William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

Pregame Six Pack: The showdown in the desert


A tumbleweed blows by. Dust kicks up. Todd Graham saunters into the foreground, space-aged headset just off his cheek. Brian Kelly steps out from behind a saloon door. No, this isn’t the O.K. Corral, but Saturday’s (just after) high-noon showdown certainly has some drama baked into it.

Two teams will enter Sun Devil Stadium with hopes of joining College Football’s Playoff. Only one will exit. It’s not exactly Wyatt and Doc taking on the McLaury brothers, but the mid-afternoon showdown is one of the biggest games to come to Tempe in a long time, and Sun Devil fans are mighty excited.

So are the Irish. After stumbling through a hard-fought victory over Navy, Notre Dame gets another opportunity to beat a Top 10 opponent. This time, they’d be wise not to put victory in the hands of a back judge.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack before Saturday’s elimination game.


There are big games. And then there’s the Notre Dame game. Tempe will be ready to rock this weekend. 

In many ways, the best thing that ever happened to Notre Dame was former Sun Devils athletic director Steve Patterson taking to the radio waves to complain about Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick trying to move/cancel/whatever this football game.

Patterson, who high-tailed it out of Tempe to take the Texas AD job, called out Swarbrick last April on the radio and threw some Catholic guilt Notre Dame’s way.

“The school didn’t have the courtesy to have the athletic director (Jack Swarbrick) call the athletic director at ASU to discuss it,” Patterson said. “They had their PR guy call (ASU’s media relations office) to give us a message Friday afternoon while everybody was out of town at the Final Four.

“At least in the little Catholic town I grew up in — Beaver Dam, Wis. — the good nuns wouldn’t have thought that was a very appropriate way to honor your word.”

Whether that grousing was what saved the game or not (I’m guessing it probably did), the result is super beneficial to Notre Dame just 19 months later. The Irish get a much-needed opportunity to beat a “top team” in the selection committees eyes, and reboot their stalled out pursuit of a final spot in the first College Football Playoff.

Arizona State has that same opportunity, but also gets the type of big game that they hoped to host when they agreed to a three-game series. So while Patterson may come from the Dave Brandon school of athletic administration (, mark this down as one of the few times that taking it public paid off.


Now the featured back in the Irish offense, Tarean Folston has the opportunity to emerge as a star.

While last year’s victory over Arizona State was the team’s most impressive feat, it was a turning point in the wrong direction for running back George Atkinson. After serving as the silver lining against Oklahoma, when his 148 yards on 14 carries looked like a potential light-bulb moment for the inconsistent back, Brian Kelly gave Atkinson the opportunity to seal his role as the team’s featured back against Arizona State.

Facing a defense that was giving up yards by the bushel, Atkinson was expected to feast against the Sun Devils front seven. Instead, he ran for just 54 yards on 18 carries, as Kelly rode Cam McDaniel down the stretch, with McDaniel gaining 82 yards on just 15 attempts. That opportunity basically spelled the end for Atkinson’s chances, eventually opening the door for Folston to ascend to the No. 2 job, a role he inched up from as the season rolled on, turning into the team’s best back down the stretch.

One year later, Folston enters the Arizona State game this season looking to make a similar move. To his credit, he’s already done something an Irish back hasn’t done since 2006, run for over 120 yards in two consecutive games.

Against the 90th ranked rushing defense in the country, expect to see a steady diet of Folston, and to have the sophomore back introduce himself to a national audience.


The defense will run through Nyles Morgan. And we’ll get our opportunity to see how ready the young linebacker is for the spotlight. 

Thursday evening, Kelly updated the local media on the progress young linebacker Nyles Morgan made this week. And according to the head coach, Morgan is going to handle playcalling for the defense, a sign that Morgan is ready for the responsibility that comes with the position.

“Nyles handled pretty much all of the communication. He did a great job this week and he’ll be the guy making the calls out there,” Kelly confirmed.

“He had a really good week and he’s extremely confident. Look, he’s not gonna be perfect. Certainly there’s gonna be a hiccup here or there, but he’s got a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and I think he had an excellent week.”

