Notre Dame walked into the stadium in Texas as a team on the brink of a disastrous season and walked out with a 37-34 victory over Arizona State and a little hope. The Fighting Irish rode a mix of runs, passes, tough defense and, most importantly, controlled tempo to the win.
Winning time of possession does not guarantee much in today's fast-paced, uptempo game. However, the Irish worked a plan that consisted of keeping Arizona State off the field and balancing the run and pass. Quarterback Tommy Rees did not play his best game, but Notre Dame's playmakers showed up in big ways to put the Irish over the top.
On the ground, both George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel proved valuable to the efforts. Atkinson started the game where he left off against Oklahoma, running north and south and making positive plays. His early runs helped establish a ground threat for the Irish, and the junior came close to breaking a couple as the offensive line moved around the Arizona State front seven.
Then, as Notre Dame has shown in recent games, Cam McDaniel came in to finish the job.
The bruiser posted a career-high 82 yards as he pounded on the Arizona State defense late in the game. McDaniel is the one who picks up the tough yards and allows the Irish to burn clock as they salt away the contest; Saturday night proved to be no different as the Irish rode McDaniel for five straight carries during their five-minute drive to take the 30-27 lead in the fourth quarter.
Through the air, Rees was far from perfect, going 17-of-38, his third straight game with a completion percentage under .500. However, thanks to a big game from TJ Jones, a big play from Ben Koyack and timely catches by both DaVaris Daniels and Troy Niklas, the Irish were just fine.
It all worked in concert for Notre Dame, as the team picked up first downs when it needed them most and kept the Sun Devils off of the field. Brian Kelly's team did not hurry the tempo; it was in no rush to surprise Arizona State. Rather, the Irish were deliberate, calculated and made smart decisions throughout the game. Especially, when it came to insulating the defense.
Fresh off a week that saw the Sun Devils score 62 points, Todd Graham's team could only muster 34 points against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame's defensive unit played the best it has all season long, disrupting quarterback Taylor Kelly, getting into passing lanes and making sound tackles.
This highly touted Irish front lived up to its billing. Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo all made big plays. The young linebacker, Jaylon Smith, showed his potential in some influential spots, and veterans Dan Fox and Mathias Farley added themselves to the highlight reel later in the game.
And the defense can certainly thank the offense in a situation where one proverbial hand washes the other. Notre Dame's offense was good enough to keep Arizona State off the field, helping keep the defense rested, and the Irish defense worked to keep the Sun Devils out of the end zone.
In the end, it was a joint effort. The Irish offense led the way by controlling the pacing of the ballgame, and the defense many people expected all season finally showed up. With a bye week due up next, the Irish will get to tweak the formula, but if they can continue to improve on this approach, they have a shot to win plenty more football games.
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