Sun Devil fans have to be happy. After years of hearing ‘this is the biggest game of the season,' Arizona State has finally arrived at a point where every game is the biggest of the season.
That's because for the first time in two decades, the Sun Devils are legitimate national championship contenders.
Well, for now at least. If the Sun Devils lose to Notre Dame on Saturday, than regardless of what Todd Graham thinks, there's no way they make the national playoff, even if they do still win the Pac-12.
Here are the keys for the Sun Devils to keep their national hopes alive.
1. Protect the football: This sounds rather obvious, I'm sure, but it was literally the difference in last seasons meeting in Dallas. Taylor Kelly threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for the game winning touchdown. Arizona State also fumbled the ball three times, losing one. You can't put the ball on the ground and in the opponent's hands that much, especially when that opponent is Notre Dame. The Sun Devils want to be treated like a top program, so it's time to start playing like one. That starts with protecting the football.
2. Win the sack battle (or at last be competitive in it): Last year, Kelly was sacked six times, resulting in losses totaling 45 yards. Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, meanwhile, was sacked a whopping zero times. No, that wasn't a misprint. This season, both teams sit about equal on the season. Notre Dame's Everett Golson has been sacked 14 times, while his team has 15 sacks on opponents. Arizona State quarterbacks have taken 22 sacks while the defense has tallied 20. The Sun Devils get to the quarterback better, but also surrender more sacks. It will be key to avoid a lopsided number in this statistic if Arizona State wants to avenge last season's loss.
3. Replace Jaxon Hood Hood has missed two days of practice and Graham said he won't have the junior in this one, either. Hood missed some time a few months ago while dealing with a private matter. Losing him against Notre Dame's large offensive line could be a deathblow, if the backups don't come in and play assignment football. Keeping an eye on this rotation throughout the game will be a big story.
4. Get Jaelen Strong the ball: Strong had a big game last season against the Irish, and he seems to always be at his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Strong will be looking to at least duplicate his 8/136/1 receiving line from the Notre Dame game in 2013. Strong is the best player on either team in this game, and when you have the ability to pinpoint who the clear cut best player in a game is, and that player is on your team, you best better get him involved early and often.
5. Get Taylor Kelly comfortable: Kelly hasn't been sharp since his return from what is now confirmed as a broken foot earlier this season. He's completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and has thrown an interception in both games. Kelly has also taken 11 sacks in those two contests, wins against Washington and Utah. Kelly simply hasn't looked comfortable in the pocket, and his hesitance to run on his foot has led to the spike in sacks and mistakes by the senior signal caller. Getting Kelly into a rhythm, complete with screens, quick passes and designed runs, will be critical for the Sun Devils.