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Football: Turnover battle remains critical to Irish success

Joseph Monardo | Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In probably the biggest venue in all of football, if not in terms of level of importance, at least in the literal sense, Notre Dame captured an upset win over No. 22 Arizona State in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday. 

The Irish (4-2) displayed offensive balance and gained 424 total yards, 145 on the ground and 279 through the air. Although the Sun Devils (3-2) outgained the Irish, albeit by a minimal margin with 427 yards, the Notre Dame defense forced three turnovers on the night and held Arizona State to 65 rushing yards on 25 attempts.

“We were opportunistic in turnovers. … Obviously, they couldn’t run the football against us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in his teleconference call Sunday. “So those are all basic, important tenets of playing good defense.”

Irish graduate student inside linebacker Dan Fox had a fumble recovery and a pick-six, while junior safety Matthias Farley brought down another interception. Meanwhile, Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees threw an interception at the start of the fourth quarter that Arizona State brought back for a touchdown, Notre Dame’s only turnover of the night. Kelly’s Irish improved to 19-1 when winning the turnover battle.

Grace, Smith suffer injuries

Irish junior inside linebacker Jarrett Grace suffered a fractured fibula during the game’s first half and will miss the remainder of the season. Grace appeared in all six games this season for the Irish and started the past three games at one of the inside linebacker positions while participating in a rotation primarily with Fox and graduate student Carlo Calabrese. Grace is currently tied with Calabrese for the team lead in tackles with 40 but will now embark on a long recovery process, Kelly said.

“You know, that’s a process that could take four to six months,” he said. “But obviously a big loss for us, but we’ve got a senior in Danny Fox that will step in at that position.”

Kelly said senior Kendall Moore, freshman Michael Deeb and junior Joe Schmidt are the players most likely to see time at inside linebacker following Grace’s injury. 

Among the three players, Schmidt leads with eight tackles this season and has seen time in all six contests, while Moore has recorded two tackles in six appearances. Deeb has not yet seen action this season.

Irish senior receiver Daniel Smith also left the game due to an injury, and it seems he will miss the remainder of the season with a fractured ankle.

“Smith will have surgery once the swelling goes down,” Kelly said. “He has a substantial amount of swelling in that ankle. He did suffer a fracture, and once that swelling goes down, he’ll have surgery this week.”

A South Bend native, Smith was used primarily as a blocker, although he made two starts for the Irish this season and caught one ball for nine yards.

“You know, I usually don’t use a ‘win-one-for-the-Gipper’ talk, and I don’t want to equate it in those terms, but generally speaking, we talked [at halftime] about losing Danny [Smith] and in particular that he probably wasn’t going to play again,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room because they love Danny Smith and what he’s done for our program as a dedicated player for Notre Dame. He loves Notre Dame, and we’ve seen him grow as a person and as a player and he’s going to be sorely missed.”

Seniors step up

In a week when Rees rebounded, following two down performances, by tossing three touchdowns, Irish senior receiver and tri-captain TJ Jones finished the game with 135 yards on eight receptions and scored his fourth touchdown of the season. Rees completed 17 of 38 pass attempts and finished with 279 yards, with Jones accounting for almost half of both his completions and passing yardage.

“You know, some of the younger [receivers], at times, there’s not that certainty of where they are going to be sometimes in press coverage, and obviously one thing TJ does is he gets people off him, because they respect his ability to get over the top easily,” Kelly said.

“Not that the other guys can’t do that, but I guess … these guys [Rees and Jones] have been together for four years, and TJ flat out is our No. 1 guy, and [Rees] sees that in terms of going to him.”

Senior outside linebacker Prince Shembo shined on the Irish defense by recording seven tackles and three sacks against the Sun Devils. Senior cornerback and tri-captain Bennett Jackson made four tackles on the day and forced a fumble that turned into a key Irish takeaway late in the third quarter.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu