Coach Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish were undefeated and played for a national title last year, but they aren’t focusing on last year’s accomplishments anymore.
“They’re not walking around campus flashing their 12-0 rings. They don’t have a 12-0 ring,” Kelly said. “What drives them is winning, and they want to win. They want to win football games, and they want to play good football week in and week out.”
With their focus on winning football games, the Fighting Irish (3-2) turn their attention to No. 22 ASU (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12).
Kelly said Notre Dame will try to slow down ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly who, through four games, is fourth in the country in total yards per game (373.5 ypg).
“They’re a team that will challenge you on the perimeter throwing the football,” Brian Kelly said. “You have to keep Kelly in check running the football, as well. He’s very capable through their zone read package of running the ball.
In order to contain Kelly and the rest of the Sun Devil offense, the Fighting Irish’s defense will have to play better than it has, especially when it comes to containing explosive plays.
Against now-No. 11 Oklahoma, the Fighting Irish gave up multiple big plays that put them in an insurmountable hole. Kelly said his team aims to eliminate such explosive plays against ASU.
“If you look at the Oklahoma game, the two big plays that we gave up were critical,” said Kelly. “Eliminating the big plays defensively is absolutely crucial to our success.”
The Fighting Irish currently rank No. 46 in total defense (364 ypg), No. 45 in rushing defense (133.8 ypg) and No. 53 in scoring defense (23.8 ppg) below teams like Texas State and Bowling Green.
“I think our defense is solid. I don’t think they’re spectacular, but I think it’s a solid defense that we can win with,” Kelly said. “We’re not spectacular, but we’re solid.“
While the Fighting Irish defense hasn’t been elite, neither has their running game. Notre Dame has only been able to average 135.4 rushing yards per game.
The good news for Notre Dame is that junior running back George Atkinson III is finally emerging as the dynamic runner Kelly hoped he could be.
Last week in Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to the Sooners, Atkinson III rushed 14 times for 148 yards and a touchdown.
“I think one of the highlights for us offensively … was watching (Atkinson III) continue to get better at the position,” Kelly said. “There’s still some room for growth there. We feel like he missed a couple of cuts here and there, but as coaches, it’s gratifying to see the development of a young man like George Atkinson, and we saw that against Oklahoma.”
Atkinson will look to continue that success against an ASU defense that gives up 192.3 rushing yards per game.
But Kelly doesn’t think it’s that easy. The Sun Devils’ aggressive defense, though it looks easy to run against at first, can put you in some bad situations.
“You would think at first looking at it, that boy it’s easy to run against them, but you’re in a lot of negative plays,” Kelly said. “You’re in a hit-and-miss situation, because they bring so much pressure. You have to do a great job of managing the negative plays against them.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @EricSmith_SP