Offensive MVP: T.J. JonesHis final contribution came at the end as the senior secured a precarious onside kick with 11 seconds remaining to seal a wild win in Arlington. But it was Jones' effort throughout that earned our game designation: 136 yards, 8 receptions and a crucial 8-yard touchdown catch that gave the Irish a 14-13 lead they'd never relinquish.
In addition to his touchdown, Jones' grabs totaled 13, 14, 16, 19, 35, and 37 yards. He added a pass interference drawn in the second quarter and a 27-yard punt return, the longest in a regular season game under head coach Brian Kelly since his first game as the program's head coach (Armando Allen hit for 38 yards vs. Purdue in the 2010 opener).
"They couldn't' defend him," said Kelly. "T.J. is our big play guy. He's somebody we have to rely on."
Offensive Game BallsJones' classmate Tommy Rees rebounded from consecutive tough outings, hitting for 279 yards and three scores. Rees threw a costly third-down interception in the fourth quarter that Sun Devils cornerback De'Marieya Nelson returned across the field 21 yards for a touchdown. The error allowed Arizona State, scuffling prior, to tie the score at 27 with 8:18 remaining.
For a third straight contest, Rees missed more passes than he hit, completing 17 of 38 but with a robust 16 yards per reception average. Nearly half of his completions were to Jones.
"Tommy and T.J. have come through this program together. Whereas sometimes we misfire with some of the younger receivers, him and T.J. Jones are right on the same page. When he's in trouble, he's looking for T.J. Jones.
"They came in this program together. They played together as freshmen. They've grown in this program together, and when he needs a throw, he's looking for T.J. Jones."
-- For the first time since November 11, 2006 at Air Force, Notre Dame received multiple touchdowns from the tight end position as junior Troy Niklas won a jump ball from 21 yards out and classmate Ben Koyack scored the first of his collegiate career -- on his first reception of 2013 -- putting the Irish on the board for a 7-6 lead on a 19-yard catch and run.
"Confidence is the big thing there," said Kelly of Koyack building on what the head coach previously called his "best game" last week against Oklahoma. "He's gaining confidence week-in and week-out."
Niklas finished with 49 yards on three grabs, his other two grabs earning 10 and 18 yards, respectively.
-- A junior tandem led the Irish ground game as well, with Cam McDaniel rushing for 82 yards on 15 carries including a career-best 29-yard scamper in the fourth quarter that set up a Kyle Brindza field goal and 27-20 Irish lead. Classmate George Atkinson earned 70 net yards but lost 16 on three negative carries, finishing with 54 on 18 rushes, the latter a career-high.
Defensive MVP: Prince ShemboThe senior cat linebacker entered the game sack-less but exited as the team's season-leader in the category, his three QB takedowns, each in the decisive second-half, nearly matching the team's total of four prior to the contest.
Shembo recorded sacks of Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly on three separate third quarter possessions, each eventually leading to a Sun Devils punt, the last of which he assured with a quarterback pressure on third down as well.
"When I got that first one, I felt like -- whoa -- I felt like a Superman," said a relieved Shembo post-game. "I can't even describe it. It felt good."
Shembo finished with seven tackles, three sacks, and two pressures, though the latter is not an official category.
Defensive Game BallsFreshman drop linebacker Jaylon Smith led the Irish with nine tackles, including 1.5 for lost yardage and a forced fumble. Smith also recorded a crucial sack on Kelly in a second and goal situation that eventually led to a Sun Devils field goal. The sack was officially recorded as a "team" sack.) Smith added a pass defended in the fourth quarter while playing his best game on the edge of the wide side of the Irish defense.
"He's in a very difficult position," said Kelly of Smith's vexing Dog role. "Matt of fact, they even started to crack down on him with their No. 2 (inside) receiver. People are actually trying to account for him, because he's a difficult guy to block. He's got great speed. You saw him and his ability to track down Kelly in the open field.
"He's a very important player now within our defense."
-- Junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt starred in the second half, recording a sack, forced fumble, two QB hurries, three more (unofficial) pressures, and a half-tackle for loss, all after intermission.
-- 5th-year senior Dan Fox moved back into the lead role at middle linebacker, replacing junior Jarrett Grace who broke his leg in the second quarter. Fox recorded his first career fumble recovery, one that set up a Rees to Niklas touchdown two snaps later, then his first career interception and subsequent touchdown, a 14-yarder to put the game out of breach, 37-27 at the 1:08 mark.
"Danny Fox went in there and played very well for us," said Kelly.
-- Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson recorded what was likely his best game of the 2013 season, registering four tackles, a forced fumble, and a pass defensed, the latter on third down in a goal-to-go situation. Two of Jackson's four tackles limited Sun Devils skill players to 1 and 2 yards, respectively, with another causing the aforementioned fumble after a short gain.
Special Teams MVP: Kicker Kyle BrindzaJunior placekicker Kyle Brindza shanked his first offering but made good thereafter, nailing a 53-yarder in the first half to tie the program's all-time record (held previously by Dave Reeve, 1976 vs. Pittsburgh).
Thereafter Brindza did what he does best: deliver in the clutch, now 11 for 11 in his Irish career in the fourth quarter and overtime.
"I would say that he's a pretty clutch guy in the fourth quarter," said Kelly. "You have to look at his track record and you obviously have done your research. He just has that feeling that he's a clutch player for us and he has been since he's been here. He started us off well with the 53-yarder and got us the lead for the first time. He's that kind of player for us. We can really rely on him."
Brindza hit from 33 to extend the Irish lead to 27-20 (10:38 remaining) and later from 25 to stake Notre Dame to a 30-27 advantage with just 3:03 remaining.
He added punts of 53 and 48 yards, the former pinning the Sun Devils at their own 1-yard line. Fox's interception touchdown that sealed the contest occurred one snap later.