Five questions: Arizona State vs. Notre Dame

The return of dynamic quarterback Everett Golson make Notre Dame's offense completely different than the one Arizona State faced a year ago in Arlington, Texas.

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Nobody could have predicted two months ago just how much Saturday’s game between Arizona State and Notre Dame would mean. The No. 9 Sun Devils and No. 10 Fighting Irish both have College Football Playoff aspirations, and this week could be a big stepping stone to it.

Both teams enter 7-1 hoping to remain among college football’s one-loss, power five teams (there are 12 entering the weekend). But Notre Dame remains a bit of an enigma, having not yet beaten a team currently ranked in the College Football Playoff top 25.

J.J. Stankevitz covers the Fighting Irish on a daily basis for Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and here he provides insight and context on Notre Dame’s season thus far via five key questions. Stankevitz’s stories can be found at csnchicago.com and he can be followed on Twitter @JJStankevitz.

1. The knock on Notre Dame, as you surely know, is that the Fighting Irish haven’t beaten any good teams and their best win is actually their loss to Florida State. Fair or unfair? 

Stankevitz: Fair. Notre Dame’s best win, in a technical sense, is over a 5-4 Stanford team ranked 33rd by F/+ efficiency ratings. Other wins over Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, North Carolina and Navy don’t exactly comprise a strong resume. While the Florida State loss was a good one — the selection committee certainly viewed it that way — Notre Dame needs to beat Arizona State to have a strong win to its name this year. After ASU are home games against Northwestern and Louisville and a road game at USC, which … well, let’s just say it’s not exactly an SEC West-esque schedule.

2. Notre Dame escaped with a win against Navy last week. What did the Midshipmen do to make it a close game?

Stankevitz: I wouldn’t read too much into what the Midshipmen did over the weekend to the Irish — facing the triple option at this point in the season isn’t easy, given it’s a complete deviation from the usual week-to-week preparation. But Keenan Reynolds, Noah Copeland and Chris Swaim ran the triple option awfully well and took advantage of some sloppy, undisciplined play from the Irish to keep things close. Notre Dame held a 28-7 lead and had numerous chances to put away Navy but wound up giving up 24 straight points and needing a fourth-quarter comeback to win by 10. It wasn’t pretty, but Navy’s a weird opponent.

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3. What is the strength of this Notre Dame team? And how about a weakness?

Stankevitz: Without a doubt, the strength of this team is its offense. It’s a young group littered with inexperience, but those young guys like running back Tarean Folston and wide receivers Will Fuller and Corey Robinson are producing well. Folston in particular has been excellent in Notre Dame’s last three games, rushing for 367 yards on 50 carries, and that’s keyed some really strong offensive performances. But make no mistake, Everett Golson is the engine of this offense — he’s accounted for 29 touchdowns this year and has been exactly the quarterback Brian Kelly wanted since coming to South Bend.

As for a weakness, Notre Dame’s front seven could very well turn into one without Joe Schmidt, who was lost for the season after suffering a fractured and dislocated ankle against Navy. Schmidt not only was Notre Dame’s leading tackler, but he was the quarterback of the Irish defense. Jarron Jones called him "Jimmy Neutron" for his boy-genius ability to get the Irish front seven aligned correctly, and he’s being replaced with the talented but green Nyles Morgan. Communication and alignment duties will be dispersed throughout the front seven now instead of having a go-to guy in Schmidt, and it remains to be seen how a group comprised of freshmen, sophomores and inexperienced juniors will respond.

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4. How different is this team than the one ASU faced in Dallas last season?

Stankevitz: There aren’t a ton of guys who played significant snaps in that game and are still around this year: RB Cam McDaniel, WR C.J. Prosise, TE Ben Koyack, OLs Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Christian Lombard, DL Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, DB Matthias Farley, S Elijah Shumate and K/P Kyle Brindza. Of those guys, McDaniel is squarely Folston’s backup, while Stanley, Martin, Lombard, Day, Smith and Farley all changed positions. Golson is back and makes Notre Dame’s offense completely different than it was under Tommy Rees. Brian VanGorder’s 4-3, pressure-heavy defense is a complete 180 from Bob Diaco’s 3-4, bend-but-don’t-break group. In short, this is a completely different Notre Dame team than the one that beat ASU a year ago.

5. This game is a big one, essentially a College Football Playoff elimination game. How do you see things playing out in Tempe?

Stankevitz: Over the last few years, Notre Dame hasn’t fared well after playing Navy — they’re 2-2 under Kelly, with the losses to Tulsa and Pitt and the wins were one-possession victories over Wake Forest and Purdue. Playing without Schmidt in the middle is an unknown — Morgan was one of the top inside linebacker recruits in 2014 but only has about two quarters of significant action under his belt at the college level. But Notre Dame’s offense is good enough to make this an awfully competitive shootout. I’ll say 38-34 Arizona State wins, but one play could swing things in Notre Dame’s favor on Saturday.