ARLINGTON, Texas – Much like the past three weeks, No. 22 ASU football put itself in a familiar situation before losing to Notre Dame 37-34 on Saturday.
The Sun Devils (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) were trailing in the second half, so all they had to do was rely on their high-powered offense to get back in the game.
It didn’t happen this week, though.
Down 30-27 with 3:03 left in the game, ASU redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly threw an interception directly to Irish junior safety Matthias Farley. After the ASU defense forced Notre Dame (4-1) to go three-and-out, Kelly threw another direct interception to redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox that was returned for a touchdown.
That’s when Kelly said he knew the game was over.
“It started with the interceptions that we threw,” he said. “They beat us in the turnover ratio, so that’s the big thing. We came out of halftime winning that, and in the second half we lost the turnover ratio. I think that’s where we kind of lost it.”
Although the picks were the defining moments of the Sun Devils’ loss, they weren’t the only causes of it.
ASU coach Todd Graham gave Notre Dame credit as the better team in Saturday’s game and said the Sun Devils committed too many mistakes on a big stage at AT&T; Stadium.
“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,” Graham said. “Clearly, that was the difference.”
One noticeable advantage the Fighting Irish had over ASU was in the battle of the trenches.
The Sun Devils’ offensive line allowed six sacks and only cleared the way for 65 yards rushing with just 16 in the second half.
“Last week (against USC) we did a good job getting the ball out on time, utilizing our tight end, utilizing our running backs,” Graham said. “We didn’t do that (today). You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. We haven’t been sacked like that all year, so they did a great job.”
Things weren’t going much better on the Sun Devil defensive front, either.
ASU failed to record a sack for the first time this season.
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Will Sutton didn’t record his first tackle until the middle of the third quarter on punt coverage and finished with just 3 tackles total.
The Fighting Irish’s shutdown on the Sun Devils’ defensive line cleared the way for senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who threw for 17-of-38 for 279 yard and three touchdowns. ASU bothered Rees early with pressure via corner blitzes, but Rees found his groove in the second half and led Notre Dame’s offensive charge.
“We definitely didn’t get the amount of pressure that we’re used to … sometimes you have to tip your hat to them,” redshirt senior defensive back Osahon Irabor said. “They executed their offense.”
The first quarter of the game went by with no scores from either team, but ASU freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez hit two field goals, one from a career-high 40 yards out and another from 27 yards, that gave the Sun Devils a 6-0 advantage midway through the second quarter.
Notre Dame finally got things going when Rees found junior tight end Ben Koyack for a 19-yard pass to go up 7-6 with 2:30 left in the half. ASU countered with Kelly’s 36-yard touchdown strike to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong on fourth-and-four, but the Fighting Irish responded with senior wide receiver T.J. Jones’s eight-yard touchdown reception to go into halftime with a 14-13 lead.
Junior kicker Kyle Brindza made a 53-yard field goal, which tied Notre Dame’s school record and the AT&T; Stadium college record for the longest field goal in a game, to extend the Fighting Irish’s lead to 17-13 early in the second half.
The Sun Devils’ turnover woes began when redshirt sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith lost a fumble on ASU’s 27-yard line, leading to Rees’s 21-yard pass to junior tight end Troy Niklas to go up 24-13.
The turnover and subsequent touchdown seemed to drain every ounce of the Sun Devils’ momentum, but ASU got it back when Irabor intercepted Rees’s pass and returned it for a touchdown in the opening play of the fourth quarter, trimming the deficit to 24-20.
ASU limited Notre Dame on the ensuing drive and the Fighting Irish settled for Brindza’s 33-yard field goal, but Kelly answered with a 21-yard touchdown pass to redshirt junior tight end De’Marieya Nelson, tying the game at 27-27 in the fourth quarter.
Although ASU finally got things going offensively late in the second half, it still needed its defense to step up.
Notre Dame secured the ball and kept the Sun Devils’ defense guessing with a mix of long runs and fade passes, something Graham expected Irish coach Brian Kelly to use a lot. The Fighting Irish moved the ball up with a methodical 10-play, 56-yard drive. By the time Brindza tacked on a 33-yard field goal, ASU looked up at a 30-27 deficit with 5:08 left.
This is where Kelly threw his two interceptions, which all but ended the game.
Even after Fox’s pick-six, though, the Sun Devils still fought until the end. Kelly threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to senior running back Marion Grice with 57 seconds left. Redshirt junior kicker Alex Garoutte tried an onside kick at the middle of the field, which the Fighting Irish jumped on to seal the game for good.
One unusual standout for ASU was redshirt sophomore safety Damarious Randall, who got his first start at field safety and recorded a game-high 17 tackles. He almost came away with two interceptions in the second half, one while diving for an errant pass and the other jumping a route before bumping into redshirt senior linebacker Anthony Jones.
The loss capped off the Sun Devils’ rigorous four-game stretch. Many people expected ASU to win two games, but Graham was bothered by the fact the Sun Devils could’ve left Dallas with a 4-1 record following their final non-conference game.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” he said. “I really felt we’d be 4-1 and we didn’t get it done as a coaching staff. But you move on. … Now it’s all conference play. We go to work. This team is capable of winning a championship. We’ve got to get things corrected.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion