Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly narrowly escaped a delay of game penalty, evaded the oncoming Notre Dame pass rush and found a streaking Jaelen Strong in the end zone for a 36 yard touchdown, giving the Sun Devils a 13-7 lead and the momentum heading into halftime.
Or so they thought.
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, who was 17-38 for 279 yards with three touchdowns and one interception on the night, led the Irish back down the field and connected with senior wide receiver T.J. Jones for an eight yard score to close the half and start a string of 17 unanswered points by the Irish.
Despite being overwhelmed by the Irish defense for long stretches throughout the second half, Arizona State refused to go down without a fight. Trailing by nine entering the fourth quarter, senior cornerback Osahon Irabor intercepted an errant Rees pass attempt and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. On the team's next possession, Kelly found Kevin Ozier on a 3rd and 20 pass completion along the sideline before hooking up with tight end De'Marieya Nelson for a 21 yard touchdown to even the score at 27 with 8:18.
But the Sun Devils couldn't come up with a stop when they needed it the most as Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza put the team on top once more with three minutes with a 25 yard field goal, the third of the night for the junior who also set a school and AT&T Stadium record with a 53 yard field goal in the third quarter.
Kelly would go on to throw the first of his two interceptions in the final quarter, the second of which would be returned eight yards for a Notre Dame touchdown as the Irish pulled away late in front of the 66,960 on hand.
Kelly finished 33-47 for 362 yards, with three touchdowns to go along with his two interceptions. It was the fifth consecutive time that Kelly has passed for 300 or more yards in a game, but he struggled to help move the ball at critical moments of the game.
"Throughout the game we had missed opportunities on third and short, third and one, and third and three," he said afterwards. "Usually we connect on those but we missed out on those a lot in this game."
ASU (3-2, 1-1) finished 4-13 on third down opportunities and was plagued by untimely turnovers, including a Richard Smith fumble with 4:13 to play in the third quarter, resulting in 21 yard Rees touchdown pass to Troy Niklas. It was the first lost fumble of the season for the Arizona State offense, but ultimately put them in too deep of a hole to ever climb out of in the second half.
"No excuses. We catch it, have a first down, and we're carrying the ball away from our body. We don't do that," said Graham. "That turnover was critical in the game. I thought that was the play of the game. We moved the ball and did some nice things but those turnovers were critical. And obviously the interception for a touchdown didn't help any. That's 14 points off two plays and guess what, those count."
"I think it started with the two interceptions that we threw," added Kelly. "They beat us in the turnover ratio and that's a big thing. We came in at halftime and were winning that, but in the second half we lost the turnover ratio and I think that's where we kind of lost it."
The Irish were able to keep pressure on Kelly throughout most of the second half, sacking the quarterback six times while limiting his mobility in the pocket.
"We didn't protect our quarterback," remarked Graham. "Last week we did a good job of getting the ball out on time, utilizing our tight ends, and utilizing our running backs. We didn't do that today. You got to give them a lot of credit. We hadn't been sacked like that all year, so they did a great job.
"Like Stanford, going into this game, I thought they were very similar teams. Very similar defenses and they did some similar things that Stanford did. We can't take negative yardage plays and can't turn the ball over. We can't get sacked six times and turn the ball over three times and win a game. It's not going to happen."
Notre Dame (4-2) used a steady balance of running between the tackles and Rees' arm to keep the Sun Devil defense out of rhythm throughout the night. The Irish collected 166 yards on the ground, led by junior running back Cam McDaniel, who had 86 yards on 15 carries.
The senior Jones helped pace the Notre Dame aerial attack with eight catches for 135 yards and a touchdown on the night.
"They definitely surprised us a little bit," said Arizona State senior cornerback Osahon Irabor. "They did some things that we weren't prepared for. We tried to make some adjustments on the fly but we've got to stop making mental errors on defense if we want to accomplish our goals. The main thing for us is to get back to work, watch some film and make sure we correct the mistakes that we made.
"We got some young guys playing on defense. They're talented but inexperienced, so we definitely have to get them up to speed because we're making alignment errors and stuff like that that we went over before the game. And you're not seeing the veteran guys make those mistakes because they've been there and done that before."
The Sun Devils were led by defensively by safety Damarious Randall, who recorded a team-high 17 tackles in his first career start.
After a spirited offensive output last Saturday against USC, the Sun Devil run game sputtered on the road. Against the bigger, stronger Notre Dame defensive line, ASU was only able to run for 65 yards on 25 carries, led by Marion Grice who had 51 yards in the loss.
Sophomore D.J. Foster continued his torrid early season pace with a career-high nine receptions on Saturday, giving him 31 for the year. Jaelen Strong finished with eight grabs for 136 yards and the lone touchdown.
"They're a good team," said Graham. "We got a good team. You put two teams like that out there playing in that kind of environment, it's the team that makes the least amount of mistakes that wins and clearly that was the difference."
With the loss, Arizona State finishes its four-game "gauntlet" a notch below where their head coach had hoped, but with all of its goals still within reach. The Sun Devils return to Tempe next week when they host Pac-12 foe Colorado in a South division match-up as they look to get back on the winning track.
"Boy I tell you what, I really wanted to be 4-1," commented Graham. "But we're 3-2, 1-1 in conference play, and 1-0 in the South. You want my honest opinion? I thought we'd be 4-1.We didn't get it done as a coaching staff. But you move on."
"All of our goals are still there; for the Pac-12 South and to get to that Pac-12 championship game and the Rose Bowl," added Kelly. "We've got to come ready to work. We got Colorado this week and then Washington, so we've got to come to work and put this one behind us and it's Pac-12 games from now."