1) Protect Taylor Kelly
Protecting the quarterback is an obvious goal for any football team. However, Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly is in a solid groove right now. It seems that if given just an average amount of time, he will make the right read and throw a good ball. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that ASU’s receivers/backs are running good routes and are hard to defend. If the O-line can keep Kelly clean, he will do a lot of damage in the passing game.
2) Contain the Run
I’m not going to give the typical key of “Stop the Run.” Over the past three weeks, that hasn’t seemed do-able with the ASU defense. However, this team has shown it can still win even if the opposition rushes the ball well. You never want to throw up your hands and say “we’re not very good at this,” but at some point, you are what you are. Right now, the Sun Devil front seven is having trouble stopping the run. Upon further film review, many of the problems are due to misalignment. But just as important are the “fits” of the linebackers.
Anthony Jones and Salamo Fiso were replaced last Saturday against the Trojans because they continually took on the lead blocker with the wrong shoulder, or no shoulder at all. You just can’t do that. An outside linebacker must fill the hole and take on the lead blocker with his inside shoulder, thereby steering the running back to the middle linebacker who is typically unblocked due to double teams on DT Will Sutton. If that doesn’t happen, the running back can cut to the outside and deal with corners and safeties.
That’s brings us to part two of the equation. ASU’s safeties are taking bad angles on runs and are essentially running themselves out of the play. You just can’t do it — safeties have to run the alley and blow it up.
And then there is the issue of tackling: Sun Devil corners and safeties have had trouble bringing down good-sized running backs. It just so happens that Notre Dame has one of those in George Atkinson III. They also have a backup QB, Andrew Hendrix, who is often inserted to run the zone read/pistol sets. ASU’s outside linebackers, safeties and corners have to meet the Irish runner at the line of scrimmage and bring him down.
3) Start Fast
Arizona State should take the ball on the coin toss if it can. Notre Dame is a solid team, but it is not explosive and struggles trying to catch up to a lead. If the Sun Devils can score first and score quickly, then the Irish may not have it in them to play catch up in a shootout.
Neither of the Notre Dame quarterbacks has been noteworthy — starting QB Tommy Rees is struggling and Hendrix is untested as a passer — nor do they excel at throwing the deep ball. In addition, their receivers are young, although T.J. Jones is pretty good.
4) Win the Red Zone
This should go without saying, but Arizona State has left plenty of TDs on the field in exchange for field goals during 2013. Notre Dame is tough in short yardage. ASU cannot move up and down the field just to settle for field goals. Six hundred yards of offense does no good if you end up with 18 points in six possessions. Notre Dame can score enough to overcome that kind of a lead.
ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell needs to scheme up some effective plays/packages for finding the end zone when his team is inside the five yard line. It would also help if the Devils’ O-line could rise up and push bodies down on the goal line.
5) Master The Mental Game
A couple of things are going on here. First, ASU, like many other teams, is less comfortable when it plays on the road. Statistically, Kelly does not play as well in away games. If the Sun Devils want to be a championship caliber team, they must learn how to perform at a high level in the opponent’s stadium. Wherever you play, you must adapt your routines, adjust to the surroundings and bring your A game.
Secondly, there is the matter of stage fright. This is another marquee match-up in the national spotlight. Recently, ASU has not done well in those types of games. Stop worrying about how many people are watching. Don’t be awestruck that you’re in an NFL stadium with a big Jumbotron. Just play your game.
Lastly, there is the Notre Dame mystique. No matter what kind of team the Irish muster, there is always some kind of intimidation factor. The familiarity of who they are, the following they have, the fact that they played in last year’s national championship game — all these factors should be irrelevant when the ball kicks off.
The Sun Devils did a decent job of overcoming the USC mystique at home last week. They’ll need to do it again in Arlington in order to play with supreme confidence and not let doubt creep into their minds.