Just when Notre Dame Nation felt that that it was time to start counting the days for the return of Everett Golson and the start of 2014 spring football, the current group of Irish players and coaches have begun to alter those thoughts.
Notre Dame took a step toward (gasp!) BCS bowl relevancy on Saturday with a pretty impressive 37-34 win over 22nd-ranked Arizona State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Irish did so in the same manner that the program got to the BCS National Championship Game earlier this year, by getting enough offense, not turning the ball over (much), but mostly on the shoulders of a tough defense.
“It’s the first time we saw a team that actually wanted to get back there and try to throw a comprehensive passing game and we were able to get some pressure,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday.
Arizona State did outgain the Irish 427 to 424 yards in total offense, but were one dimensional (the Sun Devils had just 65 yards rushing) in doing so. But the significant statistic that will catch fans’ attention were the three turnovers that Notre Dame generated (not including a pair of Arizona State fumbles that it recovered).
“We were opportunistic in turnovers and I thought we did a very good job in again, obviously they couldn’t run the football against us,” Kelly said. “So those are all basic, important tenets of playing good defense.”
Just as it had against Oklahoma in a 35-21 loss a week earlier, Notre Dame was tough defensively when it had to be. The Irish limited the Sun Devils (3-2) to just four successful conversions in 13 third down attempts, and they were able to run the ball themselves (145 yards of offense). However, allowing Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly to complete 33 of his 47 pass attempts, including 4 of 6 during a 7-play (Kelly ran for 11 yards on the one rush attempt) drive to pull to within a field goal in less than a minute late in the game didn’t sit well with anyone connected to the Irish.
“Well, you know, I wasn’t doing jumping jacks,” Kelly said in tempering his enthusiasm. “I guess all I was saying (in the post-game) was that I felt our defense was playing well enough for us to win, and I still feel that way.
“There are things that we have to continue to improve on. Nobody was happy with the last drive. (Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco) was not happy. Our players were not happy. But we think there are things that we can take from it.”
The depth of the Notre Dame defense will be tested, as it lost the services of its leading tackler. Sophomore linebacker Jarrett Grace suffered a broken leg against the Sun Devils and is expected to be out for up to six months.
“Jarrett had surgery (Sunday) morning in Dallas, in which they put a rod in his leg for the fibula fracture,” Kelly said. “He'll spend the next couple of nights there. I just talked to him, got off the phone. His spirits are good.
“That's a process that could take four to six months, but obviously a big loss for us, but we've got a senior in Danny Fox that will step in at that position.”
Fox will rotate at the middle linebacker slot along with junior Kendall Moore, sophomore Joe Schmidt, and possibly true freshman Michael Deeb.
“Certainly you're losing somebody that we had counted on as a starter, so now you're deep into your depth and that wasn't an area with a lot of experience,” Kelly said. “So Kendall is going to have to obviously play (and) Schmidty is going to have to play for us. So those guys are going to have to be counted on now.
“We'll obviously look at Michael Deeb. So those three guys, we'll have to activate them on the bye week and start to consider all three of those guys in terms of being in the gap.”