(Eds: Updates with more details and quotes. Will stand. With AP Photos.)By JOHN MARSHALLAP College Football Writer
Arizona State eyed a difficult four-game stretch in the schedule as a gauge, a chance to see if the program was ready to become part of the national conversation.
Three games in, the 22nd-ranked Sun Devils have held up well, outside of one awful half against Stanford.
The final game in this gauntlet offers a chance at history.
With a victory over Notre Dame on Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Texas, Arizona State can become the first team to beat Southern California and the Fighting Irish in consecutive weeks.
The Sun Devils got the first half right by routing the Trojans in Tempe last week and can complete the storied-program sweep in front of a national audience in the palace Jerry Jones built.
”This game is a national game for us, an opportunity for our players,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. ”I talked to them yesterday about making history. They can be the first team in college football history to beat USC and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks. That has never happened. I would say that is pretty significant.”
Arizona State (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) started the season with one of the nation’s toughest schedules, highlighted by the current four-run stretch of teams that were ranked in the preseason Top 25.
The Sun Devils got it off to a great start, surviving a comeback and bizarre finish to knock off then-No. 20 Wisconsin. Arizona State stumbled on the big stage in its next game, falling into a 29-0 hole against No. 5 Stanford before scoring three touchdowns in the fourth quarter in the 42-28 loss.
The Sun Devils bounced back from that with a vengeance, matching the most points ever scored against USC with a 62-41 victory that cost coach Lane Kiffin his job the next day.
Next comes a chance to do what no other team has done.
Thirteen teams have played USC and Notre Dame, two of college football’s most storied programs, in consecutive weeks. Only two have even gotten past the first game: Michigan State in 1987 and South Carolina in 1983. Both teams lost to Notre Dame in routs after knocking off USC.
Arizona State also played both teams in 1998, but lost by 11 to USC and by 19 to Notre Dame.
”It is a game that is very important,” Graham said. ”Is it more important than the Pac-12 games? No, it is not. That is how we emphasize it to our players. But it is very important to our fan base, very important to our football program.”
Just as important as Saturday’s game will be for the Sun Devils this season, it could be just as important to them in the future.
Graham’s focus in recruiting is to keep the best in-state talent and players from California. After that, the next top target is Texas, one of the most fertile states in the country for high school football talent.
Arizona State hasn’t played in Texas since the 1997 Sun Bowl in El Paso and winning in a big metro area like Dallas-Fort Worth against a premiere program like Notre Dame could be a big boost on the recruiting front.
”Our number one recruiting area is right here in Arizona and California. That is our base recruiting area,” Graham said. ”The next recruiting area is Texas. It has been very productive for us. Obviously, we are going there to play and it is a big deal for us.”
It’s important to Graham on a personal level, too.
He grew up in the Dallas area and played high school football in Mesquite, a suburb on the east side of the Metroplex. Graham’s first job as a coach was in Texas as well, as an assistant at Mesquite Poteet.
He’s already been inundated with ticket requests from friends and family, and would love to leave the Lone Star State with a program-boosting victory.
”For me personally, going back to where my home is, where I am from, it is a big deal for me,” he said. ”Let everybody know that I don’t have any tickets, to stop calling me. Leave me alone and let me try to have a chance to beat Notre Dame.”