Not only will the Notre Dame Fighting Irish be the underdogs when they take on the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday, but the team’s defense is set for a rude awakening.
In 2012, the Irish rode a dominant defensive unit all the way to the BCS title game. After returning seven starters on that side of the ball—four of whom were considered All-American candidates—the defense was once again expected to be one of the best in the nation.
Instead, the unit has quickly become a shell of its former self.
Among 13 key statistical categories tracked by the NCAA, Notre Dame has regressed in all of them this season. That includes scoring defense (12.7 to 23.8 PPG), total defense (305.6 to 364.0 YPGA), rushing defense (105.7 to 133.8 YPGA) and turnovers gained (1.9 to 0.8 TOPG).
That brings about some areas of concern with one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football up next for the Irish.
The Sun Devils boast the nation’s No. 7-ranked passing attack and No. 15 total offense. The team also averages a whopping 44.3 points per game—that includes putting up 62 points last weekend against a USC defense that held all four of its previous opponents under 14 points.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly will lead the aerial assault.
Through four games, the junior has thrown for 1,370 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions on 61.4 percent passing. He’s also showed off a bit of mobility, adding another 124 yards on the ground.
After watching Oklahoma’s first-year quarterback, Blake Bell, pick apart Notre Dame’s secondary on the road last weekend in only his second career start, Arizona State's signal-caller has got to be feeling good about his chances this Saturday.
Last season, when faced with high-powered offenses, the Irish could rely on their pass rush to slow opposing quarterbacks down. Averaging 2.6 sacks per game, the team ranked No. 22 in the nation.
Unfortunately, the rush has been almost nonexistent this year, bringing down the passer just 0.6 times per game.
Furthermore, opponents have had a lot more ease moving the chains against Notre Dame this year. After conceding just 17 first downs per game in 2012 (No. 8), the team has given up 22 per game this season (No. 110).
Behind running back Marion Grice, Arizona State comes in averaging 26 first downs per game.
Thus far, the junior has totaled 256 rushing yards, finding the end zone eight times. He’s also caught 22 passes for 183 yards and another four scores. Grice’s 12 total touchdowns lead the nation.
With last year’s defense, this is a game that wouldn't have been problematic for the Irish. Kelly and Grice would have been hard-pressed to even put up half of what they average on the season.
However, with the unit the team possesses this time around, things look to get worse before they get better.
And to think we all thought losing Everett Golson due to suspension would be the biggest issue for Notre Dame in 2013.
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of NCAA.com.
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