They entered the game as six-point favorites fresh off of a 62-point outburst against USC, but on Saturday night in Dallas, the same old Sun Devils came to play.
Through the better part of the last 15 years, Arizona State fans have had their hearts broken amidst the hope of strong beginnings. Sun Devil fans have watched as their favorite team has risen in the polls only to lose a devastating road game at a critical juncture in the season.
But this year was supposed to be different. In Todd Graham's second season at Arizona State, the Sun Devils were supposed to turn the corner. The bright lights were supposed to fade to the background as Tempe's finest took center stage.
When Taylor Kelly threw an interception that Notre Dame linebacker Dan Fox returned 14 yards for a touchdown, reality began to set in. Notre Dame took a 37-27 lead and sealed the outcome of what was supposed to be Todd Graham's coming out party on a national stage.
So why didn't anyone see this coming? Nearly every media expert picked the Sun Devils to win (except House of Sparky's Ryan Bafaloukos) and every Sun Devil fan in the stadium on Saturday night believed Arizona State was set to get the job done. So why didn't that happen?
You can't predict great coaching. You can call for a player to rush for 100 yards and you can expect a team to put up 40 points, but when it comes down to it, you never know how a coach will prepare his team.
Plain and simple: Notre Dame prepared for Arizona State like no team has prepared for the Sun Devils this season. Stanford had the talent to beat Arizona State and the Cardinal certainly prepared well, but even the Cardinal didn't out-manuever the Sun Devils for a full four quarters.
Brian Kelly led the Fighting Irish to their best performance of the season because his coaching staff gave its best performance of the season.
"They do a great job. Their defensive coordinator and defensive staff did a tremendous job," Todd Graham said of Notre Dame's coaches. "I thought that was the difference in the game."
The Fighting Irish scouted every aspect of Arizona State's game and capitalized on tendencies. Arizona State blitzes a lot, and the Irish had every audible and protection scheme drilled into Tommy Rees' head. The Sun Devils are susceptible to pressure from defensive ends, so Notre Dame sent Prince Shembo off the edge and he responded with a career night.
An Arizona State front seven that racked up four sacks and nine tackles for loss against USC last week didn't have a prayer against Notre Dame's offensive line. Rees did a sensational job identifying blitzes before the play and managing the game for the Irish. If any Arizona State linebacker even bluffed a blitz, Rees adjusted the protection in anticipation and gave himself plenty of time to get rid of the football.
"I think as an offense, we settled in and had a good understanding of what they were trying to do," Rees said.
Tommy Rees proved his toughness against the Sun Devils both mentally and physically. His knowledge of Notre Dame's game plan gave the Irish plenty of room to make in-game adjustments. Rees threw the back shoulder fade to T.J. Jones whenever he felt pressured and he stood in the pocket long enough to absorb hits and make plays.
"They had a lot of big plays on the fade that we can't give up in the secondary," Sun Devil cornerback Osahon Irabor said. "We've got to be stout because it's our job not to give up big plays, and I think we gave up too many of those."
Rees only completed 17 of 38 passes for 279 yards, but when the Fighting Irish needed a big play, he stood up and earned his stripes. Rees led Notre Dame on two scoring drives before halftime and led a drive that resulted in a field-goal right after Arizona State tied the game at 27. His numbers don't reflect it, but Tommy Rees was a difference-maker.
"Yeah I think we had some mismatches, so we could take advantage and our guys protected and made plays on the outside," Rees said.
Defensively, the Fighting Irish executed best on third down. Notre Dame limited Arizona State to just four conversions on 13 attempts and put pressure on Taylor Kelly all night. The Fighting Irish knew the Sun Devil offensive line has struggled in run-blocking this season, so they didn't have to do anything special up the middle. Instead of scheming around Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt, the Irish let their stars do their own damage and focused on creating havoc with Prince Shembo.
Shembo was extraordinarily effective in his blitzes and finished with three sacks and seven tackles on the night. His ability to compress the pocket on Taylor Kelly also led to the Arizona State's quarterbacks two interceptions including the game-sealing interception by Fox.
The interceptions hurt the Sun Devils, but it was Rick Smith's fumble in the third quarter of the game that Todd Graham said was the turning point of the football game. Smith caught a bubble screen pass inside the Sun Devils' own red zone and had the ball stripped away by Irish corner Bennett Jackson. The Sun Devils' practice an identical fumble drill in practice every day, and losing a fumble on that type of play is inexcusable.
"We're going to have a first down, we carry the ball away from our body. We don't do that," Graham said. "That turnover was critical in the game...I thought that was the play of the game."
The turnovers were certainly an issue, but it's hard to blame all of that on the Sun Devil players. The Notre Dame coaching staff had its players in opportune spots ready to make plays and they deserve plenty of credit. The Smith fumble came on a second-and-six play and the Sun Devils have a demonstrated tendency of throwing screens on second down.
Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson took an inside track to Smith and because he knew Smith was cutting straight up the field, he anticipated where Smith held the football and ripped it free. That's fundamental football at its finest. The Irish saw something on film, and took advantage of it on the field.
There's a myriad of ways the Sun Devils can look at this game. They can take the outlook that they lost out on a spoon-fed opportunity on a national stage. They can dwell on the fact that their running game never got started and has struggled through most of the season. Or they can realize that this game doesn't affect their goal of a Pac-12 championship and they can get back to work as soon as they hit the practice field on Tuesday.
Todd Graham already knows exactly what mindset he's adopted, even though Saturday night didn't go as planned.
"We played our tails off for the first five games, and now it's all conference play," Graham said. "We go to work. This team is capable of winning a championship. We've got to get things corrected."
The loss stings like a dagger in the heart for the Sun Devils because they thought they were ready to make a statement. But next week affords Arizona State a new chance to make a statement. It's not the one they would have made in Dallas, but it's one of resiliency which is what the Sun Devils need more than anything moving forward.