After a month of getting kicked around, picked on, and compared to last year’s historic unit, you can forgive Notre Dame’s defense for playing with a chip on their shoulder. And with Irish fans steaming after Tommy Rees’s throw sailed over DaVaris Daniels’ head to stop a clock with precious few seconds left, you can hardly blame senior linebacker Dan Fox for diving into the end zone after his interception, even though a kneel down would’ve ended the game.
Fox’s touchdown extended the Irish’s lead to ten points — all of them needed — as Notre Dame held off a late-charging Sun Devil offense for a wild 37-34 victory in AT&T Stadium. The Irish defense carried the day with three turnovers and a resurgent pass rush, winning a game that didn’t necessarily play like a shootout until the game’s final seconds.
“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.”
For all the twists and turns the Irish took during the season’s opening month, Notre Dame now heads to the off week at 4-2 before welcoming USC to South Bend. Nobody will forget losses to Michigan and Oklahoma, but after a frustrating week spent poking holes in every facet of Kelly’s football team both during and after football games, the Irish won as an underdog in a game they desperately needed.
Let’s find out what else we learned during Notre Dame’s 37-34 Shamrock Series victory.
They’re not the same unit that led the Irish to the National Championship game. But Bob Diaco’s defense won the football game for Notre Dame.
Entering Saturday night’s game with more questions than answers, Notre Dame’s defense was at a crossroads. An injury to Sheldon Day forced the defensive front to work in some players not exactly ready to contribute. The suspension of Ben Councell and a season-ending injury to Jarrett Grace led to Joe Schmidt and Romeo Okwara taking snaps at linebacker. And critical mistakes in the secondary turned some okay performances into bad ones.
But on a Saturday night where the Irish were facing their biggest test of the season, Bob Diaco dialed up a textbook game plan, and the Irish defense forced turnovers and got after the quarterback, two essentials on the way victory.
“They’re a very difficult offense to defend. They do so many things very well,” Kelly said. “It’s just a difficult offense to defend and thought we did a pretty darn good job.”
After being held sackless, Prince Shembo was a man on a mission on Saturday night, playing primarily with his hand on the ground and dominating with three sacks. Stephon Tuitt was relentless as well, adding a sack and forcing a fumble as he played a ton of snaps with Day still out. Bennett Jackson had a key strip when the team needed momentum. Matthias Farley rebounded after a tough series and made a clutch interception. Dan Fox stepped back in after Grace was injured and returned an interception for a touchdown.
No, it wasn’t the kind of stingy, mistake-free performance that marked last season’s historic regular season. But after failing to make big plays for much of the season, it was the defense that carried the weight.
The film room will show some of the areas that need to be cleaned up. But a gritty performance against an elite college offense was just what Brian Kelly had pointed at all week.
Needing to control the tempo of the football game, Notre Dame’s offense did their job.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Tommy Rees and the Irish offense did their job, holding onto the football for over 35 minutes while keeping the Sun Devils off the field. A week after George Atkinson broke lose with his best game of the season, the junior turned over the crunch time carries to Dallas-area native Cam McDaniel, and the Texan answered the bell with 15 tough carries, running for 82 yards on the evening.
Playing 20 minutes from home, McDaniel was a key in the fourth quarter, carrying it nine straight times for the Irish.
“We’ve been looking for some consistency offensively, we knew heading into the game we had to control the football and keep that offense off the field,” Kelly said.
Against an Arizona State defense that had struggled against the run, Notre Dame only rushed for 3.9 yards per carry, with Atkinson never getting started. But when push came to shove the Irish ground game was there, and McDaniel’s gritty performance was a big reason why.
After learning on the job in the season’s opening month, Jaylon Smith had a breakout performance.
With Ben Councell forced to sit out the first half after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejection last week, freshman Jaylon Smith was tasked with playing without a safety net against one of the most dangerous offenses in college football. Smith was up to the task, leading the Irish with nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss.
