One week it's George Atkinson III. The next it's Cam McDaniel. The Notre Dame running game sure hasn't found one consistent superstar, but Saturday night it again proved its whole is better than the sum of its parts.
McDaniel churned his way up the field on a late fourth-quarter field-goal drive, and the Irish defense held on two subsequent Arizona State comeback attempts as Notre Dame defeated the No. 23 Sun Devils 37-34 at AT&T Stadium on Saturday night.
McDaniel did a majority of the work on the go-ahead drive, gaining 28 yards on five consecutive carries after Tommy Rees completed two balls to TJ Jones. The drive, which chewed up more than five minutes of game clock, culminated with a Kyle Brindza field goal from 25 yards out.
Arizona State took the ball on the subsequent possession and gave it back in four plays. Prince Shembo sacked Taylor Kelly on first down, and then the Sun Devils quarterback tossed an incompletion followed by an interception as the Irish pass rush came barreling in on every play.
Their final significant drive of the game also resulted in an interception on the first play, on which Dan Fox read the play and took it back for the Irish's final touchdown.
The Sun Devils scored on their next drive, but failed to get an onside kick to close it out.
That culminated a second half dominated by the Irish front seven. They brought down Kelly four times on Saturday night, matching their total from their past five games. Shembo accounted for three of those sacks himself, including the one that counted most.
In total, Arizona State had possession nine times in the second half. Included in those results were four punts, two interceptions and a lost fumble. The Sun Devils' only semblances of momentum were fleeting.
Their first touchdown of the second half came on a Tommy Rees interception that was returned for a touchdown by cornerback Osahon Irabor. That score brought Arizona State within a score at 24-20 with plenty of time remaining for a comeback.
Rees, who threw three interceptions in last week's loss to Oklahoma, again struggled with his accuracy. He completed only 17 of 38 passes, but many of them came when his team needed it the most.
After the interception, Rees came back and engineered 69-yard drive up the field that culminated in another short field goal for Brindza. He finished with 279 yards through the air and three touchdowns.
Ben Koyack, TJ Jones and Troy Niklas were responsible for the scores. Jones nearly set career highs in catches and yards, ending the game with eight grabs for 135 yards.
What didn't work, however, was the Notre Dame ground game until Brian Kelly made the fateful switch to McDaniel. A week after scampering for 148 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, George Atkinson III managed only 54 yards on his 18 attempts Saturday night.
After taking over for much of the second half, McDaniel had 82 yards on 15 carries. Both figures were career highs for the junior from Coppin, Texas, who made the most out of playing in his home state.
The Irish came into the week ranked 94th in the nation in rushing, averaging 134.6 yards per game.
Arizona State managed only 55 yards on the ground, as the swarming Notre Dame defense continually made stops at the point of attack. The Irish defense also held the Sun Devils on third down on nine of their 13 tries. Two drives deep into Notre Dame territory ended with Zane Gonzalez field goals in the second quarter, lost points that would ultimately haunt Todd Graham's team.
The loss drops Arizona State to 3-2 for the season, and likely out of the Top 25. The club reentered the rankings this week after at 62-41 manhandling of USC that led to Lane Kiffin's dismissal.
The Irish, whose only losses this season have come against ranked clubs, are now 4-2 and two wins away from bowl eligibility.
Taylor Kelly (QB, Arizona State): B-
It's hard to fault Kelly too much for this loss. His offensive line continually failed him throughout the night, putting him in situations where he was throwing under extreme duress in high-pressure situations.
Not exactly the most success-inducing environment. In the end, Kelly completed 33 of 47 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns. It will be the two late interceptions that most point to when recapping the game, but only the final one was egregious. The first came on a fourth-down play that would have resulted in the Irish getting the ball back in a similar spot on the field regardless.
Kelly has thrown for 300-plus yards in each of the season's first five games. While the Sun Devils are still a work in progress on both sides of the ball, it's fair to note that they're in a pretty good place offensively as long as he's under center.
There won't be a parade in his honor for this performance, but Kelly isn't the reason Arizona State dropped to 3-2.
Prince Shembo (LB, Notre Dame): A
Notre Dame's board of regents may have to consider moving the entire school to Arlington if Shembo is going to play this well every time he's in Texas. The senior linebacker darted off the ball on nearly every play Saturday, making life miserable for Kelly by getting pressure even on downs where he didn't get the sack.
Keep in mind that Shembo had only 13 total tackles heading into Saturday and had yet to record a sack. A year after stopping the quarterback in the backfield 7.5 times, Shembo became one of the figureheads of an Irish linebacking corps that misses Manti Te'o more than anyone could have expected.
Now, Shembo's excellent game was part of a collaborative effort. Stephon Tuitt had a field day with the Arizona State offensive line and opened up holes for his outside linebacker, and the remainder of the defensive line performed admirably as well.
But the man who made the sacks was Shembo. Therefore, he gets the kudos.
Arizona State will look to rebound from losing two of its past three games, returning home next week to take on Colorado. The Buffaloes have won just three conference games since joining the Pac-12, so the Sun Devils shouldn't have much trouble.
Notre Dame doesn't get the same reprieve, but it does get to take on a rival at the worst possible time. The recently de-Kiffined USC Trojans will make their way to South Bend for a prime-time clash next Saturday.
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