Notre Dame faces Arizona State for the first time in 14 years Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., but the lack of familiarity ends there. Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham has been a frequent foe of the Fighting Irish in the Brian Kelly era.
While at Tulsa, Graham led the Golden Hurricane to perhaps their biggest win in program history, a 28-27 win in South Bend in 2010. A year later, Graham jumped to Pittsburgh. The Irish needed a fourth-quarter rally at Heinz Field to squeak out a 15-12 win over a Panthers team that would finish 6-7.
After being the underdog in two previous meetings, the nomadic Graham, now in his second year in Tempe, enters Saturday night's neutral-site affair as a six-point favorite. While we wait to find out if Graham will continue his success against Kelly, let's look at some of the areas where Graham's teams have had success in the two previous battles between the fast-talking Texan and the fiery New Englander.
1. Third Downs
A tried-and-true adage in football is avoid third-and-long situations. Notre Dame failed to do that in their past two games against Graham. Against Tulsa in 2010, the Irish's average yards for a first down was 7.7. It was even worse a year later in Pittsburgh at 7.9.
Only 11 of Notre Dame's 31 third-down plays in the two games required five yards or less to move the chains. Meanwhile, Graham's two teams combined for 21 situations where they needed only five yards or less on third down.
Naturally, the Irish struggled to convert third downs against coordinator Paul Randolph's defenses, earning a new set of downs on less than one-third of their attempts. That led to periods of the offense repeatedly stalling, particularly in the second halves, where Notre Dame managed just one touchdown in each of the two contests.
2. Special Teams
Under Kelly, special teams have been a mixed bag. The return game has floundered outside of two touchdowns from George Atkinson III in 2011, but field goal kicking has been solid with David Ruffer for two years and now Kyle Brindza in his second season.
In the 2010 loss to Tulsa, the third element of the game was nothing short of a disaster. The first quarter saw the Golden Hurricane return a blocked extra point for two points, while a Damaris Johnson 59-yard punt return for a touchdown narrowed what was a two-score game late in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh won the special teams battle in 2011, using two Kevin Harper (the goat of the 2012 triple-overtime loss to the Irish) field goals to build a 12-7 lead, which it held until late in the fourth quarter. Ruffer missed a 39-yard attempt just before halftime that would have extended the Irish's slim 7-6 advantage.
It's difficult to find a loss in the first two years of the Kelly era where turnovers weren't an issue. Tommy Rees struggled mightily in the first sustained action of his career against Tulsa, throwing three interceptions. One of those was returned for a touchdown after the Irish were threatening to increase their 20-12 lead.
That isn't the interception that still haunts Irish fans, however. That would be the last of Rees' three interceptions that late October afternoon. With 40 seconds to play and Notre Dame in range for a game-winning field goal, Rees threw an ill-advised end-zone pass that was picked off by Tulsa's John Flanders, preserving the 28-27 victory.
The next year in Pittsburgh, the Irish failed to force a turnover against Tino Sunseri, who less than a month later produced one of the more remarkable passing lines of all time: 4-of-11 for 38 yards in a loss to Utah. Rees was again charitable, throwing an interception in the red zone and fumbling deep in his own territory.
Impact on Saturday's Game
Randolph has clearly won the battle of wits with Kelly in the first two meetings. Pittsburgh used a loaded box and some exotic blitz packages to rattle Rees. If the Irish aren't able to contain Sun Devils All-American tackle Will Sutton, they will be able to pressure Rees without blitzing, allowing for more flexibility in their coverages.
Taking away slants and seam routes eliminates Rees' comfort zone. He then is prone to either forcing passes into too tight of windows or having to throw sideline passes that expose his lack of arm strength.
Expect more of the same from Randolph Saturday night, especially if fourth-year starting cornerback Osahon Irabor can lock down T.J. Jones, Rees' top target. Michael Floyd was held to just four catches for 27 yards by Randolph's Pittsburgh defense.
The special teams advantage may be with the Irish this year. The Sun Devils have done little in the return game, and Zane Gonzalez has converted just two of five field goal attempts beyond 30 yards.
Turnovers? Well, that's not just a Graham problem. Turn on the tape of the Irish's loss to Oklahoma to see how quickly mistakes can decide the outcome of a game.
Saturday's night game will ultimately test not only Rees, but an offensive line that has been underwhelming through the season's first month. Setting up third-and-short situations with the running game, which gives the coaching staff play-calling leverage, is vital.
This is by far the best of the three Graham teams Notre Dame has faced. If the Irish hope to upset the Sun Devils, they'll need to play a much cleaner game, particularly in the three key areas we've discussed, than the first two times around.
This isn't the last Notre Dame will see of the well-traveled Graham. The Irish will be in Tempe on Nov. 8, 2014 for Round 4. Assuming Graham is still there, of course.
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