Danny Spond’s retirement during preseason forced Smith into an every snap role, playing a position that forces even the most athletic player to do an awful lot of thinking. Even with a steep learning curve, Smith’s freakish abilities have been seen in flashes, but never for four quarters like the ones he played on Saturday night.
“He’s a difficult guy to block. He’s got great speed,” Kelly said of Smith. “You saw him and his ability to track down Kelly in the open field. He’s a very important player now within our defense.”
With spread offenses making things harder and harder on defenses, a weapon like Smith might not always show up in the box score, but he’s certainly essential in slowing down a big play opponent like ASU.
He may have struggled keeping leverage a few times, but Smith was a dominant factor in containing Taylor Kelly in the run game, with the Sun Devils’ quarterback being held to less than one yard per carry.
In a must-have football game, Notre Dame’s veteran leaders rose to the occasion.
It’s been a relatively quiet season for Notre Dame’s captains. A year after Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o became two of the leading men of college football, offensive tackle Zack Martin, wide receiver TJ Jones, and cornerback Bennett Jackson have remained mostly anonymous. That goes with the territory for Martin, but shouldn’t be the case for Jones and Jackson, who are desperately needed by this team to be key playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Saturday night, all three guys with a ‘C’ on their chest played great football. Martin anchored an offensive line that helped the offense rack up over 400 yards and kept Rees from getting sacked. Even with the Sun Devils defense bringing five and six men, they failed to get to Rees once, while the Irish run game did enough down the stretch to win.
Meanwhile, Jones caught eight balls for 135 yards and a touchdown, also contributing a huge punt return. As he needed to be, Jones was the best player on the field for the Irish offense, doing the little things right and also making big plays down the field. Facing man coverage and needing to defeat it, Jones and Rees were in sync all night.
“TJ’s best asset is how well he understands defenders are playing him, and then he runs routes based off of that,” Rees explained. “A guy like that I can trust and count on being on the same page.”
After being off for much of the first month, Bennett Jackson seems to have hit his stride as well, looking much better in man coverage and playing his usual physical brand of football at the boundary cornerback position. His tackle and strip of receiver Richard Smith also teed up an Irish touchdown, extending Notre Dame’s lead to 11 points late in the third quarter.
When the team needed it, the Irish’s senior leaders stepped up.
It wasn’t necessarily always pretty. But it was all hands on deck for the Irish victory.
Joe Schmidt at inside linebacker. Romeo Okwara at defensive tackle. Forgotten man Ben Koyack chipping in an all-important touchdown catch. Notre Dame’s depth chart extended on Saturday night and the Irish won the game thanks to big performances by players big and small.
It wasn’t a victory that came without some losses. Both Daniel Smith and Jarrett Grace are lost for the season. Smith broke an ankle while Grace fractured his tibia. Smith will force the young Irish receiving corps to find another glue guy, someone willing to play physically and block on the perimeter. The loss of Grace will hurt the Irish even more, leaving the defense will Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese to man the inside linebacker positions with zero experience behind them.
Still, the Irish won a football game against a very talented Arizona State team. And while there were breakdowns in the secondary and uneven play on offense, Brian Kelly won for the eleventh time in his last twelve when the football game was decided by less than a touchdown.
The loss to Oklahoma last week sent fans into another spiral, where debates about the alma mater turned into a minor referendum on a team that pulled rabbits out of hats all last season. But with the noise once against getting louder around this football team, Kelly’s squad tuned it all out and played their best football of the season.
A pass rush that had been nonexistent roared. A defense that couldn’t force turnovers became opportunistic. Tommy Rees completed passes on the move and from an empty set. And even though the Irish committed nine penalties and struggled to close out the football game, heading into the off week with a 4-2 record looks infinitely better than 3-3.
“It’s a big win for us,” Rees said after the game. “To get right back on the right track heading into the bye week, the halfway point of the season, was the kind of a game we understood the importance of.”