Unlike most 20-year-olds, Jaelen Strong thinks it’s crucial that people know one thing about him right off the bat: He has no interest in going to Las Vegas. At least, not during December.
A redshirt junior receiver for Arizona State (7-1), which was ranked No. 9 in the College Football Playoff selection committee's latest rankings, Strong took issue with preseason bowl projections that penciled in the Sun Devils for a trip to Sin City for the Vegas Bowl. This is how the reigning Pac-12 South champion was going to be treated?
“That triggered something for us,” said Strong, who has caught 57 passes for 821 yards with eight touchdowns and can make a case for being the best receiver in the country. “Especially after the numbers we put up last season, to be treated like a lower-tier team, we obviously still have a lot to prove. It’s like that now, too. We still don’t get the recognition we deserve, so we’re going to have to make a statement. And we have the opportunity to do that Saturday.”
Strong knows it’s a big weekend in college football, with multiple marquee games. And he understands East Coast bias might make Arizona State-Notre Dame less glamorous to some viewers. He also knows the last time the Sun Devils had a chance to make a statement, they face planted in a 62-27 loss to UCLA.
But the memory of that would likely be erased with a win over the No. 10 Fighting Irish (7-1). Saturday’s clash should serve as a playoff elimination game of sorts: Though the Irish took a loss at Florida State on Oct. 18, common thought is they’ll lock up a spot in the four-team field if they win out. Arizona State, meanwhile, is in the driver’s seat for the Pac-12 South title and would likely get slotted in the semifinals if they can win the conference championship. (The Sun Devils should meet Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, barring a major collapse from both teams.) The path to the playoff is clear, even if Arizona State is again getting largely left out of the national conversation.
Jordan Simone understands this is the after effect of a lopsided loss to UCLA. But in many ways, players and coaches think that defeat did more good than harm.
“Obviously that was a bummer,” said Simone, a transfer defensive back from Washington State who leads the team with 73 tackles. “It was our most hyped game of the year, and we let the hype get to us. Sometimes when you’re winning, your team is actually going through death by inches: You give up these little things when you win, but you sidestep them in the aftermath.”
at New Mexico
W, 19-16 (OT)
at Oregon State
It’s easy to look at the 62-27 score and assume the Sun Devils got run out of the stadium on Sept. 25. Instead, they led 17-6 early in the second quarter before a series of turnovers proved to be their undoing. That’s why Strong’s emphasis for this week’s matchup is clear. “We’ve got to own the ball,” he said. “No turnovers.”
To a young defense -- the Sun Devils had to replace nine starters from the 2013 team that went 10-4 -- the final score might have been demoralizing. But Simone says Arizona State used it as a kick-starter to get back to fundamentals. There was no snowball effect, Simone says, because the Sun Devils are led by a defensive-minded coach -- “[Todd] Graham likes to say, ‘Defense wins championships, which is why I coach you guys,’” Simone laughed -- who chose to be solution-based. Graham pointed out correctable errors and reminded his guys they had rebounded before. Specifically, he reminded them of last season’s early loss to Stanford; Arizona State recovered from that 42-28 result to play for the Pac-12 title.
“That UCLA loss came at a time when we were still in search of our identity defensively,” co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “Now, with each game, I watch these guys get a certain swagger about themselves, and a belief in our system.”
The numbers back up Patterson’s statement: During the past three games the Sun Devils have surrendered 288, 285 and 241 total yards, respectively, in wins over Stanford, Washington and Utah. They’ll need that lockdown mentality this week against standout quarterback Everett Golson and Notre Dame, who average 458.2 yards of offense.
“He’s obviously very athletic and can extend plays,” Patterson said of Golson. “It’s going to be about pass rush lane integrity. We can’t be so passive that he has time to stand back there and comb his hair, but we can’t be so aggressive that we leave a lane completely open. We have to be ourselves, and that’s an attacking defense.”
It’s a defense Strong calls one of the top three in the country. And he should know, because he goes against it every day in practice.
“The defense plays big brother to the offense, and that’s the way it should be,” Strong said. “When our offense isn’t moving the ball or if we turn it over, the defense is the one that comes in and changes the day. I don’t think any team will score more than 20 points on us the rest of the season.
“Our defense is one of the best, they’re just overlooked like the rest of us. Teams aren’t going to take our defense seriously until they step on the field with us.”
Strong would rather be the underdog. The way he sees it, “no one is going to love us regardless of who we beat,” so the solution is simple: Keep winning until the doubters go quiet, and stop projecting Arizona State for a holiday season in Vegas.