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ASU football catapults into playoff discussion with Notre Dame beating

Todd Graham has coached his Sun Devils not only toward a Pac-12 South title, but a possible college football playoff spot.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona St. Sun Devils were supposed to rebuild this season. They lost their top running back and 75% of their top tacklers. The offense would be able to do a few things here and there, but this figured to be a year where there would be plenty of rough patches. When Taylor Kelly went down and UCLA laid down 62 in Tempe, it seemed like this would be a season where ASU would just have to be content with a good bowl season and hopes for something brighter.

So much for that working theory. Thanks to the Jael Mary, a backup quarterback making big plays, and the defense starting to show its game a lot earlier than expected, they're now three wins away from a return date to the Pac-12 championship game, and then a fourth win from punching their ticket to Pasadena.

The weird part? I'm still not exactly quite sure how good this Arizona State team is. The Sun Devils look really unstoppable at times, then proceed to completely melt down for stretches. Their bone-stomping of Notre Dame perfectly illustrated their phenomenon.

Arizona State marched out to a 34-3 lead in the second quarter thanks to gift-wrapped turnovers from Everett Golson, one after another. ASU actually didn't do much on their own offensively, but the defense did most of the work by blitzing Golson non-stop and forcing him into mistake after mistake. The Irish didn't have any quick response, and they got buried quickly.

Then after the impulsive early stop, ASU looked like they gassed themselves out, and Notre Dame started marching themselves down the field. The Sun Devil offense stopped moving the ball with Jaelen Strong out of the lineup, the Sun Devil defense sat back and stopped blitzing as their front seven showed signs of fatigue. Suddenly ASU gave up 28 unanswered points came in the span of about 18-20 minutes, and the Sun Devils were suddenly back on their heels.

And THEN just like that, the Sun Devil Machine kicked back to life, ASU managed to get the crucial touchdown offensive drive they were looking for, then the pick-six to seal it, and closed the game out with another 21-0 run. It was one of those crazy, wild Pac-12 football occasions that we've all been accustomed to dealing with week after week.

It's been a staple of Arizona State to rope-a-dope all year since the UCLA game. They hung around with USC long enough to give themselves a chance to win, and sure enough they found a way to pull through in the most epic and stunning fashion you'll ever see. They ground Stanford to pieces, letting them eat up yardage all over the field only to grind to a halt in the places where points had a chance to be produced. They dominated Washington in Seattle in howling rain and wind, yet somehow found themselves in a tied game in the 4th quarter.  They had to go all the way to the wire with Utah.

These Sun Devils are winning in all of these environments, so they are proving to be resilient and adaptable. But you always get the feeling that just has everyone is up to receive their medals, a last-second eruption is going to blow up the ceremony. Notre Dame's offense actually outscored ASU 31-20 on extended drives; it was the Notre Dame mistakes that turned the game on its head. The Sun Devils have gotten their fair share of luck on this run.

And there are definite questions. Can Taylor Kelly manage a football game for 60 minutes better than Mike Bercovici and nail the big throws? Kelly made one horrid mistake on an interception that set up a late Notre Dame touchdown, and his offense bogged down for most of the 3rd quarter, but he also made some big plays before and after that to put Notre Dame away. What's nice is the emergence of the run game and its ability to sustain offensive drives. D.J. Foster does what he usually does, but Demario Richard proved he could be that versatile Swiss Army knife by running and catching.

Can the defense sustain a 60 minute effort? ASU is still very raw at many positions. They are far from a finished product. But this was kind of the script for the season--a lot of unpredictable ups and downs. Who knows if the ups and downs are finished with--ASU still has to play Oregon State and Washington State before getting to the Territorial Cup, and these Sun Devils could dip below their potential for one of those contests if they're not careful.

After surviving the Pac-12 South gauntlet, they're in position, which is more than what we thought they'd be before the season started. What a season for Todd Graham.

More from House of Sparky

ASU Football: Notre Dame win compares favorably to UCLA in 2013 [Justin Emerson]: "Graham emphasized that as a program, the UCLA win was bigger, in that it sent the Sun Devils to their first Pac-12 Championship game. But the mystique and aura that surrounds Notre Dame- even Graham got caught up in it. "I'm a fan of college football," Graham said. "If you're asking me personally, because I always try to answer honestly, that's the biggest win. It means more to me than anything that's happened since we've been here because of the fact of who that team is that we just beat.""

ASU Football: Sun Devil rushing attack revived in win [Shane Theodore]: "Like many players on Arizona State, Richard did not receive a scholarship offer from Notre Dame. On Saturday, he made the Irish pay for ignoring him in high school, as the 5'10", 203 pound back rushed for 50 yards on 13 carries, including a first-quarter touchdown plunge that put the Sun Devils up 17-3. Richard also made plays in the passing game, with a huge 40-yard catch-and-run that put Arizona State in position at the Notre Dame 4-yard line to re-up its lead to double digits. Having set up the goal-to-go situation, Richard got the call on 1st-and-goal and caught a four-yard pass from Kelly to extend the lead back to a safer 41-31, giving the Sun Devils a ten-point cushion with 4:30 left."

ASU vs. Notre Dame: 5 takeaways from the Sun Devil victory [Ryan Bafaloukos]: "The Sun Devils rarely get pressure with just four rushers, so what the do they do? They blitz; Todd Graham and company brought the blitz on 73-percent of Golson's dropbacks, the result was five turnovers and a 45-percent completion percentage. The following players recorded a sack against Notre Dame: Jordan Simone, Lloyd Carrington, Laiu Moeakiola, Antonio Longino, Tashon Smallwood, Marcus Hardison and Villiami Latu. The Sun Devils do a great job bring rushers from the secondary, especially the corner blitz. Arizona State will bring anybody, anytime and they do a nice job disguising the blitzes.

ASU Football: Late drive saves Sun Devils' national title hopes in 55-31 victory [Nick Krueger]: "It was a big game, and that's when big time players, big teams step up," Kelly said. "Our defense did a tremendous job of doing that, our offensive line did an unbelievable job of protecting myself and coming off the ball for our running backs. That's what you do on the championship stage is step up."