Arizona State (8-5)
Date: Oct. 5 at Cowboy Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
All-American defensive lineman Will Sutton's unexpected return is a big boost for the Sun Devil's pass rush.
Notre Dame has made a point to keep its schedule fresh with some relatively new blood in recent seasons. This year’s new face, Arizona State, joins Oklahoma among the more difficult non-traditional opponents the Irish have seen in the past decade.
The Sun Devils played Notre Dame twice during the Bob Davie era, losing 28-9 in Tempe in 1998 and 48-17 in South Bend during one of the few bright spots of a 5-7 season for the Irish in 1999.
Former athletic director Kevin White rekindled their relationship during his time at Notre Dame. White, who held the same title at Arizona State in the ‘90s, also set up games in 2015 and 2017 between the two teams.
Those meetings might prove to be good tests for the Irish if second-year coach Todd Graham can keep momentum in Tempe headed in the right direction after a promising debut season. Under Graham, the Sun Devils had their first season above .500 since 2007. They exorcised a major discipline issue after finishing the previous year as far and away the most penalized team on the FBS level.
Graham, who was painted as a mercenary and a villain when he ditched Pittsburgh for the desert after only one season, has quieted that vitriol with success on the field. His team was a field goal away from beating UCLA for a trip to the Pac-12 title game last year and could be in that conversation again in 2013.
Top Offseason Note
Arizona State signed 27 new players to its roster in Feburary — 11 of them already have college football experience.
Todd Graham didn’t have time to fit his personnel with his offensive scheme in Pittsburgh. In his first official recruiting class at Arizona State, Graham opted to find some shortcuts by loading up on older junior college transfers rather than high school players. Arizona State nabbed six of the top 100 highest rated junior college players in the country this year, including several in spots of immediate need.
Jaelen Strong and Joe Morris, a pair of 6-foot-4 wide receivers are candidates to become top targets right away for redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly. Strong had more than 1,200 receiving yards at Pierce College last season. Kelly had a breakout season a year ago, despite a lack of consistency among his pass-catchers.
Defensive back Damrious Randall is another athletically gifted transfer who is expected to challenge for a starting job in the secondary right away. A big factor in how soon Graham can get his program rolling is how much of an instant impact these junior college players can make.
Arizona State’s biggest victory of the offseason came when senior defensive lineman Will Sutton announced plans to return for his final year of eligibility. Sutton was named a consensus All-American last season after racking up 13 sacks and three forced fumbles. He and returning linebacker Carl Bradford, who had 11.5 sacks of his own last year, will make it hard for any quarterback to get comfortable in the pocket next season.
Kelly’s first season as a starter also gave the Sun Devils a star and a leader on the offensive side of the ball. Kelly completed 67 percent of his passes, including 18 in a row (a school record) against Washington State. He three more than three times as many touchdowns (29) than interceptions (9) to come away with one of the better efficiency ratings in the nation.
Thanks to Sutton and Bradford, Arizona State averaged nine tackles for loss per game last year, the most of any FBS team, and finished second to Stanford in sacks per game. The Sun Devils, though, lacked the depth and consistency across its front seven to put together a stingy run defense.
Opponents ran for an average of 182.8 yards per game on the Arizona State defense. The tougher teams on the Sun Devils’ schedule — Oregon, USC and UCLA — all ran for more than 200 yards, including a remarkable 406 rushing yards from the Ducks in a 43-21 loss.
Stopping the run won’t get any easier this season without team captain and veteran linebacker Brandon Magee. The redshirt senior led his team with 113 tackles, 81 of them solo, last season from his spot as a weakside linebacker. His position is another that might be filled early in the year by a junior college transfer.
Notre Dame has dominated its Shamrock Series games, winning by an average margin of 28 points since the tradition started in 2009. The trip to sparking Cowboy Stadium might not be as much of a cakewalk.
Both teams come into the game at the tail end of a tough schedule. The Irish host Oklahoma one week before going to Texas. Arizona State will be coming off games against reigning Big Ten champion Wisconsin, Pac-12 champion Stanford and the always-talented USC in three straight weeks before facing the Irish.
Graham has upset Brian Kelly and the Irish before as Tulsa’s head coach in 2010 and almost did it again in 2011 during his one season with Pitt. This game is at the top of our list this year of possible surprises for Notre Dame.