(Photo: ASU Athletics)
Arizona State might not realize it.
Maybe they just don’t want to admit it.
It’s possible that they’ve convinced themselves otherwise, but, whether they like it or not, Saturday night’s tilt with last season’s National Championship runner-up Notre Dame is the program’s biggest game since the 1997 Rose Bowl.
No game, no team, no moment since that Rose Bowl loss carries the same weight as this one does.
Win and the Sun Devils are on the map. They are no longer a team that starts hot but crumbles in the big moment. Win and you establish yourself as a program on the rise, with a savvy, likeable head coach and the facilities and talent to be big-time.
Lose and you’re still Arizona State, the team that should’ve played for a Rose Bowl in 2010. The team that looked unstoppable before a second-half meltdown against Oregon in 2011. You’re an afterthought; a school known for its parties and hot summers. And yes, for choking in its biggest moments.
Sure, Notre Dame isn’t the same team they were last season. Nobody expected them to be. Manti Te’o — and his girlfriend — are gone. Everett Golson couldn’t pass enough classes to stay eligible. Tyler Eifert is playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. And Touchdown Jesus seems to have used up all of his magic in 2012.
“It does seem like they’re missing a little bit,” senior H-back Chris Coyle said. “They don’t have that one guy back there, holding everybody together. Manti Te’o did a great job of that last year. But they do make plays. Still, they’re missing that one thing that Manti brought to the team.”
But this is still Notre Dame. They are the only school in the country that doesn’t need a conference to be title contenders. The only school for which the NCAA makes specific rules for gaining BCS eligibility. It’s the only school with its own cable television deal. This is the school of Rockne, Montana and Brown. It’s Notre Dame.
The game is in Texas, a high school football factory. Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham is from Texas. Star running back Marion Grice is from Texas. There won’t be a better opportunity, short of a Rose Bowl or BCS Championship game appearance, for the Sun Devils to make a statement.
Graham addressed the importance of the matchup at his Monday press conference.
“This game is a national game for us — an opportunity for our players,” Graham said. “I talked to them yesterday about making history. They can be the first team in college football history to beat USC and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks. That has never happened. I would say that is pretty significant.
“For me personally, going back to where my home is, where I’m from. It is a big deal for me.”
The players seem to know the importance of this game.
“It’s a huge deal,” senior safety Alden Darby said. “It’s a big deal for the fans, for recruiting, for us players. They’re a prestigious program and have been for a long time. Hopefully we can pull off the victory and show the world that we are a National Championship caliber team.”
It’s hard to debate that Arizona State isn’t the better football team. The Sun Devils just dismantled USC. They’ve moved the football in all four games and seem to finally be finding some playmakers on defense, despite allowing big plays on the ground for the second consecutive season.
The biggest challenge for ASU will be overcoming the mystique of the Fighting Irish. Can the Sun Devils handle the bright lights? Will they shiver at the sight of the golden domers? What about the venue? Will Arizona State be able to get past the sight of AT&T Stadium?
Darby insists the stadium is not a concern.
“It’s like coach says, every field is the same,” he said. “They’re all 100 yards.”
But are they all the same? You can’t tell me playing at the Taj Mahal of football stadiums is the same as playing in Sun Devil Stadium.
Notre Dame is at least used to this type of game. They’ve played in the Big House against Michigan. They play home games in front of Touchdown Jesus, with thousands of screaming Irish fans cheering them on. When Notre Dame travels, they are Darth Vader. Nobody likes them. They are used to being the enemy, and they embrace that.
This is a “prove it” game for Arizona State. They must prove that all of the “speaking victory” over the summer wasn’t just talk. It’s time to walk the walk.
The Sun Devils must overcome the mental aspect of this game if they are going to win. They must make big plays.
The biggest opponent for Arizona State on Saturday night is not Notre Dame.
The biggest opponent is themselves.
Can they handle the pressure?