Todd Graham hopes the Arizona State program can eventually be in the same breath as Notre Dame. It may never happen or it may take years. ASU can begin its journey toward national prominence by defeating the Fighting Irish.
The contest carries heavy significance for both teams, particularly for the Maroon and Gold. In the standings, the Pac-12 encounters mean more for the Sun Devils. But for recruiting purposes, country wide recognition and accomplishing their long term goals, ASU must treat this game like it's against conference foes.
If Notre Dame wants to avoid falling to .500 at 3-3, three players must rise to the occasion. If ASU wants to garner respect and possibly slide into the top 20 in the AP poll, three players must rise the occasion as well.
Taylor Kelly, Quarterback
The best way to overcome the Notre Dame defense is through the air. Taylor Kelly doesn't mind the sound of that at all. The junior signal caller has accumulated 1,370 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Earth to Andrew Walter, your single season records at ASU are in serious jeopardy.
In the 2012 campaign, the Fighting Irish surrendered only seven passing touchdowns. Through five games in 2013, the Fighting Irish surrendered an unacceptable 10 passing touchdowns. The numbers aren't pretty. To make the situation even tougher, Kelly may be the best quarterback they have seen.
The offensive line needs to give Kelly time, otherwise he can't exploit Notre Dame's secondary issues. The opportunities for Kelly will be there often, therefore expect offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to let his signal caller air it out often.
Will Sutton, Defensive line
The ASU defensive line will most likely be without Jaxon Hood, therefore defensive coordinator Paul Randolph needs Will Sutton more than usual. The Notre Dame offense, led by quarterback Tommy Rees, can beat opponents in multiple facets. But frequently, Rees's turnovers cause the unit to not live up to its potential.
If Rees can sit back and read the defense, he possesses the tools to pick apart defenses. Conversely, Rees gets easily rattled when under pressure, which creates mistakes. Sutton is the obvious top nominee to discombobulate the senior quarterback.
The All-American versatile defensive lineman hasn't done as well as expected, yet he bounced back with a quality performance against USC. Sutton wants to prove the critiques wrong, and he has the Texas sized stage to do so. The Sun Devil defense needs Sutton in the backfield regularly to prevail.
Robert Nelson, Cornerback
Between covering the talented Notre Dame wideouts and improving his run play, Robert Nelson will be under the spotlight. Nelson will either matchup with TJ Jones or DaVaris Daniels, and both options will be difficult tasks. Jones has tallied 25 receptions, 346 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Daniels has hauled in 21 receptions, 318 yards and four touchdowns.
Beyond covering Jones or Daniels, Nelson has to worry about run defense also. Teams are consistently challenging the field side, which is where Nelson operates. The smaller cover man rarely gets off blocks to the outside, allowing running backs to burst into the second level.
Nelson normally does at least decently in coverage, but his lack of tackling and strength on the outside hurts ASU on the ground. The coaches praise Nelson for being ultra-athletic, and Sun Devil nation needs to see the same.
George Atkinson III, Running back
The Notre Dame offense rotates between three to five backs, but George Atkinson III does the majority of damage. Atkinson III displays break away speed, trotting for an 80-yard touchdown against Oklahoma. On his runs, breaking containment outside the hashmarks is his trademark. Conversely, the ASU defense struggles at stopping runs to that area of the field.
In addition, Atkinson III can slow down the Sun Devils fast paced tempo with methodical gains. The best defense for Notre Dame may be Atkinson III because he can keep Kelly and company off the field. The Fighting Irish rank only 93rd in the nation at running the rock, yet that began to rise after an efficient outing last week.
Vegas picked ASU to beat Notre Dame, and Atkinson III has the talent to single-handidly prove them wrong.
Louis Nix III, Defensive line
At 6-foot-3 and 357 pounds, lining up across from Louis Nix would be my worst nightmare. Nix runs quicker than any behemoth that size should and maintains the strength anyone would expect. That deadly combination may be the top reason NFL Scouts think he should go in the first round of the draft.
Nix doesn't have the necessary help behind him in the secondary. The Notre Dame secondary can't track Jaelen Strong, Chris Coyle and D.J. Foster for long. Here's where Nix comes into the fold, as his team needs to generate pressure on Kelly to slow their offense down.
Nix, accompanied by fellow standout Stephon Tuitt, are the sole shot for the Fighting Irish on defense.
Bennett Jackson, Cornerback
Most cornerbacks would fear ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong, but senior cornerback Bennett Jackson lives for these type of challenges. Jackson commands the attention of his peers with solid production and elite leadership. In the pre-season, Jackson was named to plenty of watch lists, for the country's best cornerback.
Watching Jackson and Strong battle it out will be entertaining. Nobody stymied Strong to date, but Jackson could arguably be the toughest competition Strong has faced.
For the Fighting Irish to succeed, Jackson must get the best of Strong more times than not.