ARLINGTON, Texas – Notre Dame allowed Arizona State to roll up 427 yards, 22 first downs and score 34 points Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in their annual Shamrock Series.
Despite those numbers, it was the Fighting Irish defense that led the way for Notre Dame in its bounce-back game a week after losing at home to Oklahoma.
Notre Dame kept the 22nd-ranked Sun Devils off the scoreboard in the third quarter, put together a six-sack effort and intercepted ASU’s Taylor Kelly twice, with Dan Fox’s fourth-quarter pick six sealing the victory for the Irish (4-2).
Notre Dame did plenty of bending, but the Irish did enough to slow the favored Sun Devils when needed.
“We feel like our defense is continuously getting better,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re not there yet. Certainly we feel like the defense, with a good pass rush, playing good technique in the back end, we can do those kinds of things.”
The Irish certainly had their hands full. Arizona State was coming off a 62-point effort against USC that included 612 yards of offense and led to the firing of USC head coach Lane Kiffin.
While ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly did throw for 362 yards and three touchdowns, 146 of that came in the fourth quarter when the Sun Devils were playing catch up.
They were forced to do that because Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense were efficient. Rees matched Kelly’s three touchdowns and threw for 279 yards. Rees was also able to allow Notre Dame to blunt every ASU rally in the fourth quarter.
Arizona State scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame answered that with 13. The first two Arizona State touchdowns in the fourth quarter were followed by drives that netted Notre Dame points.
Arizona State turned the ball over three times, and two of those resulted in 14 points in the second half.
“To come in and turn the ball over three times that was the difference in the game,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “That’s about how simple it was. I thought they (the Irish) made great adjustments. You can’t turn the ball over three times against a good football team. I thought their defense did a great job tonight.”
Notre Dame led 17-13 late in the third quarter when Arizona State’s Richard Smith fumbled at the ASU 21 and Fox recovered it. Two plays later Rees hit Troy Niklas on a fade in the end zone and it was 24-13 Notre Dame.
The team’s then started trading scores before once again the Irish defense came up with the big play.
With the game tied at 27 after Taylor Kelly threw a 21-yard scoring strike to De’Marieya Nelson with 8:18 remaining in the game, the Irish went on a time-killing drive that netted points.
Kyle Brindza broke the tie with a 25-yard yard field goal with 3:03 remaining in the game.
Rees knew that the best way to help the defense was to keep the Arizona State offense off the field.
“We knew Arizona State had a really good offense and could put up some points,” said Rees, who was 17 for 38 for 279 yards. “So limiting their opportunities to go out there and score ultimately helps our defense with ball control. Obviously running the ball helps with the clock and all that, but just sustaining drives. When you’ve got third and manageables, just making sure that you convert, which I thought we did a good job of, keeping their highpowered offense off the field.”
Notre Dame had the ball for more than 34 minutes, allowing its defense enough time to rest up.
Notre Dame’s defense then came up big on back-to-back possessions. Matthias Farley ended the next ASU drive with an interception. After a 3-and-out by the Irish, ASU had one last chance after it took over at its 1-yard line with 1:16 remaining.
Fox made sure that chance was short-lived though. He stepped in front of Taylor Kelly’s next pass at the 14 and rumbled in for the score. Fox came on in the game after starting linebacker Jarrett Grace exited with a broken leg.
ASU did manage a final score with 11 seconds remaining, but by then the Irish defense had done enough.
“Throughout the game we had missed opportunities on third and short, third and one, third and three,” said Taylor Kelly, whose team was just 4 of 13 on third-down conversions. “So we usually connect on those. We missed out on those a lot this game.”