Devils don fiery black hats for Notre Dame

Not to get Biblical on you, but the Arizona State Sun Devils -- Devils! -- are embracing their sinister side for their showdown Saturday against Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.

The Sun Devils will don black uniforms with helmets decorated with wild-looking flames -- hellfire? -- against the Fighting Irish, who will be wearing angelic white.

Of course, this isn't a battle of good and evil. It's just two teams embracing the marketplace ideology of branding in college football.

"We wanted to do something unique obviously to Arizona State, so the flames we thought were pretty cool and we put the flames on the back, we obviously want to use our brand," said Arizona State coach Todd Graham, who was involved in the design and noted that every helmet will be different.

The Sun Devils are, er, on fire after a blowout win over USC, while Notre Dame is coming off a loss to Oklahoma and is a disappointing 3-2 after going unbeaten and playing for the national title a season ago. If the Sun Devils can pull off the win and start 4-1 against a rugged early slate, they will enter the meat of the Pac-12 schedule with plenty of momentum and confidence.

Moreover, they can make history. No team has ever beaten USC and Notre Dame, two of the nation's most storied programs, back-to-back.

But while Graham is glad to talk about attention-grabbing uniforms and history, neither is his central focus. There have been two downers so far this year for Arizona State: (1) The first half at Stanford; (2) The Sun Devils' run defense, which ranks 11th in the conference, yielding 192 yards per game.

When asked about what the problems were against the run, Graham, not known for being laconic in any event, went on with a nearly 500-word answer during his Monday news conference. This story is just over 732 words.

"I am answering long because this is the number one thing that we have to do to win a championship," he said. "This has got to get better and I think it can. That is our number one focus."

Graham said that the chief problem was players getting out of position. He said there were 15 misalignments for the defense against the Trojans, who rushed for 247 yards on Saturday. He also said the biggest plays are coming on the perimeter, not up the middle. Part of the problem against USC was noseguard Jaxon Hood being out. He's questionable-to-doubtful for the Notre Dame game.

The good news for that run defense, however, is the Fighting Irish's struggles on offense. They rank 85th in the nation in scoring (25.4 points per game) and 93rd in rushing offense (135.5 yards per game).

But even the Irish's vaunted defense has been only mediocre. It has yielded 23.8 points and 364 yards per game, numbers that rank 46th and 53rd in the nation.

It's worth noting that both teams have played tough opponents, so the early-season statistics might be slightly skewed. But in the preseason, the Sun Devils looked like underdogs for this game. Now they are 5 1/2-point favorites.

This game also will be another test for the Sun Devils learning to play better on the road, most particularly QB Taylor Kelly. Though this game is technically being played at a neutral site, Irish fans will far outnumber the ASU loyalists. The Sun Devils are 3-4 on the road under Graham, and two of the 2012 road wins were over woeful California and Colorado. The lone quality road win was at rival Arizona last year.

Further, Kelly is a decidedly better QB at home. His rating this season is 156.6 at home and 121.3 on the road (at Stanford, perhaps the Pac-12's best defense). Last season, he was 198.7 at home and 127.6 on the road.

"You could probably take any quarterback and they would have the same stats," Graham said before adding, "If you want to win a championship you have got to win on the road."

Graham was quick to point out that the Pac-12 schedule has more importance for the Sun Devils. But he also knows that lining up opposite Notre Dame means you'll be performing in front of a lot of eyeballs.

Winning is the most important part of branding.

"Is it more important than the Pac-12 games? No, it is not," Graham said. "That is how we emphasize it to our players. But it is very important to our fan base, very important to our football program."