And in that corner… The Arizona State Sun Devils

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With the College Football Playoff’s selection committee deeming this a Top 10 matchup, Notre Dame travels to Tempe for its best opportunity at impressing committee voters. As a narrow underdog to Todd Graham’s Sun Devils, the Irish are facing a stiff test against an Arizona State team with an improving defense and growing confidence.

That self-belief could be because it feels like the stars are aligning. After beating USC on a Hail Mary and having Utah’s All-American kicker Andy Phillips miss in overtime, this Arizona State team doesn’t look like the one that gave up 62 in a blowout against UCLA, but rather has one that looks and feels like a team of destiny.

Matched up against the Irish in the flagship afternoon game this Saturday, Graham and the entire campus (students began camping out earlier this week) understand that this isn’t just another football game.

“I think it’d be silly to say this is like any other game. It’s not any other game to me,” Graham said this week. “Growing up a football fan, getting an opportunity like this late in the year… This is the kind of game you want to coach in, the kind of games our players want to play in and obvious our fans want to see. So I’m looking forward to seeing a packed house and creating a memory.”

To get us ready for Saturday, Nick Keueger of House of Sparky joins us. In addition to being the managing editor of Arizona State’s SBNation blog, Nick is a future graduate at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State. We shared Q&A duties this week, so if you’re interested in seeing my answers to his questions, go check them out.

Either way, enjoy our discussion here.

 

The Sun Devils’ are 7-1 thanks to some fairly amazing finishes. A Hail Mary to beat USC. One (basically two) missed field goals last weekend in overtime to beat Utah. What has that done to this ASU team’s self-belief? How confident is this group as they welcome the Irish to Tempe?

These wins have been pretty spectacular morale boosters for the program, but I think the players understood wins such as Utah and USC also took a fair amount of luck. Against the Trojans, the Sun Devils managed under 40 yards rushing and the special teams was poor with a punt return for a touchdown by Nelson Aghalor. The Utes provided a tough defense for Taylor Kelly to throw against and he should have been picked three or four times, but the stat line will only show one.

The blowout 62-27 loss at home to UCLA also shows just how poorly this team can execute. The Sun Devils allowed five plays of 80 yards or more that night as Mike Bercovici threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball away too. The Sun Devils have seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows in 2014. Right now they’re riding one of those incredibly tall waves, but the optimism and confidence is tempered given what has transpired so far this season.

 

Taylor Kelly is back after missing three games with injury. How has he looked against Washington and Utah? Are his relatively modest numbers a product of the defenses faced or a little bit of rust?

Combined with what offensive coordinator Mike Norvell admitted was rust, Washington was a lot of game planning for Kelly not to throw because the winds were gusting upward of 50 to 60 MPH. The offensive line also left a lot to be desired that night, giving up seven sacks against Washington. Kelly was also without one of his faster targets in sophomore wide received Cameron Smith because of injury. Utah was a bigger test and a more true version of Kelly facing a very good defense.

Although he didn’t get a passing grade from many ASU fans, his saving grace was his dual threat ability especially on the last drive against Utah, which helped him finish with 14 rushes for 55 yards. The Sun Devils running game is nearly non-existent with Bercovici at the helm and Kelly provides that extra spark on the ground. Without that, the maroon and gold don’t win their last two games.

 

When we spoke this summer, the Sun Devils defense was a big mystery. It’s had some ugly moments, but seems to be hitting its stride. What’s been the driving force for the change?

The personnel remain the same, but Todd Graham is figuring out a lot of the right formulas on defense. He moved Antonio Longino from a roaming linebacker spot Graham likes to call “Devilbacker” to a weakside inside linebacker spot which has increased his production dramatically with over half of his tackles coming in the last three games. He’s also putting some heavier guys in combination together on the defensive line, junior Mo Latu who is 365 pounds is seeing a lot of extended playing time alongside other defensive tackle junior Jaxon Hood and senior defensive end Marcus Hardison.

There are other guys who are just simply playing better like junior college transfer and junior corner Kweishi Brown who is finally just getting his feet wet enough to feel comfortable at the Division I level.

 

The marriage between ASU and Todd Graham seems to be in full bloom. Yet with some high profile jobs potentially opening up this offseason, his name always seems to be among the ones to watch, especially after his previous moves. As someone close to the scene, do worries of him leaving sound ridiculous? Does it look like he’s really working his dream job, as he mentioned after leaving Pitt, or a guy that would take an offer from a place like Michigan seriously?

Any rumors were quelled for good in September when he donated $500,000 to the capital campaign toward redesigning Sun Devil Stadium. His wife’s parents also live in the Valley and he continues to repeat that there is nowhere he would rather be. As funny as this sounds, Todd Graham is an extremely loyal person. That is when it comes to who he surrounds himself with in his coaches. Graham has had his pick of hires and now that his other great friend in defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is here in his first season after he brought in Mike Norvell on the offensive side the ball in year one, I honestly don’t think Graham could be happier with where he’s at. He’s ready to build his legacy at ASU, his contract just got extended again this past summer and it would shock a lot of people if he left anytime soon.

