Week 11 Preview: Notre Dame at Arizona State

Notre Dame (7-1) at Arizona State (7-1) Nov. 8, 3:30, ABC 

Here’s The Deal: No. 9 Arizona State and No. 10 Notre Dame in the same building means someone is going to beef up its College Football Playoff resume. And the other guy is going to fade into the backdrop as a two-loss afterthought. 

The Sun Devils rise into the top 10 has been a gift for the Irish, who’ll need to face as many quality opponents as possible to make their case in the playoff debate. Notre Dame’s best win so far was over Stanford, which now has four losses, and that close call with Florida State will carry only so much weight. Oh, and trailing in the second half of recent games with North Carolina and Navy didn’t exactly impress playoff committee members. But with games still left against ASU, Louisville and USC, there’s still time for the Irish to make a concerted push north.

Arizona State has engineered quite a recovery since getting trampled by UCLA on Sept. 25, 62-27. The Sun Devils have won four consecutive Pac-12 games to take over the lead in the tightly-packed South Division. Stepping out of league play to face a marquee opponent, though, affords the program a chance to build a national identity. And with Oregon State and Washington State waiting in the on-deck circle, ASU can amass a head of steam that it carries all the way to the critical in-state showdown with Arizona at the end of the month. 

Why Notre Dame Might Win: The offense is humming around QB Everett Golson. 

No doubt, the Arizona State defense has improved over the last month. But it also hasn’t seen an offense with the pop or the diversity of the Irish. Notre Dame is fine-tuning its offensive system, with RB Tarean Folston emerging as a complement to the passing of Golson. The Sun Devils rank No. 11 in Pac-12 run defense, and Irish receivers Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown are going to cause matchup problems for an ASU secondary that’s still a light on big-game experience. 

Why Arizona State Might Win: The Irish are banged-up on D, and at a most inopportune time. 

Notre Dame got roughed up in the Navy win, and linchpin middle LB Joe Schmidt was lost for the season to an ankle injury. The last time the Irish faced an athletic attack that likes to spread the field and rev up the tempo, they yielded 43 points in a survival of North Carolina. This might be the sweet spot for the Sun Devils to erupt after fizzling in recent weeks. QB Taylor Kelly is entering his third game since returning from a foot injury, and RB D.J. Foster and WR Jaelen Strong are two of the most lethal skill players ND will face this fall. 

Who To Watch Out For: Isn’t it time for Kelly to shake off what’s left of the rust? He has not been the same player since supplanting Mike Bercovici, lacking the accuracy and elusiveness that had been his trademarks. And the production of Foster and Strong have both dipped accordingly. Strong will likely be matched with 5-9 Cody Riggs, who’ll be giving away six inches, but has been an effective pass defender for much of the campaign. 

– Schmidt, who called the signals for the D, is done. Now what? The Irish are naturally concerned, yet also excited to fully unwrap rookie Nyles Morgan, the blue-chipper from the 2014 class. Morgan has gotten his feet wet with eight tackles in seven games, and he has the skillset of a future star. But this is going to be a huge test for such a young player, manning the middle on the road versus one of the top teams in the Pac-12. If he’s not up to the challenge, Foster is going to have a monster day as a runner and as receiver. 

– The Sun Devils have started to show cracks in pass protection, despite having Jamil Douglas and Christian Westerman on the left side. Who on the Irish is poised to take advantage of the situation? Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones are promising linemen, but both have been better in run defense than getting after the pocket. The lack of a sure-fire edge rusher could prompt defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to attack the front wall, especially the right side, with the speed and tenacity of star LB Jaylon Smith. 

– It’ll be interesting to see if Arizona State’s recent defensive success will continue against Golson and the Irish. The Sun Devils are getting contributions from every level, including former walk-on S Jordan Simone, former JUCO CB Kweishi Brown and LB Antonio Longino, who’s made a successful shift to weakside. ASU like to attack for coordinator Keith Patterson, but Golson is adept at extending plays with his feet, and making connections when flushed from the pocket. 

What’s Going To Happen: Notre Dame needs Golson to be the best player on the field to win in Tempe. He will be. 

Golson will improve his Heisman credentials Saturday, while keeping his Irish in the playoff race. It’s a tough venue against a tough team, but the junior will be up to the challenge, exploiting an Arizona State defense that’s not quite as salty as it’s looked in recent weeks. On offense, the Sun Devils have yet to show that they’re the same incendiary team they were in 2013. The Irish will occasionally bend to Kelly and his weapons, but they’ll avoid snapping when ASU attempts to rally in the second half of an entertaining and competitive game. 

Prediction: Notre Dame 34 … Arizona State 28 
Line: Arizona State -2.5 o/u: 59.5 
Must Watch Factor: 5: Sonic Highways – 1: Anything involving Nik Wallenda … 4.5