ASU vs. Notre Dame: 5 questions

The anticipation has been building for Arizona State’s showdown with Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, since the series was announced in 2008. The feud between the schools over Notre Dame’s attempt to back out of a 2014 game in Tempe only fueled the fire.

But for the Sun Devils, this is not a must-win game. It’s a marquee nonconference game that could have significant implications on the image of the program, but it won’t impact ASU’s pursuit of a Pac-12 title.

The Fighting Irish, meanwhile, are on their heels after a home loss to Oklahoma last week. Falling to 3-2, Notre Dame clearly isn’t want it was last season, but a win against ASU would be a big step toward a prominent place in the postseason again this year.’s ASU beat writer Tyler Lockman and’s Notre Dame beat writer JJ Stankevitz report on these teams daily. Here, they break down Saturday’s game via five questions that could decide the outcome. Both can be followed on Twitter @TylerLockman and @JJStankevitz.

1. This is obviously a big stage for both teams. Notre Dame, though, is used to this kind of thing, especially given last season’s appearance in the BCS national championship game. ASU, meanwhile, has fallen flat in big opportunities recently. How much does the setting factor into this one?

Lockman: ASU is 4-4 in road games under Todd Graham. It has disappointed in a few big road opportunities in that span — at Missouri and USC last season and at Stanford two weeks ago, notably. This is the Sun Devils’ latest road test, and the setting couldn’t be bigger. Playing at Cowboys Stadium against a marquee program like Notre Dame is a chance for the Sun Devils to boost their image nationally, and they historically haven’t performed well in such situations. It will be worth watching if ASU can prove that it’s ready for this kind of stage or if it still has some growing to do. As JJ outlines below, it might be the perfect setting for Notre Dame: a de facto home game with a friendly crowd outside the bubble of South Bend. And you can count on Notre Dame being ready to play from the start, not needing any time to settle into the environment of such a big game after playing in the biggest game of them all last season.

Stankevitz: The venue actually could be perfect for Notre Dame. Last weekend’s game against Oklahoma was bad from the start, and then there was the whole alma mater flap after the game (as fans booed at the end of the game, some Irish players went into the tunnel while others fulfilled a tradition of signing the alma mater in front of the student section, leading to more booing). The Fighting Irish are 3-2, the same record they had after five games in 2011. Getting away from South Bend but not playing in a road venue actually could work well for the Notre Dame players in that regard, as they’ll avoid the boos from the student section while not playing in front of a loud, hostile crowd.

2. While it was the opposite as recently as a week or two ago, ASU comes in as the favorite in this game, although not by much. What does your team do that could be the difference between a win and a loss this week? What could be its advantage?

Lockman: Defensive pressure could be the key for ASU in this game. Will Sutton silenced doubts about his explosiveness last week against USC, and defensive end Gannon Conway will be back at his natural position. ASU will likely be without starting nose tackle Jaxon Hood again, which will hurt the run defense, but Davon Coleman should perform better while starting inside than moving there mid-game, as he did last week. That group along with linebackers Chris Young and Carl Bradford should give Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees fits, and with his reputation for turning the ball over (“Tommy Turnover”), that should mean some takeaway chances for ASU’s attacking defense. If Rees is on his heels like USC’s Cody Kessler was much of last week and if the pressure at least limits the run game, Notre Dame’s offense could have some difficulties.

Stankevitz: If Notre Dame can run the ball as effectively as it did against Oklahoma, the hope is it’ll open up more play action for Tommy Rees and allow him to be more effective than he’s been the last two weeks (23 for 58, 246 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT). George Atkinson broke off an 80-yard touchdown run and looked effective on his other carries, while Tarean Folston showed big-play ability with a 36-yard run. Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel have looked good early in the year, too. Even if Rees remains ineffective with an established run game, it’s another way for Notre Dame to score, and probably a necessary one for them to win on Saturday.  

3. Notre Dame had one of the nation’s best defenses in 2012, and though it’s still full of big-time playmakers, it seems to have taken a step back this season. ASU’s defense hasn’t quite been what it was a year ago, either, and is still struggling to defend the run. Which defense makes more of an impact Saturday?

