A top 10 clash in Tempe as Notre Dame, number 10 in the nation, try to keep their hopes of making the College Football playoff alive by winning against Number 9 Arizona State, right now en route to make their second consecutive Pac-12 championship game.
It’s only the fourth time both programs have clashed. Notre Dame have won on all three meetings, including a dramatic 37-34 victory in Arlington last season. This year it’s at Tempe, where the Sun Devils have lost once this season, playing against UCLA. Since that loss the Sun Devils have beat three (then) ranked teams: USC (on the road), Stanford and an overtime victory against Utah, putting them in the driving wheel to win the South Division of the Pac-12.
Notre Dame don’t have to worry about winning any conference or division titles. However, that might be a problem for them. With one loss and no championship game to boost them up the rankings, it’s up to them to win out and hope for teams above them, with chances to win the Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC (probably not going to happen) and the SEC to slip up. Otherwise, this is going to be a very special season for the Irish, but without a chance to be part of the playoff.
The key for Notre Dame is turnovers. Or avoiding them. Since the beginning of last season, they’re 12-0 when turning the ball over once or not at all. They’re only 4-5, including that dramatic and controversial loss to Florida State, when they turn the ball over twice or more. Arizona State have forced two or more turnovers four times this season: They’ve won all four games. Their defense, in terms of allowing points and yards is top 60 nationally, nothing special.
Evertett Golson is usually the key to those turnovers. He has been intercepted seven times this season, all of them coming in the last five games, including once in the 49-39 win over Navy. After getting most of the work done on defense over the last two years, including 2012, when they made the national title game, Notre Dame have themselves an explosive offense led by Golson, making up for lost time after a year away from the game due to suspension.
He is completing 62.8% of his passes and has thrown 22 touchdown passes. As a passer and a playmaker he has improved on every aspect since 2012, when he wasn’t always too helpful to his team. Notre Dame, with the 28th ranked defense in the nation, need his ability to make plays happen with his arm and feet (seven rushing touchdowns as well), more than ever before. He ran for three touchdowns and threw for three in the win over Navy. That was a first in the history of Notre Dame, and only Trevor Knight of Oklahoma has accomplished it this season.
Taylor Kelly of Arizona State missed three games due to injury, including the loss to UCLA. Mike Bercovici did a pretty good job without him, but Kelly returned to the behind-the-center spot in the last two games. Arizona State won, but Kelly isn’t the same quarterback he was before the injury. His QBR has dropped from 87 through the first three games to 36.7, his yards per attempt have fallen from 9.2 to 6.8, he has been intercepted twice and has thrown just three touchdown passes in the two wins and his running has dropped off from 8.8 to 2.1 yards per carry.
It might not be just about the quarterbacks in this clash – it’ll be about the QBs ability to hold on to the ball. Both of them have had trouble with the matter in recent games. For both teams it’s probably a season killer to lose this game in terms of playoff chances, but a lot more for Notre Dame. Arizona State, even if they lose, are still in the mix to play for the Pac-12 championship, leaving themselves an out.