There are always several factors that contribute to winning or losing a football game. Football is the ultimate team sport. Every good play requires credit to be given to a lot of people. And every bad play requires blame to be given to several people as well.
However, if I had to pick one aspect that made the difference in Saturday’s Arizona State-Notre Dame match-up, it was the pass protection. The contrast in protection given to ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly and Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees was like night and day.
Just watching the game without a stopwatch or keeping statistics, it seemed like Rees had forever to throw the ball. I don’t care who you are, if the QB is given enough time, he’s going to find his receivers.
Conversely, it appeared that Kelly was under duress and hurried all night long. He was sacked six times, hit on a few more occasions, and flushed out of the pocket and forced to scramble another 4-5 times.
In my previous article about ASU’s keys to victory over the Irish, the very first requirement was to keep Taylor Kelly clean. That didn’t happen on Saturday. Kelly is a better passer than Rees. ASU has a better passing attack than Notre Dame. But all of that is irrelevant if you can’t use the weapons that you have.
Many people will respond by blaming the ASU offensive line. Fair enough — they had a rough evening. Notre Dame features two NFL prospects on their defensive line and both of them showed why against the Sun Devils. But pass protection is a team endeavor. ASU’s running backs did not block very well either.
Kelly has to shoulder some of the responsibility himself. It looked like he had “happy feet” at times during the game. Poor pass protection aside, you can’t throw interceptions. The receivers also could have helped by running cleaner routes and getting open.
And, of course, the Sun Devil offensive staff, led by Mike Norvell, has to take some responsibility as well. It appeared to me that the ASU players and coaches didn’t fully recognize just how good the front four of Notre Dame was.
On the other side of the ball, it is now time to admit the Sun Devil defense has some problems. Against Notre Dame, they were guilty of the same mental errors they committed three weeks ago against Wisconsin. The alignment mistakes, pursuit angles and “fits” on the perimeter by linebackers and safeties are a legitimate problem. And the open field tackling by the back seven remains an issue. They are still overrunning/over-pursuing the ball carrier. They continue to leave their feet and put their head down. These defensive players have to do a better job of breaking down and coming to balance before they try to tackle.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect better defensive fundamentals by game five of the season. Head Coach Todd Graham must sort these problems out and get his players to execute better.
I also think it’s now fair to say that the ASU defensive line is average, especially without DT Jaxon Hood. As I previously mentioned, they put almost no pressure on Rees at all. The only time he was rushed was when the Sun Devils blitzed one or even two more bodies at him. In addition, the Devils’ secondary struggled covering simple stop routes and comebacks. Robert Nelson and Damarious Randall both dropped interceptions, which might have been returned for touchdowns. Those are plays that have to be made.
So, in closing, let me reiterate that football is a team sport. Mistakes across the board sank Arizona State against Notre Dame. The amalgam of miscues resulted in a Fighting Irish victory: Rick Smith’s fumble on the Sun Devils’ own 20 yard line, Taylor Kelly’s two interceptions in the fourth quarter, the punt return team failing to fair catch a ball that rolls to the one yard line with under two minutes to play.
Notre Dame might not be as fearsome as they were last year, but they are still pretty good. And they have a collective championship mentality. Much like Stanford, the Irish made plays when they absolutely had to. ASU isn’t there yet. Almost, but not yet. The Sun Devils are still a good team, one worthy of beating an opponent like Notre Dame. But being worthy is not the same as earning it.
ASU still has a lot of football to play. The Devils have plenty of opportunities to improve and be there at the end of the season. I believe they have the talent. I believe the schemes put forth by the coaching staff are sound and appropriate for the players. Now they just have to execute.
For the Sun Devils, their only job is to be football players. They need to be coach-able, be able to make adjustments and rise to the occasion. They are very close to being great — they just don’t know it yet. Now, they have to be mature enough to learn from this loss, improve, and go beat Colorado.