Substance, not style matters most to ND

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas

Progress is progress.

Don't underestimate the steps in the right direction.

Beats the alternative.

Notre Dame's 37-34 Shamrock Series victory over Arizona State was more about substance than style.

Substance is good in college football. Style can come later or not at all if the winning persists.

This was a pivotal game for the Irish.

Two losses, seven to play. The Sun Devils were coming off a coach-purging victory over Southern Cal while the Irish were stymied by Oklahoma. An open date loomed for Notre Dame. The outcome would have to be chewed on for two weeks.

A season possibly was in the balance.

Hard not to make a big deal about the victory.

Two phases of Notre Dame's game made huge strides:

  • The Irish passing game proved a significant weapon. Tommy Rees was kept clean most of the game by his line, and his receivers were effective.
  • Notre Dame's defensive front came to life. Outside linebacker Prince Shembo and linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix made an impact for the first time in like, forever. The turnover-starved Irish came up with their second fumble recovery of the season. And two interceptions late in the game iced the win.

On the flip side...

  • The fourth-quarter interception return for touchdown by Arizona State's Osahon Irabor was the fourth pass by Rees that should have been intercepted. The other three were dropped.
  • An Irish running game that just started to show some promise last week was once again relegated to a problem area. They weren't able to run when they wanted to run. That's a concern. Cam McDaniel showed the only spark late in the game.

Another one of the setbacks from the Shamrock Series experience came in Notre Dame's likely interest in a Jumbotron for its own re-sodded stadium. AT&T Stadium's massive screen at midfield was cluttered with fan-cam shots between plays. All was mundane and cheesy until the 14:46 mark of the fourth quarter when a goof in a lime green tux made an obscene gesture for 66,960 to see.

Oh well, it would have been a nice idea.

Run the ball? Who needs to run the ball?

Could've sworn it was just the other day when Irish coach Brian Kelly said that Notre Dame's run game would have to be clicking on all cylinders if the Irish expected to challenge Arizona State.

Huh?

Rees, who threw for 104 yards in last week's loss to Oklahoma and 38 in the first 15 minutes against the Sun Devils, had nine completions for 156 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter.

Everything seemed to fall together. The line protected, Rees wasn't sacked. Receivers were where they were supposed to be.

And a little bit of luck didn't hurt. Three passes that could have been intercepted weren't.

Notre Dame had a case of the shanks in the first half. Kicker Kyle Brindza let the longest drive of the season (8 minutes, 8 seconds) fail miserably when yanked a 38-yard field goal way left.

By the third quarter, Brindza redeemed himself with a career-long 53-yard field goal.

Early in the drive, the Irish came up with two big plays. Third-and-12 from their own 19, Rees hit DaVaris Daniels for 20 yards. On fourth-and-one at midfield, Andrew Hendrix made a cameo at quarterback to run the "Hen-dercat." He's in there to run, and that's it. Two yards. First down.

The first bright spot of the second quarter came from Irish freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith. Third-and-three from the Notre Dame 4, Smith came up with a four-point play. Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly faked a handoff and tried to run left. Smith held his ground and forced Kelly down with a six-yard loss — forcing a field goal rather than giving up a touchdown.

The Notre Dame offense responded with a drive that ended in a Ben Koyak 18-yard touchdown reception to take a 7-6 lead. The advantage lasted just seven plays.

The Sun Devils retaliated with a 36-yard scoring pass from Taylor Kelly to Jaelen Strong. The most painful part of that play for the Irish was that it came a split second after the 25-second play clock expired, though the Atlantic Coast Conference officiating crew failed to notice.

Notre Dame saved its best (at least in the first half) for last. Without the run, Rees went to work. Passes of 35 and 23 yards to Daniels set the stage for an eight-yard TD connection to TJ Jones and a 14-13 lead.

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly talks to Jarrett Grace 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