Lockman: ASU’s defense is not without issues, specifically stopping the run, but it should be able to adequately handle Notre Dame’s scuffling offense. It may have to lean on the offense a bit if Notre Dame gets the run game established like USC did last week, but even in that situation, the defense showed it can impact games in a big way. ASU’s four turnovers should have led to more points than the 13 they yielded last week, and with the way Tommy Rees played against Oklahoma (three interceptions) it stands to reason ASU could change this game on turnovers as well. Unless Rees has a breakout performance, I can’t see the Fighting Irish doing much in the passing game, but they might be forced into trying. Notre Dame’s defense is still solid, but even Brian Kelly knows it’s lost a step from last season’s dominating unit. ASU’s defense wins the day.

Stankevitz: Notre Dame’s defense has only forced four turnovers all year, a jarring contrast from last year’s turnover-hungry unit. The Irish have allowed 10 scoring drives of 75 or more yards (as opposed to one all of last regular season), as the defense is bending and breaking due to a myriad of factors. Not taking the ball away is a big one of those (as well as poor back-seven play, a pass rush that hasn’t made a consistent impact and poor third-down play), as the defense has allowed opposing offenses to grind out those long, exhausting drives. While Notre Dame might still have a ton of skilled playmakers, it’s a unit that hasn’t found a way to replace Manti Te’o, and that’s really showed through five games. With Notre Dame’s defensive issues in mind here, ASU has the greater impact, even though it gave up 41 points last week.

4. At 3-2, Notre Dame isn’t off to the start it hoped for, and this game could end up having major bowl implications for the Fighting Irish. ASU doesn’t need this win to reach its conference goals this season, but a win would be a significant boost for the program overall. So to whom does a win mean more to this week?

Lockman: As much as an ASU win would mean to the program’s profile and image, both this season and beyond, I think Notre Dame needs it more. The Sun Devils would benefit in the rankings and get a reputation bump nationally, but their goal is winning the Pac-12, and this game doesn’t help them do that. Notre Dame, meanwhile, doesn’t have a conference to win. Every game matters for a team that must meet a certain benchmark to secure a high-profile bowl game. A loss here could derail Notre Dame’s chances at finishing high enough in the BCS standings to earn a BCS bowl berth, and while the Fighting Irish are an attractive selection due to their national following, they don’t have an automatic tie-in anywhere else and could slip down to a lower-tier game. But beyond bowl implications, three losses is disappointing for any team coming off a national championship berth — and Notre Dame still has to play Stanford on the road.

For Notre Dame, going into a bye week, this game means a ton. The Fighting Irish haven’t played well at all through five games, but there’d still be hope at 4-2 halfway through the season. While it’s a long shot — one that requires beating Stanford in Palo Alto — as long as they finish the season with two losses, they’d be in the BCS discussion. Beating a ranked team in Arizona State won’t make or break Notre Dame’s season, but a loss could shatter this team’s psyche. A win would be a fantastic response to Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma, one that could build confidence with a week off. So there’s plenty at stake here for Notre Dame on Saturday.

5. Who is going to win this game, by what score, and why?

Lockman: I wouldn’t have said it at the beginning of the season, but I think ASU takes this one by a score of 42-28. ASU’s offense really got rolling against USC last week, and there’s no reason to think it slows down going forward. Marion Grice is looking better every week and can’t be kept out of the end zone. Jaelen Strong is emerging as one of the top receivers in the Pac-12, one who can catch whatever Taylor Kelly puts in his general vicinity. Alabama (in the national championship game last season) has been the only team to score 42 on Notre Dame in the past three seasons, but I think this ASU offense will further expose the Fighting Irish defense with its tempo and range of weapons. On top of that, I think the defense will get to Tommy Rees early and often, forcing at least three turnovers, which proved a huge difference-maker against USC last week.

Stankevitz: Arizona State, 31-20. Notre Dame’s defense has too many holes, and its best feature — run defense — was exploited by Oklahoma getting to the edges last week. Tommy Rees hasn’t shown to be an effective quarterback the last two weeks, and while he’s thrown for 300 yards in three games this year, the defensive book seems to be out on him. Notre Dame has a chance if its running backs carry the offensive load, but ultimately, I think Arizona State makes Rees throw, and an offense that put up 62 points last weekend winds up pulling away in the second half to give ASU a comfortable win.