Sunday, Kelly said he expected sophomore Michael Deeb to back up Morgan in the middle, with the Tuesday depth chart update confirming that plan. But Thursday evening, Kelly said fellow freshman Greer Martini would serve as the primary backup, a sign that last week’s nine-tackle performance against Navy was no fluke.

The Irish will be incredibly young on the inside this week at linebacker. We’ll find out if it hurts them tomorrow afternoon.


We’ll find out Saturday afternoon if Will Fuller got Brian Kelly’s not-so-subtle message. 

Sometimes Brian Kelly uses the media to deliver a message for him. Usually, it’s in a subtle manner. In the case of Will Fuller, it wasn’t.

On Tuesday, Kelly took a question about Torii Hunter and used it as an opportunity to call out his sophomore wide receiver. After Fuller dropped a touchdown pass and generally slept-walked through Notre Dame’s 49-39 victory against Navy, the rising star has a chance to matchup with Jaelen Strong, one of the best receivers in the country.

Finding the way his players tick is a specialty of Notre Dame’s head coach. But digging one layer deeper into the showcase afternoon for Fuller presents an opportunity for Fuller to play big against a Sun Devils defense that plays a lot of man coverage, but also measure his talents against another one of Philadelphia’s finest, Jaelen Strong.

Strong’s road to the top of the Pac-12 receiving food chain is far from the one most-traveled. After just 17 catches and 318 yards as a senior at West Philadelphia Catholic, Strong headed to junior college instead of accepting offers from VMI, Villanova or Eastern Michigan. After sitting out his freshman season, he scored 15 touchdowns in 10 games for Pierce College. Then he chose Arizona State over offers from some of the best programs in the country.

Strong’s breakout 2013 season at ASU included a monster game against the Irish last season. While his 821 receiving yards best Fuller’s 599, Notre Dame’s sophomore has nine touchdown catches to Strong’s eight.

A week after failing to show up, Fuller needs to be at his best on Saturday afternoon. We’ll see if Fuller got Kelly’s message.


A year ago, Notre Dame managed to sack Taylor Kelly six times. Can they make Kelly’s afternoon miserable again?

Notre Dame’s pass rush dialed up its finest game of the year against Arizona State last season, with Prince Shembo unblockable at times and Taylor Kelly harassed and hurried in the Irish’s 37-34 victory.

The Irish defense held the Sun Devils at bay most of the afternoon, and after ASU made a fourth-quarter charge, Dan Fox’s pick six extended the lead to 10 points and the Irish held on from there. While Kelly’s stat line looked mighty pretty — 33 of 47 for 362 yards and three touchdowns, the Irish managed two interceptions and six sacks, ruining the afternoon of one of the Pac-12’s most efficient quarterbacks.

Not wanting to give away any specifics, Kelly credited the defense’s success to some coverage tweaks that they hadn’t shown in previous weeks. While Brian VanGorder has built this defense around scheme changes and confusing looks for an opposing quarterback, some wondered if that ability is hampered without Joe Schmidt in the middle of the defense.

It certainly doesn’t look like it will be.

“We have not simplified what we’re doing,” Kelly said Thursday. “I don’t think you can go into a game like this against that offense and play vanilla. If you do, it’s gonna be a long day. They’re just too good. They have a ton of answers. We have to be who we are.”


The Irish didn’t blink walking into Doak Campbell. We’ll see if they can do the same in Sun Devil Stadium. 

Swap out stadium lights for desert sun. And swap out the Seminoles’ war chant for a group of screaming students who’ve been camped out since Sunday.

Notre Dame showed the type of tunnel vision and big game preparation that they’ve displayed under Brian Kelly since he got the program up to speed in 2012. On Saturday, they’ll have another opportunity to walk into a road stadium and come out a victor. After preparing his team for a hostile atmosphere before traveling to Tallahassee, Kelly expects that experience to help his team be ready for business this weekend.

“We did a little bit of [extra preparation before] Florida State and I think we passed that test,” Kelly said. “We did less of that for Arizona State because we think we’ve kind of been there and done that. I think they know how to handle that. This is really about going out and executing and playing clean football. We have to play well. We have to play better defensively and we have to be more efficient on offense. I think it’s less about the things we had to concern ourselves at Florida state and more about what we do in this game.”

