Oct 4, 2013, 4:30 PM EDT
Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.
If you’re watching tomorrow’s game on TV, you might see a familiar face on the opponent’s sideline. Though the Irish haven’t played Arizona State since 1999, Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham is not unknown to Brian Kelly and company.
This will be the third time the two coaches have squared off in Kelly’s four years at Nore Dame. If the first two games were any indication, it will be a barnburner in the Jerry Dome tomorrow.
As the head coach of Tulsa in 2010, Graham led his team to victory against a certain freshman quarterback playing his first significant minutes. Tommy Rees threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns, but also had three picks, including one in the end zone to seal the loss. The Golden Hurricanes also scored two points on a blocked extra point and had a punt return touchdown.
I don’t really have any feelings one way or the other towards Arizona State, but typing that paragraph makes me really want to beat this guy now.
Thankfully, Notre Dame was victorious the second time around when Graham coached Pittsburgh in 2011. After trailing for much of the second half, a Rees-to-Eifert connection gave the Irish a 15-12 lead with less than seven minutes left in the game.
And now Graham is with his third team in four years, once again facing Brian Kelly. This is probably the most talented team he has ever coached, and the Sun Devils are 3-1, ranked 22nd, and are coming off a game in which they knocked Lane Kiffin into forced retirement. Their lone loss came at the hands of a vaunted Stanford team, and they have a win over a good Wisconsin team, albeit with an asterisk.
Graham’s squad is dynamite on offense but suspect on defense, especially against the run. Although USC has struggled this year, they were consistently good on defense until they ran into the Sun Devils. ASU had 62 points and 612 yards against the Trojans, but also allowed 247 rushing yards.
While certainly not up to 2012 levels, the Irish defense has made progress over the course of the season, with the defensive line especially playing closer and closer to its talent level. The fate of the game might fall on Notre Dame’s linebackers, who will need to up their coverage abilities to stay with the Devils.
My biggest question coming in, though, is if Brian Kelly will go after the Arizona State run defense. Although he likes to exploit mismatches in the passing game, Kelly knows how crucial turnovers have been in derailing his Notre Dame offenses. Repeated passes might not bode well for the Irish, as the aggressive ASU defense has six interceptions in four games, including one for a touchdown against USC.
After the Notre Dame rushing attack struggled early in the season, the Irish ran well against Oklahoma when they tried to. George Atkinson III had the best game of his career, and if he can duplicate that performance while getting a decent number of touches, Notre Dame’s offense might finally start to hum.
I’m not one to get into the prediction game, but I think a successful game plan can put the Irish back on track. Who knows where Todd Graham will be next year, so this might be our last chance.
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