No. 9 ASU holds off late rally, beats No. 10 Notre Dame 55-31

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Jaelen Strong makes an incredible one-handed touchdown catch in the first quarter. By Brad Denny Jaelen Strong makes an incredible one-handed touchdown catch in the first quarter. By Brad Denny
ASU safety Damarious Randall returns an interception for a touchdow. By Brad Denny ASU safety Damarious Randall returns an interception for a touchdow. By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State came into Saturday's game against No. 10 Notre Dame ranked No. 9 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, yet have received very little fanfare on a national scale 

That's about to change.

The Sun Devils jumped out to a 34-3 first half lead, and then withstood a furious Fighting Irish rally to get a 55-31 win. Despite allowing 487 yards, ASU's defense forced five turnovers in the game, including two interception returns for touchdowns.

"We surprised a lot of people but we have not surprised ourselves," said ASU head coach Todd Graham.

It was a game dominating by scoring runs. After Notre Dame kicked a field goal on their opening drive, ASU scored the next 34 points, before the Irish responded with 28 unanswered to close the gap to three points in the fourth quarter. Undaunted, ASU closed the game with 21 points in the final five minutes.

ASU's fifth straight win moves the Sun Devils to 8-1 on the season, and gives the team the statement victory that cannot be ignored nationally.

"Getting a win on a national stage like that is big time for this program and where it’s headed," said ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly.

Zane Gonzalez kicked a 47-yard field goal to tie up the game 3-3 late in the first quarter, and two plays into Notre Dame's ensuing drive, the Sun Devil defense made their first big play.

True freshman defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood sacked Everett Golson, forcing a fumble that Smallwood recovered at the Irish 13-yard line. One play later, Kelly found Jaelen Strong for a sensational one-handed touchdown reception to give ASU a lead they would never relinquish.

On the next Irish play, Golson's pass was tipped by ASU defensive tackle Demetrius Cherry, making his return after a one-game suspension. The ball was then intercepted by defensive end Marcus Hardison.

"You can’t expect to win football games against good teams and turn the ball over five times," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly."

Three plays after the interception, ASU freshman running back Demario Richard ran it in from one-yard out for the touchdown to give ASU a 17-3 lead.

The turnover parade was not yet over.

On the second play of the second quarter, Hardison tipped a Golson pass up into the air.

"I just wasn’t able to get to the quarterback in time," said Hardison. "I saw him release and just put my hands up as quick as possible.”

The ball was intercepted by safety Damarious Randall, who took it 59 yards for the touchdown.

“We were in man-to-man coverage and I was guarding the inside guy," said Randall of the play. "My guy ended up running a slant, but the ball was tipped by Marcus Hardison. I saw the ball up in the air and just broke and got it. Touchdown.”

For Golson—who had four interceptions on the night—it was his sixth straight game with at least one interception.

"Sooner or later, he’s got to take it on himself to take care of the football," Kelly said of Golson. "I don’t know what else to do. We’re at that point now where it hurt us in the game."

ASU had great success in the first half in pressuring Golson, forcing him into several mistakes. On the night, the Sun Devils had a season-high seven sacks. It was all part of the plan.

“We knew that we had to get a lot of pressure on him because he’s very, very mobile," said Randall. "We knew in their last five games that they turned the ball over twelve times. We just went and took advantage of that."

ASU appeared to land the killing blow minutes later after forcing a Notre Dame punt. Kelly found wide receiver Cam Smith for a 43-yard touchdown reception that put the Sun Devils up 31-3. That lead increased to 34-3 with a 28-yard Gonzalez field goal with just over one minute left in the half.

But Notre Dame wasn't dead yet.

Randall misplayed a Golson pass, just missing on another interception. C.J. Prosise took the reception 59 yards to the ASU 16-yard line, and Golson then connected with Will Fuller for a nine-yard touchdown just before the half.

"There never was a point in that game I thought I was going to lose," said Golson. "I thought we were going to come back like I said, and find a way to pull it out."

They nearly did.

The Irish put together their best drive of the game to that point to open the second half. In six plays, they moved down to the ASU six-yard line. A score was averted when ASU cornerback Kweishi Brown undercut a Golson pass, intercepting it in the endzone.

