Arizona St.-Notre Dame Preview
While its offense is on a roll behind red-hot quarterback Taylor Kelly, No. 22 Arizona State feels its run defense must improve to become a serious threat for the Pac-12 title.
Notre Dame could provide a difficult test following a breakout rushing effort but would surely like to see the passing game get back on track.
Having returned to the Top 25 this week, the Sun Devils look to keep putting up big numbers while dealing the Irish a fourth straight loss to a ranked opponent Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
He completed 23 of 34 passes for 351 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in last Saturday's 62-41 victory over Southern California. That sent Arizona State (3-1) into the AP poll for the second time in three weeks.
Kelly, who also ran four times for 79 yards, ranks third in the FBS with 342.5 passing yards per game.
"I think he is still learning and I think he is still getting better," coach Todd Graham said. "There were some things we did last week that we want to focus on. One of the big things was his ability to hurt people with his legs."
The Sun Devils, 11th in the FBS in scoring (44.3 ppg) and 15th in total offense (505.0 ypg), racked up 612 yards against a USC defense that had not allowed more than 285 yards or 14 points. They've scored 90 over their last six quarters, going back to a 42-28 loss at No. 5 Stanford when they trailed 29-0 at the half.
Arizona State will try to continue its quick-striking ways as it plays in the 2013 Shamrock Series with a chance to become the first team in NCAA history to beat USC and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks.
"Obviously we are going there to play and it is a big deal for us," Graham said. "Our guys will be very motivated to play in this game. It is a national game. It is a game that is very important."
The Sun Devils, however, have yielded 718 rushing yards over the past three weeks - sixth-most in the country. Now they'll face a Notre Dame running game that has been rejuvenated behind junior George Atkinson.
"This is the number one thing that we have to do to win a championship," Graham said of his run defense. "This has got to get better and I think it can. That is our number one focus."
After running for 121 yards and one touchdown in his first four games, Atkinson finished with 148 yards and a score as Notre Dame (3-2) ran for a season-high 220 yards in a 35-21 loss to then-No. 14 Oklahoma last Saturday.
"He shouldn't be tackled by his ankles, and he showed that and I hope he brings that game with him each and every week because it was sure fun to watch George Atkinson run," coach Brian Kelly said. "That's the way he should run each and every week."
Atkinson could be a major part of this week's game plan given Arizona State's struggles against the run and Irish quarterback Tommy Rees' troubles following a strong start to the season.
Last week, Rees completed 9 of 24 passes for 104 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown. Since throwing for more than 300 yards in his first three games, the senior has connected on 39.7 percent of his attempts for 246 yards in his last two.
"We were talking about how well we were throwing the football and how poorly we were running it. Now we're talking about how well we're running the ball and how poorly we're throwing the ball," Kelly said. "We have to find our balance there offensively."
Kelly's defense also hasn't performed well after keying last season's run to the BCS title game. Notre Dame is among the worst in the nation with 110 first downs allowed and has only four sacks.
While they once had designs on playing for the national championship again, the Irish have fallen out of the Top 25 and now try to avoid back-to-back regular season losses for the first time since the start of the 2011 season. They're 0-3 versus Top 25 teams - including last year's BCS title game - since beating the eighth-ranked Sooners last October.
"I've got a football team we're trying to work with and develop," Kelly said. "You guys can have your own comments and decide what happens and put us in any bowl you want."
Notre Dame has won both all-time meetings, 28-9 in 1998 and 48-17 in 1999.