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Notre Dame-ASU: Five things to watch

Notre Dame visits Arizona State at 12:30 p.m. PT (3:30 p.m. ET) on Saturday. Here are some critical aspects of the matchup to keep an eye on.

Will ASU maintain its defensive improvement against a balanced offense?

This has been the major discussion point of the week. Following the 62-27 shellacking at the hands of UCLA, a game marked by some of the most wretched defense ever seen at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU has picked up the pieces. Every one of ASU's outings since that Sept. 25 night has been progressively better -- at least as far as statistical evidence is concerned. After allowing four straight 200-yard rushing games, coach Todd Graham's unit has found a way to slow opponents' ground attacks and simultaneously ratchet up the backfield pressure (it's averaging 9.0 tackles for loss in the past four games, good for third-best in the nation). The knock on ASU's improvement: It has come against inferior offenses. Will the success continue against Notre Dame's balanced attack? Dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson is a load to contain, so the Sun Devils' discipline will be tested. -- Lombardi

Can Everett Golson play mistake-free football?

If Golson does, the Irish will probably be in great position to win. Last week against Navy, the redshirt junior became the first quarterback in school history to both pass and rush for three touchdowns, bailing out the Irish after they surrendered a 21-point lead. At Golson's best, this offense looks like it can go punch-for-punch with anyone. Still, there are those turnovers -- 12 in the past five games, after none in the first three. Golson's interception late in the first half against the Midshipmen set the wheels in motion for Navy's comeback, when an Irish score right there probably could have ended the game before halftime. Coach Brian Kelly fell on the sword for the pick, saying the call was bad on his part. Still, an efficient outing from Golson in Tempe will give the Irish a great shot at landing that elusive signature win. -- Fortuna

How will Notre Dame's defense handle the loss of linebacker Joe Schmidt?

The Irish deemed Schmidt indispensable so often this season that it made you wonder what would happen if he was not there. Everyone will find out one way or another against a very good ASU offense, as ballyhooed freshman Nyles Morgan gets the start. Morgan possesses the physical tools to succeed, but is it too much, too soon? Coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense succeeded early because everyone was on the same page, a product of having a vocal and demonstrative leader in the middle of it all, as the former walk-on Schmidt was. Does that collapse without Schmidt, who is out for the season with a fractured and dislocated left ankle, or does Morgan rise to the challenge and get this unit back on track after it surrendered 113 points in its past three games? -- Fortuna

How will Notre Dame deal with Jaelen Strong?

The biggest potential thorn in Notre Dame's side is Strong. The wide receiver has caused headaches for every single Sun Devils opponent this season. He has the combination of size, speed and skill to make a play even if the defensive scheme and execution are perfect, and that ability can be the ultimate X factor in what looks to be a very evenly matched game. Statistically, Strong has not blown anyone away since his 10-catch, 202-yard performance against USC, but he has made critical catches in key moments of ASU's past three wins. Notre Dame cornerbacks Cole Luke and Cody Riggs are both at a disadvantage versus Strong size-wise, so the key for the Irish will likely involve pressuring quarterback Taylor Kelly so the aptly named receiver doesn't have time to work downfield. -- Lombardi

Is Taylor Kelly fully back on track?

Arizona State's quarterback recently missed three contests because of a foot injury, and in two games back he hasn't fully regained his stride. In the rain and wind at Washington, Kelly gutted through sloppy play to deliver a late winning touchdown. He couldn't orchestrate much success in the red zone during last week's win over Utah, but four Zane Gonzalez field goals were enough for the Sun Devils to squeak by. Matt mentioned that crisp, mistake-free football from Golson is a Notre Dame key in this one. Well, it's also essential for Arizona State as Kelly tries to shake out the cobwebs. -- Lombardi