However, ASU's offense could not capitalize on the turnover. In fact, they could do nothing at all.

With the lead, the Sun Devils went conservative in trying to run out the clock. Instead, they struggled on the ground, and managed just 32 yards of total offense in the third quarter.

Notre Dame scored the quarter's only points on a Cam McDaniel one-yard run, keyed by a 32-yard Golson connection to Amir Carlisle.

It quickly went from bad to worse for the ASU offense. After a pair of first downs on their first fourth quarter possession, Kelly made a ill-advised throw across the field, and it was intercepted by Matthias Farley. The Irish then went 50 yards in seven plays, capping the drive with a McDaniel touchdown to close the gap to 34-24.

“Nobody flinched. Our defense had our backs and we had theirs," said Kelly of the Notre Dame comeback."

That was not the case four minutes later.

A poor Matt Haack punt gave Notre Dame possession at their 41-yard line. Golson soon found Chris Brown for 34 yards, then hit a wide open Carlisle for a 25 yard touchdown. ASU's lead was now just 34-31

“We were going to win the football game. That’s what everyone expected," said McDaniel of his team's mentality after Carlisle's touchdown.

"I had to keep reminding the team that we were winning," said Graham. "You can feel that momentum so you have to figure out how to change that. Like life, you cannot be great without facing adversity."

Having their backs against the wall was not a new position for this Sun Devils.

“We have been in this position multiple times this year," said running back D.J. Foster. "When it gets towards the end of the game when we are in a rough patch, we need to get things going. Like our coaches say we need to stay positive. The guys on the sideline do a great job of keeping the energy up. Our leaders, team and coaches knew what we had to do. We all had each other’s backs.”

With under seven minutes to play and momentum fully against them, the Sun Devils needed to find their offense. Graham gathered his players and gave them a message.

"Championship teams take the ball, stuff it down their throat and score," he said.

To do that, they turned to their backfield tandem of Foster and the 17-year old Richard.

Foster plowed ahead for runs of 14 and 15 yards, part of his 120 yards on the night. It was then Richard's turn.

Kelly found a wide open Richard in the left flat, and the freshman raced 40 yards to the Notre Dame four-yard line. On the next play, the pair connected for the touchdown.

“He is the ‘yin’ to my ‘yang’," said Foster. "I am proud of that kid. I have seen him grow so much since arriving here. It is unbelievable to see his growth, and what he is doing every week for this team. He is going to keep bringing it."

"With him out of the backfield, he’s just a little pinball," said Kelly of Richard. "He just keeps trusting his holes. He runs super hard and so you have to account for him."

Now with momentum restored, the Sun Devil defense returned to their playmaking ways.

On Notre Dame's next possession, Golson fired a pass to Keenan Robinson. The ball deflected off the receiver's chest and into the arms of ASU cornerback Lloyd Carrington, who raced 58 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

A fourth down Ami Latu sack of Golson turned the ball over back to ASU less than a minute later, and for good measure, Kelly scored on a two-yard touchdown run on a fourth and goal play.

"It makes a big statement that we can beat a very good football team," said Graham. "We have not reached any of our goals but that has been the biggest win we have had since I have been here."

With a win over a top 10 team behind them, ASU now must avoid a let down in a pair of games where they will be heavy favorites. ASU travels to Oregon State (4-5, 1-5) next week before returning home to face Washington State (3-7, 2-5). The Territorial Cup duel with Arizona (6-2, 3-2) closes the year.

With their playoff destiny now firmly in their control, ASU appears to be peaking at the right time.

"I know I wouldn't want to play ASU in Tempe," said Randall.

"All the pieces are coming together, and it's a sight to see," said Foster.

 Stats & Notes:

  • Smallwood's sack was the first of his career.
  • Kelly surpassed Mark Malone as the all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks in ASU history. Kelly now has 1,396.
  • Foster opened the year with three consecutive 100-yard games before failing to reach that mark over the last five games. He had 120 on Saturday.
  • This was ASU's first home win over a top 10 team since beating Washington State in 1997.
  • This was the first time Notre Dame gave up 50 or more points since 1985, when they lost 58-7 to Miami.
  • Kelly had 17 completions on the night, giving him 638 in his career, moving him past Jake Plummer for third in ASU history.