USC v Arizona State

And in that corner… The Arizona State Sun Devils

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Forgive Arizona State head coach Todd Graham for feeling comfortable at a job. For the first time in a few years, Graham might actually put down some roots, quickly reinvigorating the Sun Devil football program with a new approach after Dennis Erickson failed to return the program to its glory days.

Graham took over the Sun Devils and won eight games last year, blowing out Navy in the Kraft Hunger bowl to finish the season on a three game winning streak after a four-game slide nearly derailed a 5-1 start. The expectations were raised heading into the season, with the Sun Devil offense looking the part of an Pac-12 dark horse and Graham’s reputation as a defensive guru helping to erase some concerns up front.

The team’s decisive loss to Stanford made it clear that the Sun Devils weren’t quite ready to run among the elite of the Pac-12, but Graham’s knockout blow of USC will likely be something that carries this program forward — with Lane Kiffin’s proverbial kill shot the envy of fans everywhere, and something that clearly put ASU back on the national map.

To get us ready for Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game, I swapped questions with Cody Ulm of House of Sparky. I did my best to answer his questions over there while he took the time to answer some of mine here.

Hope you enjoy.

1) First things first: Where did that second half explosion come from and were there signs it was coming?

In no way did anyone see that coming. Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor had two huge turnovers that gave the Sun Devils the ball with premium field position late in the first half and they had to settle for field goals. Then, the Trojans came out of the locker room looking unstoppable with a 46-second drive to retake the lead. So the timing of USC’s implosion and Arizona State’s finest hour couldn’t have been more odd.

In a way though, that’s what makes Arizona State such a scary proposition for opponents. No, 28-7 third quarter runs aren’t going to happen on a regular basis because I doubt any team could face plant quite in the same way as the Trojans did. But in that quarter, the Sun Devils had three scoring drives of under 1:20 and the fourth score was a Darby pick-six. On both sides of the ball, ASU is opportunistic and aggressive. And when you factor in that Arizona State’s tempo is Oregon-esque when they execute properly, those type of outbursts are always a palpable possibility.

2) Notre Dame might not face a better quarterback than Taylor Kelly this season. He seems like quite a story as well, a little known two-star prospect that might be the best QB in the Pac-12. An accurate passer also looked like a potentially lethal dual-threat player as well. How well suited is he for Todd Graham’s offense?

Depending on how you feel about Kevin Hogan, I think that first statement just might be dead-on. But to answer your question, there isn’t a more ideal quarterback for Graham’s system. Coach Graham loves to put the pedal to the metal with his “high octane” offense. And to accomplish that, he needs a quarterback who consistently makes quick decisions and always makes the most of what the defense gives him. That’s precisely what Kelly does.

In a perfect world, Graham would probably like his quarterback to have a bit more arm strength. That said, I can’t remember I time that Kelly’s arm has actually cost ASU a game. And now that Arizona State has given him a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Jaelen Strong this season, he’s now finally the type of quarterback who can carry his team to victories. The Devils are only four games in to the 2013 season but the Kelly-Strong connection is already one of the most deadly combinations in the nation. The duo has the back shoulder pass down on lock, which allows the offense something to fall back on when all else fails.

The biggest knock on Kelly has been his play away from Sun Devil Stadium. For whatever reason, he just never seems to be in his comfort zone on the road. He’s always less aggressive, more prone to mistakes and it takes him far longer to get into a rhythm. So that’s certainly something to watch for this weekend. Also, the “dual-threat” moniker hasn’t held true this season before the USC game. While he’s never had blazing speed, he’s always at least been an instinctive runner who makes the right reads. This year, he has chosen to display that less often. He’s keeping far less read options and relying on his progressions instead of tucking and taking off. Of course, his rushing hot streak could carry over into this week because, as you touched on, Notre Dame has been burned by quarterbacks on the ground this season.

3) Speaking of the Sun Devils head coach, how have ASU fans warmed to Graham? He came to Tempe with a “unique” reputation, especially in Pittsburgh. What are the early returns?

Plain and simple, this fan base has fallen in love with Graham. He’s already being labeled as the savior of Arizona State football and it’s not just because of his product on the field. He’s infused tradition into a program sorely lacking a identity. Just by doing little things like throwing the game ball into the stands and reestablishing the beloved Camp Tontozona, he’s gotten each and every Sun Devil firmly in his corner. And the fanbase is reciprocating. Just last week against USC, Graham admitted that he had to change the way his defense got their calls because the student section was so loud.

