Defense Propels Sun Devils to Win Over Irish

In Arizona State’s three point loss to Notre Dame last season in Dallas, the Sun Devils were undone by a trio of second half turnovers. On Saturday in Tempe, ASU’s defense returned the favor, en route a 55-31 win.

After allowing a Notre Dame field goal on the Irish’s opening possession, Arizona State’s defense forced three Notre Dame turnovers while scoring 34 unanswered points to jump out to a commanding lead first half in front of a sellout crowd of 65,870 at Sun Devil Stadium.

Notre Dame made a push in the third and early stages of the fourth quarter before the Sun Devils were able to close them out for good, fittingly on a couple huge defensive stands, winning 55-31 in thrilling fashion yet gain.

“We probably surprised some people,” said Arizona State Head Coach Todd Graham afterwards. “We haven’t surprised ourselves because when you work hard and do things the right way, you don’t have to be the most talented in the world and our guys are talented. I’m proud of their development. I’m proud of our coaches and how they teach.

“We’re laying a foundation. We talk about building a national power and I passed that (College Football Playoff) trophy as I was walking into Wells Fargo. I just kind of liked seeing that thing. I’m bound and determined to bring that to this valley and do it the right way.”

After a 46 yard Kyle Bridza put Notre Dame (7-2) ahead with 12:49 to play in the first quarter, Arizona State (8-1, 5-1) evened the score on 47 yard Zane Gonzalez field on its ensuing drive. However, on Notre Dame’s next possession, true freshman Tashon Smallwood was able to break free, sacking Irish quarterback Everett Golson while also forcing a fumble that he recovered, setting the Sun Devils up for another early scoring opportunity at the Notre Dame 13 yard line.

One play later, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly spotted Jaelen Strong for a 13 yard touchdown, opening the first half offensive floodgates for the Sun Devils.

Arizona State defensive end Marcus Hardison intercepted a Golson pass on the next play from scrimmage, setting up a one yard Demario Richard touchdown.

Golson, who did not play against the Sun Devils last year due to a suspension, struggled mightily throughout the afternoon against the rejuvenated ASU defense. The sophomore completed 22-41 passes for 446 yards but was also intercepted four times, limiting the Irish offensively.

“He was the biggest challenge that we’ve had to this point,” remarked Graham. “He’s just real elusive and has a big-time, strong arm. If you mess up, he’s going to make you pay.”

Playing without defensive tackle Jaxon Hood, Arizona State used a revolving door of fresh bodies across its defensive line to pressure Golson from start to finish. By the end of the game, the ASU managed to sack Golson seven times, a season-best for the Sun Devils.

“We’re going to get people clean the way we do what we do when we come after the quarterback,” said Graham. “When you come free at the quarterback, your natural habit is to run at the upfield foot of the quarterback, so we really focused on getting him to move forward. Then we noticed the trajectory of the ball, so we really anchored outside.”

The Sun Devils stumbled offensively out of the gates in the second half, totaling just 32 yards of offense in the third quarter as Notre Dame narrowed the gap. Golson passed for 190 yards in the third quarter alone and connected with wide receiver Amir Carlisle for a 25 yard score to pull the Irish within three with just 6:41 to play.

“What happened in the third quarter was, (Golson) started getting away from us,” said Graham. “I think we got a little tired. We weren’t hitting him as hard and then I got a little conservative, playing some cover-three and stuff that we don’t play. We made some mistakes and gave up some things we shouldn’t have given up. You’ve got to give them credit.”

However, the Sun Devils responded, marching 75 yards on just five plays and scored on a four yard Demario Richard catch to put ASU ahead 41-31, seizing control one last time.

“I just thought the statement when we got the ball and it was a three point game, I stood in front of them and I said, ‘Let me tell you what championship teams do. They take the ball and they will stuff it down their throat and they score,’ and that’s exactly what they did,” said Graham. “I was pretty impressed with that.”

Arizona State cornerback Lloyd Carrington intercepted Golson one last time on the next Irish possession, returning the interception 58 yards for a touchdown, the second pick six of the day for the plucky Sun Devil defense.

“I think the reason why that happens is each individual is unique on our team and we talk about that personal will where you dig deep and these guys know how to get to that place and dig deep,” said Graham. “It’s something that we spend a lot of time visualizing on and talking about. There’s a price that’s got to be paid for success and we talk about that all the time. These guys are well-trained and have invested a lot and it comes with great character, so I think that’s why we’re able to win those games.

“It helps the fact that we’ve won so many close games. It’s almost a perfect storm we’ve had to develop. To win like we did at USC and win like did against Utah and win like we did at Washington and then come back and win this one like this, it surely wasn’t easy. There’s just no substitute for that adversity that builds character and intestinal fortitude.”

With the win, Arizona State can almost assuredly expect to move up from its ninth-place standing in the next edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, which will be unveiled on Tuesday. The Sun Devils still have three regular season games remaining on the schedule before a potential showdown with the Pac-12 North division winner in the conference championship game in Santa Clara, CA at season’s end.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Graham. “We’ve got on the road at Oregon State -one of the best coached football teams in the Pac-12 - and we’ve got to stay humble. We’ve got to stay hungry. We’ve got to go get the next one. We’ve got to go own the next three so we can play on December 5th.

“None of those three games are going to be easy and obviously Oregon State’s the most important because that’s the one right in front of us. But I’m proud of our players and I thought that was a win that tells the country that there’s a football team in Tempe.”

Arizona State travels to Corvallis next Saturday to take on Oregon State. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:45 MT and the game will be televised on ESPN.

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