Come this morning, Arizona State will begin another week focused on its next opponent, Pac-12 South foe Colorado. It’s hard to imagine, however, the sting of Saturday’s 37-34 loss to Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium will have worn off.
It was another letdown on a grand stage for the Sun Devils, the latest in a string of struggles in the spotlight. There were a myriad of issues on the field Saturday, and the most glaring of those was ASU’s defense, which appears to have taken a step back from 2012.
Still, ASU’s Pac-12 goals remain intact, and the Sun Devils will move forward in pursuit of the South Division title and a shot to reach the Rose Bowl. Before we look forward with them, let’s take a look back at Saturday’s game. TURNING POINT
After Taylor Kelly drove ASU down the field and connected with De’Marieya Nelson for a touchdown to tie the game at 27 with 8:18 to play, Notre Dame drove down the field to take a 30-27 lead on a field goal. The next drive, Taylor Kelly threw a fourth-down interception, but ASU’s defense forced a punt, giving ASU another chance, this one starting at its 1-yard line. On the first play, Kelly threw another interception, which was returned for a touchdown, and the Sun Devils couldn’t recover. OFFENSIVE MVP
Receiver Jaelen Strong. Racking up his fourth consecutive game of 100 receiving yards or more, Strong finished with 136 yards on eight receptions and a touchdown. Strong’s 39 receptions and 569 receiving yards lead the team. His 7.8 receptions per game rank ninth in the nation and are tied with Colorado’s Paul Richardson for second in the Pac-12. DEFENSIVE MVP
Safety Damarious Randall. Making his first career start, Randall tallied a whopping 17 tackles, including 1 1/2 for loss. He also had a pass breakup and nearly snagged an interception. Honorable mention goes to cornerback Osahon Irabor, who came up with an impressive 37-yard interception return in a key moment. THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
— ASU has a serious road-game monkey on its back. Another big game on a national stage, another missed opportunity. Under Todd Graham, ASU is now 4-5 away from Sun Devil Stadium.
But road woes are not just a Graham problem. It’s been rampant within the program, particularly in marquee non-conference settings like Saturday’s game. In recent memory there was Missouri (2012), Illinois (2011), Wisconsin (2010) and Georgia (2009) — all losses in big non-conference road opportunities.
The streak goes much further back. Since joining the Pac-10 in 1978, ASU does not have a regular season non-conference win on the road against a current BCS automatic qualifying team that finished its season with a winning record. The closest ASU came: Beating Northwestern on the road in 2004, a year in which the Wildcats finished 6-6. The Sun Devils did beat independent BYU on the road in 1994.
— The defense has more issues than we knew. We knew through four games that ASU had trouble stopping the run. Though Notre Dame did not run the ball as often as it could have, there were other problems that surfaced.
The defensive line could not get any pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, who is prone to mistakes under pressure. To get any on him at all, ASU had to resort to five- or six-man stunts, putting a great burden on the secondary. The secondary struggled, too, blowing coverages and committing penalties in key moments.
ASU had made a few personnel changes to better stop the run, but by the end of the game, the changes had been undone and the secondary had been exposed for its inexperience at two spots — and even veteran Alden Darby had a rough night. This is not the 2012 defense, and it has a ways to go to reach that level.
— The offensive line is still an issue. We sang the offensive line’s praises last week after it held USC, which led the Pac-12 in sacks, without a sack. Against Notre Dame on Saturday, the line had its worst performance of the season.
ASU could not establish the run, finishing with 65 rushing yards, 10 of which belonged to right tackle Tyler Sulka, who recovered an ASU fumble. More importantly, the line couldn’t protect Taylor Kelly, who was sacked six times by a Notre Dame defense that had just four sacks total entering the game.
Kelly would never say a bad word about his offensive line, but he was certainly aware it was collapsing around him. The pressure led to mistakes, including the fourth-quarter interception returned for a touchdown.
ASU’s offensive line might not need to be as good as it was against USC the rest of the way for ASU to achieve its goals, but it can’t play the way it did Saturday. WHERE THEY STAND
With issues on both sides of the ball, ASU dropped in almost every major category in the national rankings, though total offense and scoring offense were skewed a bit by a 62-point performance against USC last week. After fives games, here’s where ASU stands nationally:
— Total offense: 22nd with 489.4 yards per game (down from 15th)
— Total defense: T-60th with 393.0 yards allowed per game (down from 59th)
— Scoring offense: T-16th with 42.2 points per game (down from 11th)
— Scoring defense: T-84th with 30.0 points allowed per game (down from 80th)
— Rushing defense: 86th with 182.8 rushing yards allowed per game (up from 92nd)
— Passing defense: T-38th with 210.2 passing yards allowed per game (down from 36th)
— Fewest penalty yards per game: 17th with 36.0 penalty yards per game (down from 15th)
ODDS AND ENDS
— Some personnel notes: Randall made his first career start, taking over the field safety spot from Laiu Moeakiola. … Senior receiver Kevin Ozier has started two straight games, replacing struggling sophomore Richard Smith. … Defensive tackle Mo Latu returned to action after being unavailable with knee issues last week. Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood (hamstring) remained out.
— Senior linebacker Chris Young moved back to spur this week to help limit perimeter runs, and redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso took over at will, but in the second half Young moved back to will and Anthony Jones retook his spot as first-team spur.
— For the first time this season, ASU’s defense failed to record a sack. It had recorded at least one sack in every previous game under Todd Graham.
— D.J. Foster set a new career high with nine receptions. He totaled 71 receiving yards.
— Todd Graham has called a defensive timeout on opponents’ third downs eight times this season. Six of those times, ASU has forced a fourth down. Three of those came against Notre Dame.
— De’Marieya Nelson has three receptions this season. Two have gone for touchdowns; the other for a first down.
After a tough four-game stretch, ASU gets a bit of a break against Colorado in Tempe. Colorado is 2-2 this season (0-2 in the Pac-12) and last year lost to ASU 51-17 in Boulder. On their last trip to Sun Devil Stadium, the Buffaloes lost 48-14. The Buffaloes are coming off a 57-16 loss to Oregon.