If there’s one message Kelly sent clearly at Florida State it was that he wasn’t coaching not to lose. The Irish played aggressively from the start, throwing deep on first down. He was daring on fourth down, showing confidence in the offensive line multiple times.

With his team looking to their coach for his lead, Kelly showed the type of confidence you want in a leader. That makes Saturday less about the opponent or the venue, but the players wearing gold helmets.

“For me, the most important thing is our guys play the kind of football they’re capable of playing,” Kelly said. “I want to win, right? That’s why we’re in this. We want to win the football game. I want us to play to the level we’re capable of playing. If we do that, then I expect us to win the football game.”



Morgan now the man in the middle for the Irish

Nyles Morgan

From the moment Nyles Morgan signed his letter-of-intent with Notre Dame, most saw him as the team’s future at middle linebacker. An early pick by most experts to be one of the first freshmen to play, Morgan’s ascent into the starting lineup is one we all saw coming, but yet surprised us just the same.

That’s a credit to the play of senior Joe Schmidt. After emerging this spring with his adjustment into the center of Brian VanGorder’s defense, Schmidt’s standout season deserved all the acclaim he received, regardless of the tremendous backstory that brought him to South Bend.

But this is college football. And in a program like Notre Dame’s, a devastating injury is a tremendous opportunity for someone else. And just like last season, when all-everything recruit Jaylon Smith began his ascent after Danny Spond’s migraines forced him to retire from the game, Morgan walks into the spotlight earlier than expected, but on schedule just the same.

What Notre Dame will get out of the freshman linebacker remains to be seen. Evaluating anybody’s play based on a game against Ken Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack is difficult. But even then, we saw a linebacker who showed flashes of the blue-chip linebacker Notre Dame’s coaching staff fought uphill for nearly two years to sign.

Morgan’s four tackles — including a de-cleater in the backfield against Keenan Reynolds — were everything we expected from a linebacker who came in with acclaim rivaling Manti Te’o. And it’s a comparison he certainly didn’t shy away from, picking No. 5 to wear from the start of his Notre Dame career.

For the finished product Te’o was when he left, we tend to forget that he was once, just like Morgan, a young linebacker mostly running wild. As a freshman, unleashed after half a season to live through his growing pains. As a sophomore, learning a new system and responsibilities. A maturing junior year prepared him for a historic senior season. Te’o blew his share of responsibilities playing against Navy. He also made plays, plenty of plays, even if they weren’t necessarily his to make.

But dwelling on last week — or any linebacker’s performance against Navy — certainly won’t help the Irish to prepare for Arizona State. In a test that’ll serve as a bedrock game for Notre Dame’s playoff resume, it’ll be up to Morgan to anchor the interior of the Irish defense physically, and mentally stay above water against one of college football’s brightest young minds, 32-year-old offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.

His teammates are saying all the right things. Jaylon Smith thinks he’ll be ready. Sheldon Day sees his growth. He’s been coached for this opportunity, VanGorder and Brian Kelly cracking the whip, knowing this day could come at any moment this season, a depth chart necessity more so than a star emerging.

As we’ve seen with this young defense, VanGorder has understood how to get the best out of young players. A converted wide receiver has emerged as a viable part of the starting lineup. Freshmen, mixed and matched along the defensive line. All easier tasks than finding a way to cover up the rough edges of a middle linebacker.

But expect VanGorder to do it anyway. With Smith next to him capable of serving as an eraser, Morgan can be the blunt instrument sent screaming into action. Where as Schmidt served as a technician, Morgan will be the opposite. Expect to see No. 5 crashing through the offensive line, sent after quarterback Taylor Kelly, not matched up in coverage with running back D.J. Foster.

“I think in certain instances there’s some things that you would want to do that you know Joe Schmidt can do, and then there’s some uncertainty as to what Nyles can do,” Kelly explained. “Having said that, it opens up a whole new path to some things that we couldn’t do with Joe that we’re pretty excited that we can do with Nyles.

“There’s some things that we know that we can’t do with Nyles that Joe could do, but I know Coach VanGorder is pretty excited about some of the things that he couldn’t do with Joe that he can do with Nyles this week.”

