Notre Dame Football: What the Victory Against Arizona State Means for the Irish
Entering its meeting with Arizona State, Notre Dame's season hung in the balance.
Coming off a disheartening 35-21 loss to Oklahoma in Week 5 and being pegged as 6.5-point underdogs to Arizona State, the Irish faced the reality of losing consecutive regular-season games for the first time since stumbling to an 0-2 start to begin the 2011 season.
With a high-octane offense operated by a rangy, dual-threat quarterback and a head coach fond of giving Notre Dame fits, Arizona State seemed primed to throw the Irish's season into turmoil.
But head coach Brian Kelly and Co. responded with their most complete performance of the 2013 season.
The Irish defense stifled Arizona State's lethal offense, limiting the Sun Devils to just 65 rushing yards on 25 carries. Thus, the onus was placed on quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was forced to throw the ball 47 times as a result.
Yet, perhaps most impressive was the long-awaited emergence of the pass rush, as Kelly was sacked six times, which was as many times as the 6-foot-2, 201-pound quarterback had been taken down in Arizona State's first four games.
Without that defensive effort, Notre Dame likely would have exited AT&T Stadium with a dumpster-fire-inducing 3-3 record and its first-ever Shamrock Series loss, to boot. Undoubtedly, the Irish's BCS hopes would have been crushed, as well.
Entering the bye week in those circumstances would have pushed the remainder of Notre Dame's season into a tailspin, and senior TJ Jones recognized that following his team's 37-34 victory against Arizona State (via Tim O'Malley of IrishEyes.com).
"We did feel it was a must win," Jones said. "We're not going to try and hide it."
Echoing Jones' sentiments was senior linebacker Prince Shembo, who assessed what this week would have been like had the Irish lost compared to how it will be coming off a significant victory, also via O'Malley.
"Really bad," Shembo said when asked how he would have felt had the Irish lost Arizona State. "I can't imagine going into a bye week with a loss. They (coaches) have a whole week with us. We'd be practicing every day.
"I don't know what the schedule will be, but I know that it'll be better than it was with a loss."
Clearly, the divide between 3-3 and 4-2 is monstrous, most notably because Notre Dame's BCS hopes, while still fragile, remain intact.
Three losses will all but eliminate the Irish from BCS contention, but with a bye week and the soft portion of the schedule upcoming, Notre Dame has a chance to regroup and reassess.
How can the offense maintain its productive rushing attack going forward? Will there be any changes in regard to utilizing the empty set on 3rd-and-long? How will the middle of the Irish defense respond to the loss of inside linebacker Jarrett Grace?
The next two weeks will provide an opportunity to find answers to those questions, during which the players and coaches can look back on a satisfying victory against Arizona State that they can use as a springboard into the second half of the season.
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If all goes right, the next two weeks will be remembered as the perfect timing for a bye week, as Notre Dame's most hated rival, USC, travels to Notre Dame Stadium in two weeks.
The meeting with the Trojans serves as the beginning of a six-game journey to salvage the 2013 season.
Win all six and Notre Dame will be basking in the BCS limelight. Lose just one of those six and the Irish will be relegated to a lower-tier bowl game.
Those aren't great odds, but the offseason will be much less chaotic than normal should the Irish accomplish the feat.
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