Don’t get me wrong, no one is claiming the man walks on water. Graham’s propensity to burn timeouts on defense has become a running joke among ASU fans. And he still makes some baffling decisions from time-to-time (like that pooch-punt against Stanford). But those are minor gripes when you factor in all he’s done for the program in just under two years. He certainly earned his extension in my eyes.

4) The two best defensive tackles in the country might be on the same field this weekend. How has Will Sutton dealt with the high expectations heaped on him entering the season? What’s your assessment of the defense as a whole this year? Is the run defense this team’s achilles heel?

Entering last week’s game, I had been beginning to hear some unfair assessments of Sutton’s play. Some pundits were claiming that when he worked so hard to bulk up to 300 pounds this offseason, he put on “bad weight.” If I had to guess, those folks were just looking at the box scores.

Before last week’s two tackle for loss, one sack performance, the numbers weren’t exactly there for Sutton. But if these critics would have been watching the games, it would have been painfully obvious that Sutton was being double-teamed on probably 90% of his snaps (if not more). And when you factor in some of the individual All-American caliber talent along the offensive lines of Stanford, USC and Wisconsin, that certainly saying something.

As the nation saw last week, Arizona State’s defense can make some plays when Sutton gets rolling. But until they fix that run defense, they’re not going to be able to hang with the big boys. Honestly though, on a play-by-play basis, the run defense hasn’t been entirely awful. But just when you think they’re doing a good job limiting the damage, they’ll allow a huge 25-yard gain off the edge. And then another. And another.

I thought entering the season that the defensive line depth had improved but compounding injuries quickly sapped that theory. Arizona State will likely be missing their second best space eater in Jaxon Hood (hamstring) this weekend once again so expect Notre Dame to have no problem running wild. Yet as I said, this defense is opportunistic in every sense of the word. So if the offense gives them a big lead to work with or the turnovers begin to pile up, you can be sure they’ll take full advantage.

5) This offense looks dangerous. They move quickly, they put up points in a hurry, and when things are clicking, you see coaches get fired at airports. Juco transfer Jaelen Strong has gone over 100 yards in three straight games. Marion Grice had a dozen touchdowns in September. Do you think this weekend turns into a shootout?

Well, it takes two to tango, so it will be a shootout if Notre Dame is able to keep pace. And at this point, I don’t see that happens. From what I’ve seen, the Irish just aren’t built to compete that way. If they’re going to hang with Arizona State, they’ll have to get them out of their high-speed comfort zone early and force some three-and-outs.

I’d say stopping the run is key for Notre Dame but so far, we’ve seen Arizona State succeed despite not hitting their ideal yard-per-carry. I know this may be strange to hear considering his statistics but outside of the red zone, Grice isn’t actually living up to expectations. After averaging 6.6 yards per carry last season, he’s down to 3.9. Even though some poor blocking is to blame, Grice’s unparalleled vision just hasn’t consistently been there this year. Last week against USC, the run blocking was the best it has been and Grice took full advantage. Now, it’s just about carrying that over to Notre Dame. And I have my doubts that Dr. Disruptive, a.k.a Louis Nix, allows them to get that same push.

6) Lie Detector Test: What’d you think of the last minute referee work in the Wisconsin game? 

I wrote as soon as it happened that it was irresponsibly unacceptable on the part of the officiating crew to allow that to happen and I still firmly believe that. Their lack of urgency was embarrassing and Wisconsin fans had every right to be livid. That said, Arizona State played the better game and deserved to win. But as all sports fans know, just because you play the better game doesn’t mean you always win. The Badgers were primed to the steal that one due to Arizona State’s lackadaisical defense allowing a late drive with 1:36 left.

But what most didn’t factor in during all the commotion is that a walk-off field goal was far from a guarantee. The Badgers’ kicking game has been atrocious this season and Arizona State can certainly get some interior push from time-to-time with Sutton paving the way. And from the feedback I heard, Wisconsin fans definitely understood that. There are always going to be those rabid fanatics who say they got robbed in these type of situations but I’d like to compliment the Badger fanbase as a whole for handling it with so much class. We had a substantial amount of Wisconsin fans come over to our site to congratulate Arizona State fans and share their perspectives. Not to bag on Sun Devil fans but I’m not sure they would have handled it similarly if the shoe was on the other foot.

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For more good stuff on the Sun Devils and the run up to the Shamrock Series, check out House of Sparky, @HouseofSparky and @CodyUlm

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”