With Schmidt’s time at Notre Dame done for 2014, the door opens for Morgan’s career to begin. With “Next Man In” the life blood of a program Kelly’s rebuilt brick by brick for five seasons, expect to see the young linebacker crashing through the front door on Saturday afternoon.




Kelly begins defending Notre Dame’s strength of schedule

Brian Kelly, Brady Hoke

As we enter the second week in the ridiculous, made-for-TV selection committee rankings for the College Football Playoff, a few things have been made clear.

First, any worry that the regular season would be diluted by the elimination of the BCS was utter nonsense (as we all pretty much already knew). Second, the committee’s ever-evolving logic is still very much a work-in-progress.

At this point, it’s fairly ridiculous to debate the merits of Notre Dame’s placement in the Top 10. But as the committee appears to place significant value on big-name victories over schedule strength or quality losses, Brian Kelly has slowly waded into the waters of defending his team’s schedule.

After being asked to evaluate the strength of his team’s schedule through eight games, Kelly very clearly laid out his case for Notre Dame’s slate.

“I think you’ve got to look at the fact that all power five except for Conference USA defending champs and Rice, who are playing pretty good football right now,” Kelly said. “I think you take that versus other teams that have really had glorified byes in their schedule.”

Those glorified byes have pretty much been ignored by the selection committee, perhaps something that’ll come into play later down the line, but a surprising omission nonetheless. That Michigan State can have victories over Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming — and a 19-point loss to Oregon — and still be ranked in front of Notre Dame is difficult to understand.




But this isn’t just a shot at the Spartans. Mississippi State has fattened its 8-0 record with a win over South Alabama and a glorified bye this weekend against UT-Martin. Florida State beat Citadel. Auburn has a win over Louisiana Tech and a future victory against Samford the week before taking on Alabama. Oregon beat South Dakota and Wyoming. That’s just a look at the four playoff teams.

The cupcakes gets to the crux of Kelly’s argument. And one that should be a persuasive one. You can’t control the fate of your opponent. All you can do is try and play the toughest schedule possible.

“Look, in 2012 I think we started the season with the No. 1 schedule in the country. I think we started that way this year, too,” Kelly said. “That’s all we can go. We go into this putting together the toughest schedule in the country. Nobody else does it that way.

“They put on teams that are clearly glorified byes. We don’t operate that way. That to me is strength of schedule in terms of the way we put it together.”

Of course, the Irish get a huge opportunity to strengthen their resume this weekend, with No. 9 Arizona State leapfrogging the Irish thanks to an overtime victory over Utah. As November continues to shake out, Kelly knows it’s still much too early to worry about anything other than making sure his team handles its business.

But given a microphone and a very valid point of view, you can’t blame Notre Dame’s head coach for going to bat for his team.


And in that corner… The Arizona State Sun Devils

Jaelen Strong, Dominique Hatfield

With the College Football Playoff’s selection committee deeming this a Top 10 matchup, Notre Dame travels to Tempe for its best opportunity at impressing committee voters. As a narrow underdog to Todd Graham’s Sun Devils, the Irish are facing a stiff test against an Arizona State team with an improving defense and growing confidence.

That self-belief could be because it feels like the stars are aligning. After beating USC on a Hail Mary and having Utah’s All-American kicker Andy Phillips miss in overtime, this Arizona State team doesn’t look like the one that gave up 62 in a blowout against UCLA, but rather has one that looks and feels like a team of destiny.

Matched up against the Irish in the flagship afternoon game this Saturday, Graham and the entire campus (students began camping out earlier this week) understand that this isn’t just another football game.

“I think it’d be silly to say this is like any other game. It’s not any other game to me,” Graham said this week. “Growing up a football fan, getting an opportunity like this late in the year… This is the kind of game you want to coach in, the kind of games our players want to play in and obvious our fans want to see. So I’m looking forward to seeing a packed house and creating a memory.”

To get us ready for Saturday, Nick Keueger of House of Sparky joins us. In addition to being the managing editor of Arizona State’s SBNation blog, Nick is a future graduate at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State. We shared Q&A duties this week, so if you’re interested in seeing my answers to his questions, go check them out.

