Notre Dame QB, defense shine in victory over Arizona State

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Notre Dame broke out its latest special-event uniforms for Saturday’s first-ever visit to AT&T Stadium, a white head-to-toe look complete with gold numerals, green shoes, green socks and green facemasks to accompany the signature gold helmets.

The Irish also unveiled some fresh football wrinkles that have been missing in the early stages of an up-and-down season: a consistent passing attack, coupled with a viable pass rush.

Both played major roles in helping the Irish knock off No. 22 Arizona State, 37-34, in front of a pro-Notre Dame crowd of 66,960 and an NBC national television audience.

Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, who struggled with his accuracy (9-of-24) and his ball security (three interceptions) in last week’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, came out throwing strikes against the Sun Devils. He threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns, with just one interception.

A Notre Dame defense that ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in sacks heading into the contest (three in five games) harassed Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly for all four quarters. The Irish collected six sacks, including two drive-stoppers in the third quarter from outside linebacker Prince Shembo and a timely takedown in the fourth quarter from defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt.

The pass rush played a major role in both of Kelly’s fourth-quarter interceptions, with the last one providing the game-clincher: a 14-yard, pick-six by linebacker Dan Fox with 1:08 remaining. The interception, the first of Fox’s career, upped the lead to 37-27 and allowed the Irish to withstand a last-minute, 75-yard touchdown drive by the Sun Devils before Notre Dame recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal the victory.

Arizona State (3-2), which climbed into the Top 25 poll on the strength of last week’s 62-41 rout of Southern California, probably drops out after falling to the Irish.

Notre Dame’s balanced effort on both sides of the ball stood in stark contrast to last week, when the team managed just 324 yards and had a 3-0 shortfall in turnovers against OU.

“We played well defensively. We saw a pass rush we hadn’t seen most of the year,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Arizona State is a great offensive team but we kept fighting. I’m really proud of the way we played ... and the consistency we showed offensively. We’ve had a tough six weeks, playing four nationally ranked teams, so it’s a really good win for us.”

Win or lose, Saturday’s contest elevated Notre Dame’s profile in the Texas recruiting market. That was one of the primary purposes of this Shamrock Series visit, which began with a pregame coin flip by Notre Dame legend Tim Brown – a Dallas resident who won the 1987 Heisman Trophy – and featured a team-high, 82-yard rushing performance by Irish tailback Cam McDaniel, a Coppell High School graduate.

Brown called the opportunity to watch his alma mater play its first regular-season game in Dallas/Fort Worth since a 1958 visit to SMU a “phenomenal” experience for him and Irish coaches who made trips to multiple Friday night games and hosted roughly 25 to 30 recruits at Saturday’s game.

“They were able to get some serious recruiting time in. That’s huge, man, for the coach of Notre Dame to come to one of your games,” said Brown, who understands that today’s star recruits from Texas require more personal wooing than he needed to sign with the Irish coming out of Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High School in the 1980s. “The only way that happens is if they are playing in this game.”

It helped Notre Dame’s cause that the brunt of Saturday’s crowd – a Notre Dame home game moved from South Bend, Ind. – rooted for the Irish in what was far from a neutral crowd despite the neutral-site venue. That, said Brown, sent a message that he hopes will be received by school officials and Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones, who helped arrange this contest.

“This crowd is about 75 percent … Notre Dame fans,” Brown said. “If you’re a Texas kid, you see that, no matter where this university goes, people are going to follow. They’re going to be there for you.”

In an ideal world, Brown hopes his Irish will be back in Arlington. Soon.

“I wish they could play here every couple of years,” Brown said. “Jerry and the university are pretty good friends. Maybe Jerry could make something happen to bring them back every couple of years.”

After Saturday’s initial visit, you’ve got to think the Irish would be receptive to a return engagement. Kelly expressed interest after the victory, calling this road trip “a great success and a great experience for our university. This is a terrific venue for a college football game.”

Jerry, the next move is up to you.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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