It's hard to believe this game, the Notre Dame game in Tempe, has finally arrived. It has been a long awaited, intriguing matchup for both teams. It also comes with its fair share of pressure for both sides who are looking to keep their chances of playing in the College Football Playoff alive.
In anticipation of the matchup, we asked Keith Arnold, the main writer for the Notre Dame "Inside the Irish" blog hosted on NBCSports.com, some questions about the upcoming game and he happily obliged us with some very extensive and intriguing answers.
House of Sparky: ASU fans saw the Sun Devils face quarterback Tommy Rees last season, not Everett Golson, how is Golson's skill set different?
Keith Arnold: It's different in just about every way. Where as Rees' limitations as an athlete and quarterback were fairly obvious, Golson is the perfect quarterback for Brian Kelly's spread system. As a passer, he's got arm strength to make just about every throw on the field. He's accurate in both the quick game and throwing deep. While he's undersized, his arm is not. It's up there with the best in college football.
As a runner, he's not necessarily going to beat you with speed, but he's dangerous. His seven rushing touchdowns lead the Irish and he's been able to move the chains and keep defenses honest in the spread read game. More dangerous is his ability to extend plays. Golson has made big plays down field by keeping plays alive outside the pocket. He seems to have an uncanny ability to keep his eyes down field and evade the rush.
Golson seems to have shored up some ball security issues that ruined big games for him early when he was a runner with the football. For my money, he is Notre Dame's best offensive player and on his way to emerging as maybe the best Irish quarterback of the modern (from Lou Holtz on) era.
HoS: In your opinion, what was the key to Florida State's success against the Irish in their only loss this season?
KA: Man, after rewatching that game a half-dozen times, I'm not sure Florida State had much success. Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Their defensive line dominated the FSU offensive front. Notre Dame ran the ball really well against the Seminoles, too.
Ultimately, Jameis Winston started making some big plays in the rhythm passing game in the second half. And after taking a late lead, the game came down to a 50/50 call, and a pretty controversial offensive pass interference call went against Notre Dame.
Unlike the FSU-Louisville game on Thursday, both teams played clean, good football. It was a great performance by the Irish, but as Brian Kelly said, they Irish needed to make one more play.
HoS: This Notre Dame team seems really tough to read. They barely beat a Stanford team that has turned out to be pretty poor and then only beat Navy by 10 last week. Yet only lost to the No. 2 team in the country by four points. What can be attributed to the close margins of victory?
KA: The game against Stanford was played in a monsoon, so offense was tough to come by. But the Irish left some points on the board after moving the ball pretty well against the Cardinal, a team that always matches up well with Notre Dame. And the game against Navy is always a roller coaster. For as close as that game was down the stretch, Notre Dame nearly buried the Midshipmen when it was 28-7 and let them slip out late in the second quarter. (It might not look it, but Navy is an absolute nightmare to play.)
Ultimately, this team is still a really young group. They've been a fun team to watch and cover, as most of the question marks and unproven players that entered the season have come through. Add to that the loss of three top starters for an academic issue before the season started and the fact that the Irish are 7-1 at this time of year is a credit to Brian Kelly and his coaching staff.
HoS: If you had to pick an "x-factor" for Sun Devil fans to watch out for on the Fighting Irish this season, who would it be and why?
KA: Golson is the true X-factor, but I'll point at Notre Dame's defense. After watching the Irish struggle with pace against North Carolina, seeing how the Sun Devils decide to attack this young group will be interesting.
Add to that the injury to middle linebacker Joe Schmidt and the Irish will be playing true freshman Nyles Morgan in the middle. While both Morgan and fellow true freshman Greer Martini played huge minutes against Navy, the ability for the Irish to be able to run all the exotic blitzes that coordinator Brian VanGorder has been calling could be limited without Schmidt's ability to get the calls installed pre-snap.
HoS: A lot has been made about this game over the past few seasons and Notre Dame trying to get this game off their schedule while former ASU athletic director Steve Patterson did everything he could to keep it on. Now that it's finally here, what's the general sentiment among the Notre Dame fan base about coming all the way out West to play a Pac-12 team?
KA: Maybe I'm looking at this from Notre Dame's perspective, but it wasn't anything personal. Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick was looking for ways to make the university's commitment to the ACC work. As the Big East imploded, Notre Dame needed a home for its other sports, and the ACC welcomed the school without demanding the football program join, independence that Notre Dame values institutionally.
But that meant scheduling five ACC games a season starting in 2014, meaning some difficult conversations with ADs at a ton of schools.
That Patterson kicked and screamed ultimately saved the game. But his tactics didn't go unnoticed, and when Patterson took the Texas job it likely rankled Swarbrick even more. After having DeLoss Dodds, the former AD of the Longhorns, as one of his confidants and a partner in the realignment saga that ultimately forced ND's hand, Patterson is more from the Dave Brandon school of AD'ing (I realize that's not exactly an endorsement to Patterson).
All that being said, every Notre Dame fan I've talked to is excited that the game survived. Every opportunity to travel west -- especially in November -- is a welcome one for a fanbase that's usually excited to see the sun this time of year. Add to it the chance to take on a ranked team that could help the Irish's playoff resume if they win, and it's a great opportunity.
HoS: What are some of the main injuries for Notre Dame that ASU fans should be aware of coming into this week and what impact has the academic cheating scandal had in and around the program?
KA: I just mentioned Schmidt's injury. He broke and dislocated his ankle against Navy, ending the season of the Irish's leading tackler. Captain Austin Collinsworth is a fifth-year safety who has barely played this year after knee and shoulder problems. The depth chart in the secondary has taken a pounding, with injuries and the academic suspensions.
Both starting defensive tackles, Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day, got banged up against Navy. They're expected to be fine, but they are the heart of the defensive front.
The academic suspension of five players could've been a killer, but Notre Dame has handled it pretty well. The Irish lost their best cornerback in KeiVarae Russell, an All-American caliber player. They lost DaVaris Daniels, the team's leading returning receiver. Starting defensive end Ishaq Williams was expected to play a ton of snaps as well. Backups Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy would come in handy with the injuries that have hit.
HoS: William Fuller and Tarean Folston are two sophomores who have burst onto the scene for Notre Dame in terms of production in the receiving and rushing games respectively. What can you tell us about their style of play and why they've been so effective this season?
KA: Fuller is an explosive guy who can run the top off of just about any defense. He's a wiry kid who is still skinny, but he can score by beating you deep or by taking a screen pass to the house. He's got a nose for the end zone as his nine touchdowns might tell you.
Folston is just a really talented, smooth runner. After finally playing his way out of a platoon, he'll likely get 20 carries on Saturday, something that's rarely happened under Kelly. He's the first back at Notre Dame to go over 120 yards in consecutive games since 2006. He's dangerous in the passing game as well.
HoS: If Notre Dame had a positional group that was weaker than most this season, which one would it be and why?
KA: At this point, you've got to look at the linebackers. Arizona State fans saw Jaylon Smith last year as a freshman. He's even better as a sophomore, especially playing on the inside. But he'll be joined by a true freshman in Nyles Morgan and a converted wide receiver in James Onwualu. Onwualu played the best game of his career against Navy, making two stops behind the line of scrimmage. He'll be asked to play well in coverage against the Sun Devils.
But the depth issues the Irish have without Schmidt are serious. So are the communication issues. The former walk-on was essentially the nerve center of the defense and they'll have to adjust the way everything works without him.
Thanks again to Keith for taking the time out to answer some of our questions. Once again you can find his work writing about Notre Dame here.