Either way, enjoy our discussion here.


The Sun Devils’ are 7-1 thanks to some fairly amazing finishes. A Hail Mary to beat USC. One (basically two) missed field goals last weekend in overtime to beat Utah. What has that done to this ASU team’s self-belief? How confident is this group as they welcome the Irish to Tempe?

These wins have been pretty spectacular morale boosters for the program, but I think the players understood wins such as Utah and USC also took a fair amount of luck. Against the Trojans, the Sun Devils managed under 40 yards rushing and the special teams was poor with a punt return for a touchdown by Nelson Aghalor. The Utes provided a tough defense for Taylor Kelly to throw against and he should have been picked three or four times, but the stat line will only show one.

The blowout 62-27 loss at home to UCLA also shows just how poorly this team can execute. The Sun Devils allowed five plays of 80 yards or more that night as Mike Bercovici threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball away too. The Sun Devils have seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows in 2014. Right now they’re riding one of those incredibly tall waves, but the optimism and confidence is tempered given what has transpired so far this season.


Taylor Kelly is back after missing three games with injury. How has he looked against Washington and Utah? Are his relatively modest numbers a product of the defenses faced or a little bit of rust?

Combined with what offensive coordinator Mike Norvell admitted was rust, Washington was a lot of game planning for Kelly not to throw because the winds were gusting upward of 50 to 60 MPH. The offensive line also left a lot to be desired that night, giving up seven sacks against Washington. Kelly was also without one of his faster targets in sophomore wide received Cameron Smith because of injury. Utah was a bigger test and a more true version of Kelly facing a very good defense.

Although he didn’t get a passing grade from many ASU fans, his saving grace was his dual threat ability especially on the last drive against Utah, which helped him finish with 14 rushes for 55 yards. The Sun Devils running game is nearly non-existent with Bercovici at the helm and Kelly provides that extra spark on the ground. Without that, the maroon and gold don’t win their last two games.


When we spoke this summer, the Sun Devils defense was a big mystery. It’s had some ugly moments, but seems to be hitting its stride. What’s been the driving force for the change?

The personnel remain the same, but Todd Graham is figuring out a lot of the right formulas on defense. He moved Antonio Longino from a roaming linebacker spot Graham likes to call “Devilbacker” to a weakside inside linebacker spot which has increased his production dramatically with over half of his tackles coming in the last three games. He’s also putting some heavier guys in combination together on the defensive line, junior Mo Latu who is 365 pounds is seeing a lot of extended playing time alongside other defensive tackle junior Jaxon Hood and senior defensive end Marcus Hardison.

There are other guys who are just simply playing better like junior college transfer and junior corner Kweishi Brown who is finally just getting his feet wet enough to feel comfortable at the Division I level.


The marriage between ASU and Todd Graham seems to be in full bloom. Yet with some high profile jobs potentially opening up this offseason, his name always seems to be among the ones to watch, especially after his previous moves. As someone close to the scene, do worries of him leaving sound ridiculous? Does it look like he’s really working his dream job, as he mentioned after leaving Pitt, or a guy that would take an offer from a place like Michigan seriously?

Any rumors were quelled for good in September when he donated $500,000 to the capital campaign toward redesigning Sun Devil Stadium. His wife’s parents also live in the Valley and he continues to repeat that there is nowhere he would rather be. As funny as this sounds, Todd Graham is an extremely loyal person. That is when it comes to who he surrounds himself with in his coaches. Graham has had his pick of hires and now that his other great friend in defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is here in his first season after he brought in Mike Norvell on the offensive side the ball in year one, I honestly don’t think Graham could be happier with where he’s at. He’s ready to build his legacy at ASU, his contract just got extended again this past summer and it would shock a lot of people if he left anytime soon.


The Sun Devils have one of the best WRs in the country in Jaelen Strong. He had a big game last year in Notre Dame’s victory over ASU in Dallas. How has Strong elevated his game this season?

While he has definitely caught a few more balls in open space, his ability to adjust his body while in the air has improved tremendously. It means everything to Taylor Kelly that when he throws a ball in Strong’s direction, either Strong is coming down with it or nobody is. He’s not faster necessarily, but put on about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Mel Kiper Jr. recently compared him to former Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans in how he operates on the field.


