TEMPE, Ariz. -- A sign above the student section of Sun Devil Stadium features a famous line from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In the last four years of former Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson’s tenure, the phrase served less as a warning and more as a casual suggestion.
In year three under coach Todd Graham, however, the Inferno is blazing.
With the temperature topping 84 degrees at kickoff in early November, No. 9 Arizona State burned through No. 10 Notre Dame en route to a 55-31 win. It raced to a 34-3 first-half lead and would require every bit of it as the Fighting Irish stormed back to cut the deficit to 34-31 with less than seven minutes to play. Still, the Sun Devils rattled off the final 21 points, improving to 8-1 and bolstering their College Football Playoff chances in the process.
This game signaled the emergence of a team that has the attention of the playoff selection committee, though it has recently come with a but attached, at least for most of the public. On Saturday morning ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit claimed Arizona State was the most “overvalued” team among the playoff contenders.
“We’ve probably surprised some people,” Graham said after the game. “We haven’t surprised ourselves.”
The Sun Devils got to Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson early and often. Late in the first quarter, with the score tied 3-3, defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood sacked Golson, forcing a fumble and recovering it at the Irish 13-yard line. After a quick-strike Arizona State touchdown, Golson’s next attempt was batted in the air by Demetrius Cherry and pulled down by Marcus Hardison for an interception. A few minutes later Golson uncorked an ill-advised pass that sailed directly to defensive back Damarious Randall, who returned it 59 yards to the end zone. Suddenly it was 24-3 Sun Devils and the Irish were reeling.
“Getting pressure on a mobile quarterback is their kryptonite,” Randall said. “They just want to sit back in the pocket and run if stuff is not open. We just pressured him a lot and forced him to play for us.”
The onetime Heisman Trophy contender had five turnovers, including two pick-sixes. He looked every bit as bothered as Arizona State wanted him to be.
“Sooner or later he’s got to take it on himself to take care of the football,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Golson. “I don’t know what else to do. We’re at that point now where it hurt us in the game. He knows it. He’s going to walk in here and you’re going to ask him the same questions. He doesn’t want to turn the football over.”
On the other side of the ball Arizona State had success running up the middle, as junior D.J. Foster and freshman Demario Richard rushed to the second level with ease. Foster carried 21 times for 120 yards, while Richard had 13 attempts for 50 yards with a score. Richard added three catches for 51 receiving yards with a touchdown. Linebacker Joe Schmidt, the heart of the Irish defense, was lost for the season with a broken ankle in last week's 49-39 win over Navy, and it showed. Arizona State regularly attacked linebacker Nyles Morgan and cornerback Devin Butler, both of whom made their first career starts.
The Fighting Irish defense played well, limiting the Sun Devils in the second half and giving Golson a chance to make a comeback. It picked off Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly with 11:41 remaining, and tailback Cam McDaniel scored to cut the lead to 34-24. It was 34-31 after Golson’s 25-yard scoring connection to Amir Carlisle with 6:37 left.
If Graham’s team was the contender he believed, the time to prove it was clear.
“I stood in front of them and said I’m going to tell you what championship teams do,” Graham said. “They take the ball, and they’re going to stuff it down their throat, and they score. That’s exactly what [we] did.”
Foster ran three straight times for 31 yards, and then Richard gained 40 through the air. Richard scored on the next play, a four-yard catch, to push it to a 10-point cushion with 4:29 left.
The Sun Devils made a big jump in the College Football Playoff rankings last Tuesday, and they should climb even higher with the win over the Fighting Irish. Coaches and players tend to roll out one-game-at-a-time clichés, but even Graham admitted this one felt special.
“It is different because it’s Notre Dame,” Graham said. “I’m just being honest with you. […] If you’re asking me personally because I always try to answer honestly, that’s the biggest win, it means more to me, than anything that’s happened since we’ve been here because of the fact of who that team is.”
With that 8-1 record, Arizona State is now in prime position to stick around in the playoff race. To get there it will have to beat Oregon State, Washington State and rival Arizona before a likely showdown with Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.
As for Notre Dame, its playoff dreams were lost in the Inferno. The loss drops the Irish to 7-2, with the other one coming against Florida State. Notre Dame has games left at home against Northwestern and Louisville and on the road at USC. Even winning out, the second loss should be too much to overcome.
It entered Saturday with high hopes, which were burned up in the desert.
“I don’t think I would want to play ASU up in Tempe,” Randall said.