Don't let the final score fool you; for the umpteenth time in Arizona State history, the Sun Devils succumbed to the big game syndrome, playing flat, uninspired football against Notre Dame to earn a 37-34 loss in Dallas.
Two-hand-touch worthy tackling, questionable offensive play-calling and an over-matched offensive line were the main story lines for much of this one for Arizona State. That is, before Osahon Irabor decided to take matters into his own hands (literally) to give the Devils a fighting chance.
Trailing 24-13 after a disastrous third quarter, Irabor turned the tides with his first career pick-six on the first play of the final period. Irabor showed Marion Grice-esque vision on the 36-yard return (and it certainly didn't hurt that he had bundle of blockers paving the way).
From there, it seemed like momentum was in Arizona State's corner. Although Cam McDaniel consistently plowed through Sun Devils in the fourth quarter, Arizona State refused to break once the Irish got into the red zone. Twice, Notre Dame was forced to settle for chip shot field goals.
Overall, the Devils forced Notre Dame to go 0-for-7 on third down conversions in the second half. The biggest of those stops came when Lloyd Carrington broke up a potential touchdown in a one-on-one situation late in the fourth.
Despite playing inept all game, the Sun Devil offense was somehow in position to win or at least tie this one. And to no one's surprise, the offensive line was a turnstile once again, giving Taylor Kelly nothing to work with. On fourth-and-13, Kelly telegraphed a pass to Jaelen Strong and Matthias Farley jumped in front for the pick. But the Devils caught a break as a block in the back pushed Notre Dame out of field goal range.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly then handed Arizona State another gift by deciding to call a vertical passing play on third down, allowing ASU to preserve their final timeout. But before anyone could get their hopes up, Robert Nelson made the head-scratching decision to not call a fair catch on the ensuing punt, stranding Arizona State on their one-inch line. On the next play, Kelly would feel the heat once again, tossing another ill-advised interception that resulted in a pick-six.
While this loss was undoubtedly a team effort, Robert Nelson was the most notable scapegoat. Tommy Rees picked on the senior defensive back all game as Nelson consistently looked lost on the field. He also was bailed out on a huge turnover after a punt barely nicked a Notre Dame player before ricocheting off an unaware Nelson. And of course, there was his infamous decision to not fair catch the ball on Notre Dame's final punt.
We also need to give credit where credit is due. While his final stat line wasn't the prettiest (17-for-38, 279 yards, three TDs, one INT), Rees played the finest game of his career. Despite the fact that Arizona State was blitzing all game long, Rees knew exactly where the pressure was coming from and never seemed too rattled. It's also worth noting that Notre Dame's offensive line straight manhandled ASU's front seven for the full 60 minutes, keeping a clean pocket and never allowing a sack.
Although the positives are shrouded behind a veil of disappointment, there were at least a few things to build on for Arizona State. Jaelen Strong had his fourth straight 100-yard receiving game. De'Marieya Nelson provided some punishing blocks and was rewarded with a 21-yard touchdown grab. And Carl Bradford's motor never let up even though he was just about the only thing working on defense. Other than that, we can chalk this one up to a bummer on the most massive of scales.
Looking ahead, Arizona State will get to take out their frustrations on the Colorado Buffaloes next Saturday. But one has to wonder if this will be the last time the Sun Devils will be ranked in 2013.
More analysis is soon to follow but we just wanted to get this one up so we could start the discussion. So, what do you think Sun Devil fans? How long will this one haunt you?