Irish, Sun Devils set for epic showdown
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 11 Arizona State have spent two months jockeying for position. Both have won big games, rallied from disappointing losses.
The Irish and Sun Devils are both among a glut of one-loss teams fighting to get into the College Football Playoff, firmly in the top 10 of the rankings with five weeks until the final field of four is set.
Saturday's game at Sun Devil Stadium will send them in opposite directions.
The winner will bolster its playoff resume, likely move up in the rankings.
The loser is pretty much done, likely left to angle for one of the smaller bowls.
''It's a single-elimination tournament from here on out,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.
This elimination game features a pair of 7-1 teams that bounced back from disappointing losses to remain in playoff position.
The Sun Devils appeared to be a playoff longshot after being blown out by UCLA on Sept. 25.
Since then, Arizona State has gone on one of the best runs in school history, knocking off No. 16 Southern California, No. 20 Stanford - a nemesis previously - Washington and No. 18 Utah last week in a gritty overtime victory.
Now up to No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Sun Devils have a legitimate shot at earning one of the four spots in the final rankings on Dec. 7.
The next step toward that goal will be what may be the biggest game in the 56-year history of Sun Devil Stadium, something Graham and the Sun Devils are embracing.
''I think it'd be silly to say it's like any other game,'' Graham said. ''It's not any other game to me.''
Big games are nothing new to a storied program like Notre Dame's.
The Irish played for a national championship two years ago and seemingly play an epic game at least once a season.
Notre Dame crushed rival Michigan early in the season and knocked off Stanford, but lost a tight game to defending national champion Florida State two weeks ago.
Even with the loss to the Seminoles, the Irish are still in the playoff hunt, one spot behind Arizona State at No. 10.
''I don't go into this, like, `Hey this is a big game' because then you would coach differently,'' Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ''I think the implications are out there that everybody knows. You've got to keep winning if you want a chance to be in the playoffs. So from everybody else's perspective, it's a big game. I don't work in that world.''
Here are a few more things to look for when Notre Dame faces Arizona State:
REMATCH: Notre Dame and Arizona State faced each other last season at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Irish won 37-34 in a wild game that included two touchdowns in the final 1:08, including an interception returned for a touchdown by the Irish that ended up being the winning score. Notre Dame tried to back out of this year's game before finally reaching an agreement with ASU.
CONTAINING GOLSON: Arizona State has an aggressive, attacking defense and likes to put pressure on the quarterback. The Sun Devils might want to be careful against Notre Dame's Everett Golson. One of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks, he's superb outside the pocket and has an ability to extend plays with his legs. Arizona State had trouble containing UCLA's Brett Hundley and will need to do a better job against Golson.
IMPROVING KELLY: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly had surgery on his right foot after injuring it against Colorado on Sept. 13, causing him to miss three games. He appeared a bit rusty in two games since returning, particularly on timing with his receivers. Graham said Kelly is getting his rhythm back and expects him to play well against the Irish on Saturday.
MORGAN'S TURN: Notre Dame suffered a big hit last week when middle linebacker and defensive leader Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Navy. In his place will be freshman Nyles Morgan, who is supremely athletic but still makes mistakes. Kelly said he will not simplify the defense with Morgan out there and will have him calling the plays.
BIG-GAME BUZZ: Saturday's game is one of the most anticipated in recent years at Arizona State, maybe ever. ASU students started sleeping in tents outside the basketball arena on Monday to get tickets and the game was announced as a sellout early in the week. Graham has embraced the big-game vibe, saying the players and fans deserve to see games like this.