ARLINGTON, Texas - Notre Dame kept its Shamrock Series record unscathed in the most difficult match-up of the five to date.
The Irish also notched their most significant victory of the season with a complete-game performance en route to a 37-34 triumph over No. 22-ranked Arizona State.
“We have been looking for some consistency offensively, and we knew coming into this game that we had to control the football and keep the (Sun Devil) offense off the field,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“Defensively, we’re not there yet, but we certainly feel like our defense is continually getting better.”
The Irish limited Arizona State (3-2) to four drives in the first half and just two field goals until late in the half. But Notre Dame responded to every challenge, regaining a one-point lead before halftime, out-scoring the Sun Devils 10-0 in the third quarter, and then taking control defensively in the fourth after coughing up an 11-point lead with less than 19 minutes remaining.
Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes - one each to tight ends Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas, and another to TJ Jones - to help offset a pick six by Arizona State’s Osahon Irabor on the first play of the fourth quarter that allowed the Sun Devils back in it.
Jones finished with eight receptions for 135 yards while Cam McDaniel led the Irish on a field-goal drive late in the game to give them a lead they would not relinquish. Dan Fox’s 14-yard interception return for a score made the Sun Devils’ final touchdown with 11 seconds remaining moot, at least once Jones recovered the ensuring onside kick.
“We did feel it was a must win,” said Jones, who has now caught at least one pass in 33 straight games. “For us mentally and with our schedule, 4-2 is a lot better than 3-3. Leading into a bye week, we needed to end on a good note, and not have it festering for two weeks.”
The Irish sacked Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly six times to help offset his 33-of-47 passing for 362 yards and three touchdowns. He was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter with safety Matthias Farley making the theft before Fox’s clincher.
“Kelly is difficult to keep in the pocket, and when he gets outside, he has outstanding receivers,” Notre Dame’s Kelly said of Arizona State’s Kelly. “It’s a difficult offense to defend and I thought we did a pretty darned good job.”
Notre Dame took a 7-6 lead late in the second quarter on a 19-yard touchdown reception by Koyack for his first catch of the season. Arizona State bounced right back with a seven-play, 78-yard drive that was capped by a 36-yard pass to Jaelen Strong. The touchdown counted despite the fact that it appeared the play clock had expired. An eight-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left in the first half gave the Irish a 14-13 lead at the intermission.
The Irish then out-scored the Sun Devils, 10-0, in the third quarter on a school-record tying 53-yard field goal by Kyle Brindza and a 21-yard touchdown reception by Troy Niklas, who used his great size to bump safety Alden Darby off the football.
The two-score lead was short-lived when Irabor returned his interception 37 yards for a touchdown. Brindza then hit the second of his three field goals from 33 yards, but De’Marieya Nelson’s 21-yard touchdown reception midway through the fourth quarter tied the game at 27-27.
“Obviously, you want to limit your mistakes,” said Rees, who finished 17-of-38 for 279 yards. “I have to take accountability for that. But I’ve got a hundred of my teammates and brothers counting on me, and there’s never a moment to get down. You’ve got to get right back out there and find a way to move the ball, which we did.”
Brindza’s third field goal and Fox’s interception return for a score was enough for the Irish to claim their 16th victory in their last 19 games.
“I don’t know that there was any more intensity in the group,” Kelly said. “We just needed to make more plays. All week, we talked about making the ordinary plays.”
For the first time all season, the Irish were anything but ordinary.