Notre Dame-Arizona St. Preview
(AP) — Notre Dame’s bid to reach the College Football Playoff will likely depend on an offense potent enough to compensate for the inexperience and frailty of its defense.
Arizona State’s defense has been the springboard for its shot at a Pac-12 championship and, possibly, a spot in the playoffs.
With the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish and No. 11 Sun Devils both entering Saturday’s matchup in the desert with one loss, it essentially will be a playoff elimination game.
Arizona State (7-1) jumped five spots to No. 9 in the second playoff rankings released Tuesday night, while Notre Dame (7-1) stayed 10th.
“This is arguably the best football team we’ve seen all year and with that comes great opportunity,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “I don’t have to give our players any motivational speeches this week; they’re going to be pretty fired up to play.”
Arizona State had two returning starters and plenty of questions on defense heading into the season. Even Graham was unsure what to expect, calling his group talented but unproven.
There weren’t many answers early in the season and even more questions when then-No. 11 UCLA ran over the Sun Devils 62-27 on Sept. 25.
But since that game, the true nature of the defense has revealed itself: These guys are pretty good. But are they good enough to slow down Notre Dame?
Seven touchdowns, 533 yards and a record-breaking performance by quarterback Everett Golson were just enough to get the Fighting Irish past Navy 49-39 last Saturday night.
It wasn’t the first time Notre Dame had to lean heavily on its offense. It probably won’t be the last.
The Irish have allowed 113 points in the last three games. The only defeat in that span was 31-27 against defending champion and second-ranked Florida State.
Against Navy, Golson became the first Notre Dame player to run for three touchdowns and pass for three. Tarean Folston contributed 149 yards rushing, including a 25-yard TD with 12:22 left to put the Irish up 42-31.
Notre Dame blew a 21-point lead, gave up 336 yards rushing and allowed 23 first downs. Golson made sure it didn’t matter, throwing for 315 yards and leading the Irish to three fourth-quarter TDs.
“Our offense was putting up a lot of points for us,” safety Max Redfield said. “We understood that. They scored way too many more points than they had to.”
Those points might be hard to come by against the Sun Devils, who have ridden the defense to three straight wins since needing a Hail Mary to pull out a wild 38-34 victory over then-No. 16 Southern California on Oct. 4.
The Sun Devils got their defensive roll going with a gratifying 26-10 win over then-No. 23 Stanford, becoming the first team to shut the Cardinal out in the first half in 87 games while holding them to 288 yards.
Arizona State had a similar result in a 24-10 road win against Washington, holding the Huskies to 290 yards, and went toe-to-toe with then-No. 18 Utah in a 19-16 overtime win last weekend.
“I just think we have a swagger about ourselves,” safety Damarious Randall said. “Once that swagger gets established, we just swarm the ball and everybody trusts each other.”
The Fighting Irish defensive players are going to have to figure out how to get on the same page after losing senior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt to a season-ending fractured and dislocated left ankle against Navy.
With freshman Nyles Morgan taking his spot and two sophomores filling the other two linebacker slots, coach Brian Kelly isn’t sure who will be taking over the duty of making sure Notre Dame is in the right defense and lined up correctly.
“We’ve got a couple things we’re going to experiment with today, and then we’ll get a better feel,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We haven’t practiced yet, so we have a system that we’ll employ today, and I think we’ll get a better feel over the next couple days.”
The loss of Schmidt, who was leading the team in tackles, couldn’t come at a more inopportune time.
The Fighting Irish have given up 30 or more points for three straight games, something they’ve done only a handful of times in 126 seasons, and are facing an Arizona State team which is averaging 483.6 yards. That’s 22nd in the nation, the highest-ranked offense Notre Dame will face this season.
“I think we’ve got to continue to improve in tighter coverage and get home when we’ve got the opportunities,” Kelly said. “I think if we do that, we’ll be fine on Saturday.”
Notre Dame beat Arizona State 37-34 last season at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to improve to 3-0 in the all-time series.