A number of factors played in to Arizona State's loss to Notre Dame last season, but the cherry on top was an interception return for a touchdown by Fighting Irish linebacker Dan Fox to seal the win. It was a single play that mattered a lot, an explosive play as head coach Todd Graham likes to call them. Explosive plays and interceptions can't happen if the Sun Devils want to win and they could make the difference Saturday.
"They need to have one play touchdowns and so do they," Graham said. "It's very difficult against both defenses to drive the field and obviously field position is going to be big."
"They've got big play capabilities, I think explosives is going to be the big key in the game. Obviously that's a big part of our gameplan is to make sure we keep everything in front and inside and keep that quarterback corralled."
Turnover ratio will play the biggest role according to Graham. The Sun Devils turned the ball over three times last season against the Fighting Irish who lost the ball just once. Neither team has the exact same group of players or will line up in the same manner. Schemes and lineups need to be changed to keep the other side on their toes. Graham too, is on the edge of his seat, more excited than nervous for Saturday.
"We (Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson) talked about doing this stuff and it's pretty cool to get to do it," Graham said. "There's a little bit of kind of like a fan in us but we love this. We love the opportunity and I'm excited about it."
Graham's excitement is warranted given the high stakes. It's No. 9 against No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings with both teams 7-1 and the right to stay in the conversation for the national title on the line. While it is a lot of pressure on paper, the coaching staff wants the players to be loose come game time.
"I do a little handspring out of my bed when I get into weeks like this," Graham said. "I don't want one person going out there and trying not to mess up. Go out there and wail into it, go out there and attack it and seize it and seize the day."
Christian Westerman was back practicing Thursday without a green contact jersey on. He injured his leg against Washington, missed the Utah game, and had sat out the portions of practice media was allowed to view this week leading up to Thursday morning. The Auburn transfer provides key strength at left guard next to Jamil Douglas. Stephon McCray played in Westerman's place last week against the Utes.
"Two days ago I would have told you probably not, I thought he would be doubtful," Graham said when asked about Westerman's status. "But he practiced half the practice yesterday and all the practice today. As long as he doesn't have any complications from that then he'll be ready to go."
Demetrius Cherry's suspension has been lifted and he will also play Saturday according to Graham. Cherry was arrested for a DUI before the Utah game and was suspended for the game against the Utes as a result. He practiced and ran with the first team all this week.
Jaxon Hood remains out for the foreseeable future with what Graham and the team are calling, "personal issues." He hasn't been at practice this week at all. Redshirt junior Mo Latu, sophomore Viliami Latu and freshmen Tashon Smallwood and Emanuel Dayries are all expected to be a part of the rotation on the defensive line to replace Hood. All four players got first team reps Thursday. Graham mentioned Dayries would get anywhere from 10-15 snaps. Just four days ago, Dayries was running on the scout team offensive line.
"It hurts, but at the end of the day there are certain things more important than football," Graham said of Hood's absence. " I think too--- I mean all that stuff is difficult man, but it's how you respond to those things--- It's just like whenever Taylor (Kelly) got hurt, I don't think our guys panicked."
- Ezekiel Bishop remains in a green no contact jersey
- The team wore their Desert Fuel helmets to practice Thursday. The face mask shines in the sun and really does look like copper.