Can ASU beat Notre Dame? Ask Todd Graham, he’s done it

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                </div>There’s one man in the Arizona State football program that knows what it takes to beat Notre Dame… because he’s done it before. As the Sun Devils prepare to meet […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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There’s one man in the Arizona State football program that knows what it takes to beat Notre Dame… because he’s done it before.

As the Sun Devils prepare to meet the Fighting Irish in Saturday’s Shamrock Series game, their head coach is working with the confidence of knowing he can beat perhaps the most storied program in football history – despite being considered by most college analysts to be the underdog in this nationally-televised match-up.

After all, this is “THE” Notre Dame, arguable the most recognized college football program anywhere, against Arizona State, which is still languishing in the “What’s a Sun Devil?” level of irrelevance.

But Todd Graham, the second-year ASU head coach, beat the Irish on Halloween eve back in 2010 when he was head coach at Tulsa, recording what is still considered by most to be the biggest upset in the history of that program.  He knows that name recognition means nothing once that first kick-off is in the air.

And this time he has more to work with than back in Tulsa.  In fact, if you go strictly by the polls, ASU should be considered the favorite.  The Devils moved back into the national rankings after beating USC last week (No. 22 AP Poll, No. 24 USA Today Coaches Poll).  The Irish fell out of the rankings after losing to Oklahoma, now ranked No.11, last week.

ASU has a junior quarterback in Taylor Kelly that is one of just three FBS quarterbacks to pass for over 300 yards in each of his four starts this season and a pair of running backs that make up one of the best backfield combinations in the country.

Marion Grice led the nation’s running backs last year with eight receiving touchdowns and leads the way again this season with four, while also leading the nation in scoring at 18 points per game.  He and teammate D.J. Foster, a sophomore sensation from nearby Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, are two of just five FBS players who had both 400 yards on the ground and through the air last season; they combined for 2,130 yards in 2012.

Add to that an additional huge weapon in wide receiver Jaelen Strong, the junior-college transfer who leads the team in receptions and yardage, with 31 catches for 433 yards.  Twenty of his receptions have gone for first downs to keep the high-octane Devil offense moving the chains.

The Sun Devil offense is one of the top quick-strike offenses in the country.  Eighty of ASU’s 103 offensive scoring drives under Graham have taken just three minutes or less to complete.

And defensively, this is one of the best Sun Devil units in years, led by consensus All-American Will Sutton.  The senior lineman has 13.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a fumble recovery in four games, despite being double-teamed on just about every play.  His 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last year put him at No. 4 on the school’s all-time list in both categories.  He started this season on just about every watch list, including the Maxwell Award (college player of the year), Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year), and the Outland Trophy (most outstanding interior lineman).

Joining Sutton on the Bednarik list is linebacker Carl Bradford, who plays the Devilbacker position and has 16 tackles in the last three games, with four going for a loss, and two sacks.

An aggressive defense under Graham has been the most improved part of the Sun Devil game since he took over last year from Dennis Erickson – despite having some trouble so far this season stopping the run.  ASU averaged four sacks a game last season, second-best in the country, and led the nation with nine tackles for loss per game.

ASU (3-1) and Notre Dame (3-2) have met just twice in the past, 1998 and 1999, with the Irish handily winning both, 28-9 and 48-17.

But this is a different kind of ASU team, under the direction of a different kind of coach.  Graham is old-school, all about fundamentals and preparation, character development of his players, and an attention to detail that borders on obsessive-compulsive.

His boys upset No. 20 Wisconsin, but then inexplicably rolled over against No. 5 Stanford.  They redeemed themselves by dominating USC, 62-41, in a game last week that got the Trojans’ head coach Lane Kiffin fired.

Now comes the defining moment.  Which Sun Devil team will show up Saturday at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington?

If ASU wins, it will put them in the national spotlight and move them up the rankings ladder toward becoming what Graham has set as a goal for himself and the program: becoming a legitimate contender for a national title.  Maybe not this year, but maybe not too far down the road.

However, that will also once again raise the issue that has dogged Graham since becoming a head coach, that he’s just using the ASU job to continue moving up the career ladder.  Critics point to the fact that he’s coached at four different schools as a college head coach – in just eight years.  He spent four years at Tulsa, followed by one season at Rice, and one more at Pittsburgh before landing in Tempe.

He just received a contract extension that will take him through the 2018 season.  But contracts are written to be broken in college football and the offer of a better job is generally reason enough to find a way out of the deal – unless you’re too fat and happy where you are.

Maybe ASU officials had that in mind when they offered Graham a new contract a couple of weeks ago, after less than two full seasons on the job.  They watched him post an 8-5 season, the first winning season in five years, and win a bowl game, the first time in seven years.  The upset of Big 10 power Wisconsin just added to the urgency of the situation.

So now, ASU officials – and the fan base – will understandably have some mixed feelings as the big game approaches this weekend.  A victory over the Irish would be huge for the program and its recruiting efforts.  But would it put the head coach back on the road again to greener pastures?

And have no doubt, fans of the fork, those offers will come.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)