As the old saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas.
The theme will apply to just about every aspect of No. 22 ASU football’s trip to Arlington, Texas, on Saturday to face Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium — a Texas-sized venue, an opponent with a monumental history of winning and a chance to shine on a gargantuan stage.
This game doesn’t count toward ASU’s goal of winning the Pac-12 championship, but coach Todd Graham said Saturday is still significant, largely because the Sun Devils (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) could make history.
By beating Notre Dame (3-2), ASU could become the first team in history to defeat the Fighting Irish and USC in back-to-back weeks.
This game also gives the Sun Devils a chance to expose themselves to Graham’s home state of Texas, arguably the nation’s Mecca of high school talent and what Graham hopes to be ASU’s No. 3 recruiting pipeline behind Arizona and California.
“Our guys will be very motivated to play in this game,” Graham said. “It is a national game. It is a game that is very important. Is it more important than the Pac-12 games? No, it is not. That is how we emphasize it to our players. But it is very important to our fan base, very important to our football program.”
Graham said his keys to beating Notre Dame are maintaining ball security and special teams play, the same essentials for all their previous games.
To come out on top, players like redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly must step up on the road. In the Sun Devils’ three home wins, Kelly completed 64.7 percent of his passes. In ASU’s road loss to Stanford, however, Kelly threw for 54.5 percent.
“If you want to win a championship, you have got to win on the road,” Graham said. “That is something we have talked to our players about. It shows great maturity to do that. We have got to go on the road in Dallas and play well.”
Another area ASU wants to fix prior to Saturday is its rush defense, which has been a glaring concern since before the season even began.
The Sun Devils have given up 192.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks last in the Pac-12 and 92nd in the country in that department. Graham said ASU has made a significant improvement stopping the inside running game, but everything else needs work.
“Yeah, we are playing against good people, but still, there are too many mental errors,” he said. “There are too many misalignments. Where we are getting hurt is on angle flow and on outside perimeter run. I do think there are things we can do to fix that. I am encouraged, because we are just one or two people away from getting it right.”
Notre Dame ranks 92nd in rushing yards per game, but Graham still wants the Sun Devils to improve their run defense in practice beforehand.
Graham gave Notre Dame credit for being well-coached under Brian Kelly. The Fighting Irish feature the All-American duo of junior Stephon Tuitt and senior Louis Nix III on the defensive line. Graham gave a nod to junior tight end Troy Niklas, who stands 6 feet, 6 inches and weighs in at 270 pounds. ASU expects the Fighting Irish to use unbalanced and empty formations to move the ball against the Sun Devils.
Senior linebacker Steffon Martin said he has an idea how to stop Notre Dame. It starts with attacking senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who took the reins from former quarterback Everett Golson but completes a mere 53.3 percent of his passes. The defense also must contain junior running back George Atkinson III, who broke out an 80-yard run against Oklahoma last week.
“We need to get after (Rees),” Martin said. “Hit him hard as we can. (Atkinson) is going to make you tackle him. A lot of these running backs, when they get hit, they start slowing down. He’s probably an NFL back, so we have to hit him hard and hit the quarterback as hard as possible.”
Like ASU’s last three opponents, Notre Dame will be another test of physicality for the Sun Devils. Senior Marion Grice, who also hails from Texas and is the nation’s leading scorer at 12 touchdowns, said there isn’t anything about the Fighting Irish that stand out compared to USC, Stanford and Wisconsin.
Like in past weeks, Grice said the team only needs to rely on how it improves in practice toward the end of ASU’s difficult four-game stretch.
“It’s pretty much the same,” he said. “Just bigger guys, but we’ve played against bigger guys before. We just have to continue to get better.”
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