This was a game that ASU’s former AD fought very hard — and loudly — to save. With a national broadcast, and even a surprising early kickoff, how big of a game is this for Sun Devil fans and students? Just about everybody expected this to be a night game. Do you think an early afternoon start makes a difference?

The early afternoon kickoff was welcomed in Tempe and it should be a beautiful 80 degrees or warmer here Saturday. The only thing that got a lot of people riled up was College GameDay choosing East Lansing over Tempe for their location Saturday. The Sun Devils don’t often get a chance to play many games during the day because it’s still just too hot in Arizona to schedule a day game until late October or early November. Fans were also glad to have a Saturday game at a reasonable hour, which they could bring the entire family out to see instead of the usual 7p.m. kick.

Students started up a tradition of camping out for tickets to the first few rows of the student section last season and called it “Camp Fargo” because the tickets are given out at the basketball arena on campus named Wells Fargo Arena. The new tradition has continued this season, the line for student tickets started Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and is already wrapped half way around the building. If anything, I might argue a day game could enhance the atmosphere just because it doesn’t happen around here very often anymore.


Notre Dame got the better of ASU last year, a somewhat surprising outcome considering some of the struggles the Irish had with Tommy Rees behind center. With Everett Golson, the Irish offense has taken a big step forward. What are some key matchups for ASU’s defense that we should be watching?

Golson, like Taylor Kelly, enjoys moving the chains with his feet. In that case, senior defensive end Marcus Hardison who is second on the team with seven tackles for loss against left tackle Ronnie Stanley will be one to keep an eye on as Hardison will need to keep contain. The cat and mouse game between Golson and sophomore middle linebacker Salamo Fiso in identifying coverages and schemes will be one to watch too. Todd Graham plays attacking defense, he blitzes to his hearts’ content and will force Golson to make quick decisions with the football. If, however, he makes the right ones it could pay huge dividends as is the case with any high risk high reward blitzing. So I think a big matchup to watch is Golson’s decision making against Graham’s exotic blitz packages. Outside linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (4 sacks) is one of Graham’s favorite players to blitz with along with senior safety Damarious Randall who leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss.


Likewise, most expected the Sun Devil offense to be among the best in the country. Yet entering Saturday it’s Notre Dame that’s scoring at a better clip. Since the end of September, the Sun Devils have only broken 30 points once. Is something wrong?

The Sun Devils have run into two very good, stout Pac-12 defenses. Stanford was the No. 2 defense the country when ASU played them and Notre Dame fans know first hand how tough they are defensively. The running game couldn’t get going against the Cardinal either with Bercovici at the helm. Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha stunted the Sun Devils running game in their tracks in Seattle in horrendous conditions I touched upon earlier. I will say the offensive inefficiency against Utah is cause for some alarm. There were times where Kelly seemed flat out ineffective but ASU also may have found a few solutions in the running game with freshman Demario Richard. If I were to point to one thing, I’d say the Sun Devils finding a balance has been tough. Occasionally it will just become the “D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong show” with almost nobody else involved on offense and that’s when ASU has run into the most trouble.


Call your shot. How do you see this game shaking out?

With the academic suspensions on Notre Dame’s side and the loss of Joe Schmidt, I’m ready for another high scoring shootout just like the game in Dallas. The Fighting Irish provide a well-balanced attack in my opinion and it seems in the Pac-12, teams are pass or run first so ND provides a unique challenge.

That game in Dallas was special for both sides, regardless of the outcome, it helped both fan bases tremendously and both teams gained great national exposure. Saturday seems a little more hostile in my opinion. The Sun Devils and their fans have a bit of a chip on their shoulder just like any team would against a group they lost to last season. Unfortunately for ASU, they tend to lose these kinds of huge games on a national stage. Taylor Kelly is a very good quarterback and will do everything he can to keep the Sun Devils in it, but in my mind I just can’t see this young defense being ready for an offense as dynamic as Notre Dame.

Notre Dame: 38 ASU: 31


For more from Nick you can follow him on Twitter @NickPKrueger. You should also be getting updates @HouseofSparky.