Defense dictates Notre Dame win

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas

There were glimpses of the past, convincing if not consistent, that if the Notre Dame defense hadn’t found itself, then it had finally stumbled onto the right path Saturday night 1,000 miles from home.

Some impressive puffs of offense from Arizona State, a final score that looks like Oregon should have been involved and the palpitations that probably made Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly thinking his heart was falling out of his chest on a late onside kick camouflaged the progress.

So likely will a broken right tibia suffered by junior Jarrett Grace that likely will sideline the starting middle linebacker for the season. He was to remain in Texas overnight for observation. Wide receiver Daniel Smith, a South Bend Clay product, suffered a fractured ankle.

But a 37-34 Shamrock Series win over No. 22 Arizona State at AT&T Stadium was more statement than survival for Notre Dame.

“I thought their defense was the difference in the game,” ASU coach Todd Graham offered. “It was just that simple.”

Well perhaps not simple, but six sacks, three forced turnovers, the continued rise of freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and a smothering performance against Arizona State’s running game not only helped the Irish remain mathematically alive on the periphery of the BCS picture, but tapped into something bigger.

Last year’s run to the national title wasn’t supposed to be about magic, with everything falling perfectly into place. The hopeful narrative that it was the beginning of something sustainable.

The defensive surges Saturday night against an offense that was coming off a 62-point performance against USC and its highest yardage total in a Pac-12 game 13 seasons (612) pushed the notion that maybe that’s not so out of reach.

“I just felt like we’re getting better, not to the level where we feel like we’ve arrived,” Kelly said of his defense. “We feel like there’s a lot out there that needs to get better. We saw a pass rush today, which obviously changes the way we look defensively. I feel our personnel is getting better and we’re coming together as a unit.”

Fifth-year senior linebacker Dan Fox, who replaced the injured Grace, recovered a fumble that set up a touchdown pass from Tommy Rees to tight end Troy Niklas. His first career interception and 14-yard return for a touchdown seemingly put a bow on a 37-27 victory.

But ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly moved the Sun Devils (3-2) 75 yards in 57 seconds, capped by a 16-yard scoring pass to running back Marion Grice with 11 seconds left in regulation to get ASU within three.

Irish senior wide receiver TJ Jones capped a banner game by recovering the onside kick after a wild scramble. He had eight catches for 135 yards and a TD, leaping over Irish legends Tim Brown, Jim Seymour and Tyler Eifert in the process to finish the night No. 6 on ND’s career receptions list.

Rees had an up-and-down game at QB, ending up under the 50 percent mark with his passing 17-of-37 and throwing an interception returned for a touchdown. He did manage 279 yards and three touchdowns.

Local product Cam McDaniel gave the running game some punch. The Coppell, Texas product rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries.

It marked the fifth straight Shamrock Series win but also the closest. The average margin of victory in the first four was 28 points.

A less-than-sell-out crowd of 66,960, which included a few dozen Notre Dame recruiting targets looked on as the Irish did everything right on their opening drive except finishing it. Kyle Brindza badly shanked a 38-yard field goal attempt, but ND held the ball for a season-long 8:08 and tag-team QB Andrew Hendrix with a two-yard run recorded ND’s first fourth-down conversion in five tries this season.

Brindza hit his other three attempts, including a 53-yarder that tied Dave Reeves’ school record and a 25-yarder in the fourth quarter that broke a 27-27 tie and made him 11-for-11 in his career in the final period of games.

Notre Dame's Daniel Smith leaves the field with an injury during the Shamrock Series game between Notre Dame and Arizona State on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN