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Week 6: Arizona State

Matthew DeFranks | Sunday, October 6, 2013

Armed with an opportunistic defense and an explosive offense, Notre Dame won a Texas shootout over No. 22 Arizona State, 37-34, on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas in front of 66,690 people.

The Irish defense forced three second-half turnovers against the Sun Devils (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) and piled up six sacks in the win. The six sacks, three by senior linebacker Prince Shembo, were the most by Notre Dame (4-2) this season.

“This was the first time that we really got into a true drop back passing game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “And the more drop back passing game that we see, we are going to get home. And tonight we were able to.”

The Irish defense surrendered 427 total yards and 22 first downs to the Sun Devils. Irish freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith led Notre Dame with nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and also forced a fumble and broke up a pass.

Despite the big offensive numbers notched by Arizona State, Kelly said his defensive unit is improving.

“I just felt like we were getting better,” Kelly said. “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.”

Notre Dame’s defense was able to close the game out when its offense could not in the fourth quarter.

With 1:16 left in the fourth quarter and on his own 1-yard line, Sun Devils redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly dropped back into the end zone and threw a pass over the middle. Irish graduate student linebacker Dan Fox intercepted it and ran it back 14 yards for a touchdown to give the Irish a 37-27 lead.

Fox’s touchdown ended up being the game-winning score.

“I think we all remember what we saw last year defensively salting away games and we feel like our defense is continually getting better,” Brian Kelly said. “We are not there yet.”

The previous possession, the Notre Dame offense had the ball with a chance to ice the game. Following junior safety Matthias Farley’s fourth-down interception, the Irish had the ball at midfield with just 1:44 left in the game.

But the Irish could not gain a first down on the ensuing drive and punted the ball back to the Sun Devils. That’s when Fox clinched the game with his pick. He finished the game with seven tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

“You can’t take negative yardage plays and you can’t turn the ball over,” Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. “You can’t get sacked six times and give up three turnovers and win a game like that. It’s not going to happen. So what causes that is their team playing at a really high level. I thought their defense played at a really high level. I thought that was the difference in the game too.”

Following Fox’s fumble recovery with 4:12 left in the third quarter, Notre Dame senior quarterback Tommy Rees and the Irish did not take long to capitalize on the turnover. On second-and-10 from the 21-yard line, Rees scrambled to his left and lofted a ball into the end zone for junior tight end Troy Niklas. Niklas leaped above Sun Devil senior safety Alden Darby and pulled down the ball to put Notre Dame ahead 24-13.

Rees finished the game 17-for-38 for 279 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The game was Rees’ seventh three-touchdown game of his career and second of this season.

“I think as an offense, we settled in and had a good understanding of what they were trying to do,” Rees said. “Arizona State had a great game plan, they did a lot of things on defense to get us thinking. So we made some plays there in the second quarter, and proud of how the offense played.”

The Notre Dame offense rolled up 424 total yards – 145 on the ground and 279 through the air.

“Their choice was to make it difficult to run the football, but I thought we did a better job, 145 yards rushing, 279 [passing], that’s a little bit better mix with the kind of pressure defense that Arizona State brought today,” Brian Kelly said. “I think that’s a little bit better in terms of where we want to be, so we got better today offensively.”

After Arizona State scored with 1:30 left in the second quarter to go up 13-7, Notre Dame scored 17 unanswered points to take an 11-point advantage.

The Sun Devils ended that streak when Rees threw an interception to Arizona State graduate student cornerback Osahon Irabor that was returned for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 24-20. The 37-yard return was Irabor’s first touchdown of his career.

Despite the second pick-six in as many weeks by Rees, the Irish still won the turnover battle 3-1. Under Brian Kelly, the Irish are now 19-1 when they are ahead in the turnover margin.

Down 27-20 in the fourth quarter, Arizona State faced a third-and-20 from its own 38-yard line. Taylor Kelly stepped up to his right and found redshirt receiver Kevin Ozier for a 31-yard gain. The completion was one of three plays of 20 yards or longer on the drive for the Sun Devils.

Later on the drive, Taylor Kelly connected with redshirt junior tight end De’Marieya Nelson down the sideline for a 21-yard touchdown to knot the game at 27 with 8:18 remaining in the fourth quarter.

At the end of the first half, Rees threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver TJ Jones. The score came with just 10 seconds left in the half and gave Notre Dame the lead again.

Jones finished the game with eight catches for 135 yards and one touchdown.

Earlier, Rees found junior tight end Ben Koyack on a 19-yard touchdown reception with 3:35 left in the second quarter to give Notre Dame its first lead of the game, 7-6. Koyack found space in the middle of the field and dove into the end zone for his first career touchdown.

“As it relates to Ben Koyack, confidence is the big thing here,” Brian Kelly said. “He’s gaining confidence week in and week out.”

Arizona State answered Notre Dame quickly with a seven-play, 78-yard march in less than two minutes. Taylor Kelly connected with redshirt sophomore receiver Jaelen Strong for a 36-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-four. Strong was matched up with senior safety Austin Collinsworth and ran past him for the scoring snag and a 13-7 lead.

Notre Dame covered 59 yards on 13 plays on its opening drive but came away without points when junior kicker Kyle Brindza missed a 38-yard field goal. The Irish had the ball for 8:08 and converted once on third down and once on fourth down.

The drive was the longest march of the season for Notre Dame, time-wise. It tied for the longest of the year, play-wise. The Irish also notched a 13-play drive against Purdue.

Notre Dame is idle this week and will return to action Oct. 19 when USC visits Notre Dame Stadium.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu