs) have formed a solid pass-catching duo down the field for Notre
Notre Dame has had more ups than downs on the defensive side of the football
this season, although they have been vulnerable at times. The team is giving
up 21.6 ppg this year, allowing 359.1 yards per game.
The play of the linebackers fuels the Irish defense. Former walk-on Joe
Schmidt leads the team in tackles with 65 total stops. He also has a pair of
interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles to his credit. The most talented
defender on the roster however, is linebacker Jaylon Smith (59 tackles. 6.5
TFL. 2.0 sacks), whose sideline-to-sideline pursuit is evident each and every
The Sun Devils have a knack for moving the ball at will and have been highly
successful both via the run (192.5 ypg) and the pass (292.1 ypg), leading to a
healthy 34.4 ppg.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly was supposed to have a huge season in Tempe this
year, but he was sidelined by injury for a few games. The 6-foot-2 senior
signal caller has found his way back to the field though. He has completed
59/2 percent of his throws in five games, for 1,010 yards and nine TDs.
Graham knows keeping Kelly on the field is obviously important to what ASU
wants to do.
“He’s a winner, he’s getting better every rep and we have to do a better job
protecting him. He is not our team, he is a part of our team, so we just have
to get prepared and get better.”
It will certainly help down the stretch to lean on All-America candidate
Jaelen Strong on the outside. The 6-3 junior wideout is one of the nation’s
best, hauling in 57 balls thus far, for 821 yards and eight TDs.
Junior tailback D.J. Foster handles the lion’s share of the carries for ASU,
with 701 yards and six TDs on 5.8 yards per touch.
Brian Kelly is aware of ASU’s weapons on offense.
“Taylor Kelly back in the lineup really changes things, I think, in terms of
his ability to run the football,” said Kelly. “Extremely elusive and looks for
Jaelen Strong, who is as good as any wide receiver in the country. Big,
athletic, fast, reminds me of Michael Floyd. Just big, athletic, strong,
hands, goes up and gets the football.”
Arizona State played top-notch defense last week against Utah, but the team
has been a little more generous on the year, allowing 24.1 ppg on 385.2 yards
of total offense by foes. The team has been vulnerable to the run, allowing
180.9 yards on 4.4 yards per carry.
Safeties Jordan Simone (73 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 FF, 1 FR) and Damarious
Randall (73 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FR, 2 FF) are tied for the team-lead
in stops. Linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (43 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) and end
Marcus Hardison (30 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks) are active upfield.
Graham knows what this game means.
“It would be silly to think of this as just another game, it definitely isn’t
to me. I grew up a football fan and getting an opportunity to a play a team
like this late in the year is a big deal, and these are the kinds of games you
want to coach in, and our players want to play in.