by John Vannie
Notre Dame linebacker Dan Fox intercepted a Taylor Kelly pass and returned it for a 14-yard score with just over one minute left and the Irish held on to defeat Arizona State by 37-34 on Saturday night in Dallas. Kyle Brindza had broken a 27-all tie with 3:03 remaining before Fox extended the lead to ten points moments later. The Sun Devils scored with 11 seconds on the clock to account for the final margin, but the issue was not decided until the Irish grabbed an onside kick that ASU might well have recovered. The finish was typical in a game that started slowly, only to see each half end with a flurry of points.
The teams did not score until Zane Gonzalez kicked a pair of second quarter field goals to stake Arizona State to a 6-0 lead. Tommy Rees finally warmed up for the Irish after severall early misses to lead his team down the field for a score with 3:35 left in the first half. Tight end Ben Koyack was the recipient of a 19-yard scoring strike and Notre Dame registered a 7-6 lead.
It did not last very long, however, as Kelly directed a 78-yard march capped by a 36-yard touchdown pass to Jaelon Strong in just two minutes. This left Rees just enough time to answer, and the senior responded by hitting T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels downfield to set up an eight yard toss to Jones for a 14-13 halftime advantage.
Notre Dame appeared to take control in the second half as Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt lead a defensive charge that shut down the run and brought pressure to Kelly. Brindza blasted a 53-yard field goal and Troy Niklas caught a touchdown pass to give the Irish a 10-0 third quarter and a 24-13 lead entering the final period. Rees threw his only errant pass of the night moments later, and Sun Devil cornerback Osahon Irabor returned it for a 37-yard score. After Brindza responded with another short field goal, Kelly tied the game at 27 with a scoring pass with 8 minutes remaining.
Shembo, Tuitt and Matthias Farley stepped up for the defense once Brindza put Notre Dame ahead to stay. Farley’s interception appeared to ice the victory, but ASU Coach Todd Graham used his timeouts and an inexplicable third down incompletion by Notre Dame to extend the game. Fox came through moments later, but the Sun Devils were still not finished. Kelly burned the Irish secondary one last time to bring his team within 37-34, but the onside kick ended up with Notre Dame after rolling around for a few anxious moments.
The final statistics tell the story of the evening, and even suggest that Notre Dame should have won by a more comfortable margin. The Irish were almost evenly balanced from a run/pass standpoint, while ASU’s Kelly threw 47 passes and was sacked five times against 20 actual running plays for only 51 yards. Let’s review the pregame questions for additional insights.
Which team will best capitalize on its scoring chances? Both teams had a pick-six on defense and scored numerous points, but ASU could only muster two field goals in the early going when the Irish were struggling with another slow start.
Will the Irish set up play action passes or telegraph Rees’ throws out of an empty backfield? A little bit of both, but Rees did have a more productive running game to take the pressure off. He was not sacked during the game.
Can Notre Dame’s offensive line limit ASU’s ability to create negative plays? After a couple of early miscues, the line did a respectable job against the blitz-happy Sun Devils.
Will Atkinson or Grice have the biggest impact on the outcome? Both had similar numbers, but Cam McDaniel stole the show for Notre Dame on the ground and should get a game ball.
Can the Irish cover the Sun Devil backs and short zone receivers? They did enough to stop a few drives, but those matchups still cause problems for the Irish who may have to move forward without Jarret Grace.
Which team will win the turnover battle? Rees had a costly interception but Kelly returned the favor twice over in the last three minutes of the game.
How ‘bout them Cowboys? I think they’re in big trouble against Peyton Manning this week.
Notre Dame now has a week off to regroup and prepare for USC. The Irish stand at 4-2 and fans have a point when they suggest the team could be undefeated, but the fact remains they have not made enough winning plays to deserve a better record. The best hope for the season resides in the remaining schedule, which sets up well for a winning streak until the final game showdown with Stanford on November 30. This team can’t afford to look that far ahead, but their situation is significantly better than sitting at 3-3 with two straight losses. When the Irish look back on this game, it could be regarded as a turnng point in what has been a string of shaky performances to date.