ARLINGTON, TX – Notre Dame did just enough. The Fighting Irish downed No. 22 Arizona State 37-34 Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in nail-biting fashion. The Irish (4-2) shutout the high-powered Sun Devil offense in the first and third quarters and then weathered a late storm to go into their first bye week of the season with some much needed momentum.
“Defensively, I thought we played very well,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly after the win. “They are a very difficult offense to defend. They do so many things well. (Quarterback Taylor) Kelly is difficult to keep in the pocket and when he gets outside he has outstanding receivers.”
Arizona State’s 21-point fourth quarter is a new AT&T Stadium record for a college football game. Kelly passed for 386 yards with three touchdown passes the last coming with 11 seconds remaining. Kelly now has six interceptions this season. Two came against the Irish while two more came in ASU’s first loss of the season to Stanford.
He had also been sacked six times in his first six games, but the Irish sacked Kelly six times Saturday night. Prince Shembo accounted for half of that sack total.
“I just felt like we were getting better,” Kelly said of his defense. “You know, not to the level where we feel like we have arrived. We think there’s a lot left out there that needs to get better.”
The Sun Devils were averaging 505 yards of offense in their first four games. They managed 427 total yards, including just 65 rushing yards, against the Irish. ASU running back Marion Grice touched the ball 17 times (12 rushes and five receptions) in the game, but scored just one touchdown. He was averaging a touchdown every 7.2 times per touch entering the game.
Two Men Down
The win did come at a price for the Irish. Kelly says wide receiver Daniel Smith fractured an ankle in the first half, while linebacker Jarrett Grace has a fractured leg.
“He’ll stay here for observations overnight,” Kelly said of Grace. “We’ll have more for you on both those injuries, but they look to be fairly significant.”
On The Offensive
It took the Irish offense a while to really get firing, but they were effective on the game’s opening possession even though they did not score on the 13-play drive that chewed-up 8:08 on the game clock.
“We knew that coming into this game we had to control the football and keep that offense off the field,” Kelly said of his offense. “I thought we started the game on a long drive, which kind of set the tone for the game and limiting some possessions for them. I think that really helped kind of set us into a flow offensively.”
The Irish ran the ball 37 times for 145 net yards. Rees was 17-of-38 for 279 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. The first TD went to tight end Ben Koyack for his first career score.
“Confidence is the big thing here,” Kelly said of Koyack. “He’s gaining confidence week-in and week-out.”
Rees also hit Troy Niklas for a 21-yard third quarter score. It marks the first time since 2006 that the Irish have had two tight ends score touchdowns in the same game.
Wide Receiver T.J. Jones caught Rees’s other touchdown pass. The eight-yard grab with 10 seconds to play in the first half marked the fourth TD of the season for the senior as well as the 14th of his career.
“They couldn’t defend him,” Kelly said of Jones, who had eight grabs for 135 yards. Jones has had at least one catch in 33 consecutive games. The streak dates back to the 2010 Sun Bowl.
Kyle Brindza missed a 38-yard field goal in the first quarter, but he hit a pair of fourth quarter kicks from 33 and 25 yards that proved to be the difference in the three-point victory.
“I would say he’s a pretty clutch guy in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said of his kicker who has now gone 11-for-11 in his career on fourth quarter field goals. “He missed one early, but you’ve got to look at his track record.”
Brindza also tied a Notre Dame record with his 53-yard field goal early in the third quarter. The kick equaled Dave Reeve’s 53-yard boot against Pittsburgh in 1976. Brindza has made 31-of-42 field goals (73%) in his career, including 8-of-11 this season.
Backs on the Attack
George Atkinson had a career-best 18 carries while rushing for a modest 54 yards (3.0 avg) in the win. Cam McDaniel set a career-high with 82 yards on 15 carries. McDaniel also had a career-long 29-yard run in the fourth quarter.
A Pair of Picks
Safety Matthias Farley and inside linebacker Dan Fox each had interceptions in the victory – both were in the fourth quarter.
Farley’s third career pick stalled an ASU drive with less than three minutes to play. Fox returned his first career interception 14 yards for a touchdown with 1:08 remaining to seal the three-point win.