ARLINGTON, Texas — Prior to the start of the fourth quarter, ASU football coach Todd Graham gathered his team for a quick pep talk.
The Sun Devils were trailing 24-13 and Notre Dame was faced with third and 10 from their own 25-yard line.
The talk worked.
Senior cornerback Osahon Irabor intercepted Fighting Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
Too bad Graham couldn’t rally his team after every play.
Irabor and the defense made only a handful of big plays, allowing 30-plus points for the fourth consecutive game as the Sun Devils left AT&T Stadium with a 37-34 loss.
The loss dropped the Sun Devils to 3-2 on the season and left them with continued concerns on the defensive side of the ball.
The Sun Devils defense allowed Rees to complete only 17 of his 38 passes, but he threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
The numbers aren’t gaudy, but Rees completed only nine of his 24 passes for 104 yards against Oklahoma the previous game.
Irabor said the secondary struggled to counter the adjustments the Fighting Irish made offensively.
“We expect them to run their normal stuff, but also we understand we haven’t been playing the run too well,” Irabor said. “So we were expecting them to try to run for the field and stuff like that. Just key notes that we had going into the game, and they started taking fade shots a lot more into the field, which we didn’t expect.”
The fade was working all night for the Fighting Irish, especially to senior receiver T.J. Jones, who finished with 135 yards and a touchdown working mostly against Irabor and senior cornerback Robert Nelson.
To the secondary’s credit, Rees and Jones had time to find space and create completions.
The Sun Devils struggled to put pressure on Rees and finished with no sacks, which Irabor said was a big problem.
“We’re known for pressuring the quarterback, and yeah, we definitely didn’t get the amount of pressure that we are used to,” Irabor said.
Graham said the Fighting Irish offensive line did a “great job of protecting” for Rees, whose three touchdown passes went to three different receivers.
Sophomore lineman Jaxon Hood was out for the second straight game, but Irabor said that was no excuse for the line’s lack of pressure and the defense’s inability to make big plays.
“We’ve got some young guys playing on defense,” Irabor said. “They’re talented, but inexperienced, so we’ve definitely got to get them up to speed because we’re making alignment errors and stuff like that we went over before the game, and you’re not seeing the veteran guys making those mistakes, because they’ve been there, and they’ve done that before.”
The Sun Devils allowed only 145 rushing yards and 3.9 yards per rush, though, earning Graham’s praise.
“We felt pretty good about how we played the run in the first half,” Graham said.
Graham said in the postgame press conference that the defense “played good enough to win,” but the numbers and scoreboard showed a different story.
The Fighting Irish racked up 424 yards of total offense and the 37 points were the most they’ve scored all season.
Irabor admitted it wasn’t the defense’s best performance but was still shocked to see the Fighting Irish put up 37.
Irabor gave credit to the Fighting Irish, though, and said the defensive performance needs to improve immediately if the Sun Devils want to reach the third Rose Bowl in school history.
“I really won’t know until I look at the film to be able to understand how they put up 37, and we still played all right on defense,” Irabor said. “We didn’t play great. We still made a lot of errors. We could have played a lot better, and we need to play a lot better. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to your opponent’s effort.”
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