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Graham faces Irish with third different team

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, October 3, 2013

Irish coach Brian Kelly has been to Los Angeles, Palo Alto, New York, Boston, Miami, Chicago and Ireland in his three-plus years as Notre Dame’s head coach.

But his travel schedule has nothing on that of Arizona State coach Todd Graham.

Graham is at his third coaching job in four years and will be matching up against the Irish for the third time in that span with as many different teams. The second-year Arizona State coach is 1-1 against Notre Dame, notching a win with Tulsa in 2010 but suffering defeat with Pittsburgh in 2011.

“You know, of course we’ve got some history here,” Kelly said. “[We are] very familiar with the style of offense and defense.”

In 2010, Graham led Tulsa into Notre Dame Stadium and emerged with a 28-27 win after a last-second interception thrown by then-freshman quarterback Tommy Rees sealed the game.

The Golden Hurricane allowed 458 total yards, but forced three turnovers, scored on a punt return, an interception return and a blocked point-after return, handing Notre Dame its fifth loss of the season.

The next year, Rees flipped the script against Graham’s Pittsburgh squad. Trailing by five in the fourth quarter, Rees marched the Irish on an 11-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to give the Irish a 15-12 victory.

Notre Dame again put up impressive offensive numbers against Graham’s Panthers squad (398 total yards and 5.5 yards per play) but miscues nearly cost the Irish. They turned the ball over twice and saw flags for eight penalties.

Irish senior defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, who was around for both contests, said playing against Graham has helped the Irish defense familiarize themselves with his schemes.

“We just try to find the similarities between the offenses and try to study the plays we see at Pitt that we see [Arizona State] run,” he said. “We’re kind of familiar with the offense, but they got a lot of other plays that I feel like we have to worry about.”

Kelly said Graham’s schemes in all phases of the game are unique.

“[They are] aggressive defensively,” he said. “You’re going to get a lot of different pressures. I think there are a lot of exotics on special teams. You’re going to get the quarterback lined up in an offensive set punting the football, swinging gate, offensively misdirection.

“Again, I go back to Tulsa and Pittsburgh and now at Arizona State, you’ve got a lot of different offensive and defensive looks. You’re not going to get a cookie‑cutter approach to playing the game in any one of those facets, and that’s been his kind of philosophy, if you will, and what he’s staked his success on, and he’s done a great job at it.”

The Irish have scored just two more points overall than Graham’s squads in the previous two meetings and Kelly said Arizona State’s personnel is better than both Tulsa’s and Pittsburgh’s.

The Irish have also improved since playing Graham’s Panthers in 2011. At the time of the Pittsburgh victory, Kelly was 10-7 at Notre Dame. Since that win, the Irish are 21-6, including a trip to the BCS National Championship Game.

Notre Dame is also 9-1 since that win in games decided by seven points or less.

“This team we are playing is a very good football team, very well coached,” Graham said. “They are going to do some things offensively that are very difficult. They do a lot of unbalanced and empty formations that we are going to work really hard on to prepare for.

“They have really good players. Their tailbacks are similar to the ones we faced this week [against USC], very good and powerful guys. [They have] big tight ends and big receivers. Obviously their defense is the strength of their team and their program. They are very big and very physical. It will be a big challenge for us.”

On Saturday, Graham will look to become just the second coach to defeat Kelly twice at Notre Dame. The other is Michigan’s Brady Hoke.

No. 22 Arizona State and Notre Dame will kick-off Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu