Great opportunity awaits ASU against Notre Dame

Notre Dame game doesn't count toward Pac-12 standings but is loaded with opportunity for ASU.

TEMPE. Ariz. -- As if the old cliché "everything's bigger in Texas" needed any more credence, Arizona State can attest to it.

Though Saturday's game against Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium holds no Pac-12 implications, it is hugely significant in just about every other way for the 22nd-ranked Sun Devils.

"It is a great opportunity for us," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "Is it more important than Pac-12 games? No, it's not, and that's not how we emphasize it with our players, but it's darn important to our fan base. It's darn important to our football program."

The stage for Saturday's clash could hardly be bigger: the home of the Dallas Cowboys in prime time on national TV against a team with one college football's widest-reaching audiences.

"This is what we as college athletes live for -- big games like this on the main stage," ASU safety Alden Darby said.

The opponent, too, could not be much more esteemed. Notre Dame is unranked and off to a disappointing start at 3-2 but is still less than a year removed from playing in the BCS national championship game. One of college football's most storied programs, Notre Dame holds claim to 11 national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners and countless legends of the game.

"It's great for our program to play against such a prestigious program like Notre Dame and all the great players and coaches that have been through there," quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "It's going to be great for our program to show the nation what we're made of."

But ASU (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) is trying to get beyond the grandness of the stage and the mystique of the opponent, as the result of the game itself is where the payoff lies.

"I just emphasized to our guys the focus we need to have," Graham said. "This is a business trip for us. I know it's exciting for our fans. It's been a focal point for a lot of people. Looking forward to this season, everybody was talking about that game. Our focus is one thing: winning the game."

ASU has the chance to use this stage to throw a national coming-out party. Few opponents draw the audience each week that Notre Dame does, and this week, Notre Dame's audience is also ASU's. When you beat the Fighting Irish, the college football world knows it.

Perhaps even more significant is the audience right there in Texas, one of the nation's hottest recruiting beds. The likes of Alabama, LSU and Oregon have already visited Arlington to showcase their programs over the past five years.

"Our No. 1 recruiting area is right here in Arizona, and then California," Graham said. "The next recruiting area we go to is Texas, and it's been very productive for us. Obviously (when) we go in there to play, it's a big deal for us."

ASU landed four recruits out of Texas last season and already has three committed for the 2014 class. Winning a game this big in Texas would only serve to boost recruiting efforts in the state.

A win would also provide a significant image boost, helping ASU further shake the reputation as a sleeping giant incapable of winning the big game. Again, Notre Dame may not be its best this season, but a victory over the Irish still means something in the college football world.

"It means a lot for the fans and for this program," defensive tackle Will Sutton said. "It helps with recruiting, and nobody's ever beaten (USC) and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks in the history of college football, so to go down in history and do something like that? Great."

That bit of history can be chalked up to scheduling quirks, as only 12 previous teams, including ASU in 1998, have faced the two programs in consecutive weeks, and others have beaten both teams in the same season. Still, such a distinction would not go unnoticed.

The Sun Devils enter the game as the betting favorites, although not by much. The Fighting Irish are coming off a loss to now 11th-ranked Oklahoma, and while they have struggled to replace 2012 Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te'o on defense, ASU expects a stiff defensive challenge and hopes to gain an edge with its up-tempo offense, as Oklahoma did last week.

"That's something that's big in every game," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "When we're able to get out there and execute that and play fast within drives, it puts a tremendous amount of stress on the defense."

Notre Dame's defense last season held 10 of 12 regular-season opponents to 14 or fewer points. This year, three opponents already have scored 24 or more points on a defense ranked 46th in the nation. So Kelly and the Sun Devils' offense should have plenty of opportunities to put up points if they can play as they did against USC last week.

As much as players and coaches have stressed the typical mantras --"the field is the same size" or "it's still just football" -- they simultaneously recognize the significance of this game. ASU has even debuted new helmets and uniform accessories for the occasion.

The game also has personal importance for Graham, who will coach the Sun Devils just a short drive from where he was born and coached high school football. Graham said his mother and siblings as well as his high school and middle school football coaches will all be in attendance at the same game for the first time in his career.

For all the significance to players, coaches and fans, though, the trip won't seem as important if ASU returns to Tempe with a loss.

"At the end of the day, it's about the game," Graham said. "The experience everybody wants is to go to Dallas and win, not just go to Dallas."

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