TEMPE, Ariz. -- While the discussion and analysis of Arizona State’s new flame helmets burns hotly, the Sun Devils continue to prepare for a major showdown with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this Saturday.
This game will arguably be on the biggest stage the Sun Devils will play on during the regular season, as this match-up will be part of the Shamrock Series and played in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The significance of this Saturday is not lost on ASU head coach Todd Graham, nor is placing the game in its proper perspective.
“This game is a national game for us, an opportunity for our players,” said Graham. “It is a game that is very important. 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, and very important to our football program.”
Beyond the immediate benefits of facing off against one of the sport’s most storied programs, Graham sees this nationally televised showcase as a chance to catch of eye of top recruits in one of the most fertile prep grounds in the nation.
“Our number one recruiting area is right here in Arizona and California. That is our base recruiting area,” said Graham. “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.”
As for the game itself, the Sun Devils will be facing an Irish team that was knocked from the Top 25 thanks to a turnover-riddled loss to Oklahoma last Saturday. Even with the loss, Graham still sees a dangerous offense coming his team’s way.
The dynamic of Notre Dame’s offense change this May, when starting quarterback Everett Golson had to withdraw from school for academic reasons. The insertion of Tommy Rees has made the Irish much more of a passing team than they were during last year’s run to the BCS Championship game.
“They are going to do some things offensively that are very difficult,” said Graham. “They do a lot of unbalanced and empty formations that we are going to work really hard on to prepare for. They have really good players. Their tailbacks are similar to the ones we faced this week. Very good and powerful guys, and big tight ends and big receivers.”
Yet the Irish ground game cannot be underestimated, despite currently ranking 92nd in the nation in rushing. They have a large and physical offensive line leading the way for a trio of talented running backs: George Atkinson III (team-high 269 yards, 7.1 yards-per-carry), Cam McDaniel (177, 3.7) and USC-transfer Amir Carlisle (170, 4.7).
This is an area of concern for Graham, as his Sun Devils have been gashed on the ground for an average of 237 yards rushing per game and over six yards-per-carry over their three games against FBS competition. With starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood’s status still in the air, fixing the run defense is atop Graham’s to do list.
"Obviously, we aren't doing very well in that regard,” Graham said. “This is the number one thing that we have to do to win a championship. This has got to get better and I think it can.”
Despite the struggles of his team, Graham believes the solutions are within reach.
“Most of it has been alignment issues on the perimeter,” said Graham. “Most of the yards they are making are on perimeter runs. Most of it, we can fix. We have played good people, but still we are giving up plays where we are absolutely misaligned. We had right at 15 plays last week where we were misaligned.”
Graham continued, “Where we are getting hurt is on angle flow and on outside perimeter run. I do think there are things we can do to fix that. I am encouraged because we are just one or two people away from getting it right.”
Graham conceded that last week’s experiment of filling Hood’s void with defensive end Gannon Conway did not work, and Conway will return to end, with Davon Coleman and a hopefully healthy Mo Latu seeing time inside.
“I do think there are some personnel issues. We are just a guy or two short at some spots,” Graham said. “We will make some moves that we have to do to get kind of straight.”
Coming off the win against USC, ASU is now back in the Top 25 polls (No. 22 AP, No. 24 USA Today) and atop the Pac-12 South division. The Sun Devils now have an opportunity to finish the much-discussed four-game portion of their schedule (Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, and Notre Dame) with a 3-1 record, major momentum, and a win in the national spotlight.
But getting there will not be easy.
“It will be a big challenge for us,” said Graham. “We have got to go on the road in Dallas and play well.”