Pregame Six Pack: The showdown in the desert

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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.”