 

The Sun Devils have one of the best WRs in the country in Jaelen Strong. He had a big game last year in Notre Dame’s victory over ASU in Dallas. How has Strong elevated his game this season?

While he has definitely caught a few more balls in open space, his ability to adjust his body while in the air has improved tremendously. It means everything to Taylor Kelly that when he throws a ball in Strong’s direction, either Strong is coming down with it or nobody is. He’s not faster necessarily, but put on about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Mel Kiper Jr. recently compared him to former Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans in how he operates on the field.

 

This was a game that ASU’s former AD fought very hard — and loudly — to save. With a national broadcast, and even a surprising early kickoff, how big of a game is this for Sun Devil fans and students? Just about everybody expected this to be a night game. Do you think an early afternoon start makes a difference?

The early afternoon kickoff was welcomed in Tempe and it should be a beautiful 80 degrees or warmer here Saturday. The only thing that got a lot of people riled up was College GameDay choosing East Lansing over Tempe for their location Saturday. The Sun Devils don’t often get a chance to play many games during the day because it’s still just too hot in Arizona to schedule a day game until late October or early November. Fans were also glad to have a Saturday game at a reasonable hour, which they could bring the entire family out to see instead of the usual 7p.m. kick.

Students started up a tradition of camping out for tickets to the first few rows of the student section last season and called it “Camp Fargo” because the tickets are given out at the basketball arena on campus named Wells Fargo Arena. The new tradition has continued this season, the line for student tickets started Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and is already wrapped half way around the building. If anything, I might argue a day game could enhance the atmosphere just because it doesn’t happen around here very often anymore.

 

Notre Dame got the better of ASU last year, a somewhat surprising outcome considering some of the struggles the Irish had with Tommy Rees behind center. With Everett Golson, the Irish offense has taken a big step forward. What are some key matchups for ASU’s defense that we should be watching?

Golson, like Taylor Kelly, enjoys moving the chains with his feet. In that case, senior defensive end Marcus Hardison who is second on the team with seven tackles for loss against left tackle Ronnie Stanley will be one to keep an eye on as Hardison will need to keep contain. The cat and mouse game between Golson and sophomore middle linebacker Salamo Fiso in identifying coverages and schemes will be one to watch too. Todd Graham plays attacking defense, he blitzes to his hearts’ content and will force Golson to make quick decisions with the football. If, however, he makes the right ones it could pay huge dividends as is the case with any high risk high reward blitzing. So I think a big matchup to watch is Golson’s decision making against Graham’s exotic blitz packages. Outside linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (4 sacks) is one of Graham’s favorite players to blitz with along with senior safety Damarious Randall who leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss.

 

Likewise, most expected the Sun Devil offense to be among the best in the country. Yet entering Saturday it’s Notre Dame that’s scoring at a better clip. Since the end of September, the Sun Devils have only broken 30 points once. Is something wrong?

The Sun Devils have run into two very good, stout Pac-12 defenses. Stanford was the No. 2 defense the country when ASU played them and Notre Dame fans know first hand how tough they are defensively. The running game couldn’t get going against the Cardinal either with Bercovici at the helm. Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha stunted the Sun Devils running game in their tracks in Seattle in horrendous conditions I touched upon earlier. I will say the offensive inefficiency against Utah is cause for some alarm. There were times where Kelly seemed flat out ineffective but ASU also may have found a few solutions in the running game with freshman Demario Richard. If I were to point to one thing, I’d say the Sun Devils finding a balance has been tough. Occasionally it will just become the “D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong show” with almost nobody else involved on offense and that’s when ASU has run into the most trouble.

 

Call your shot. How do you see this game shaking out?

With the academic suspensions on Notre Dame’s side and the loss of Joe Schmidt, I’m ready for another high scoring shootout just like the game in Dallas. The Fighting Irish provide a well-balanced attack in my opinion and it seems in the Pac-12, teams are pass or run first so ND provides a unique challenge.

That game in Dallas was special for both sides, regardless of the outcome, it helped both fan bases tremendously and both teams gained great national exposure. Saturday seems a little more hostile in my opinion. The Sun Devils and their fans have a bit of a chip on their shoulder just like any team would against a group they lost to last season. Unfortunately for ASU, they tend to lose these kinds of huge games on a national stage. Taylor Kelly is a very good quarterback and will do everything he can to keep the Sun Devils in it, but in my mind I just can’t see this young defense being ready for an offense as dynamic as Notre Dame.

Notre Dame: 38 ASU: 31

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For more from Nick you can follow him on Twitter @NickPKrueger. You should also be getting updates @HouseofSparky.