A tale of two completely different halves unfolded Saturday afternoon at Sun Devil Stadium. The first belonged to Arizona State (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) which put on a dominant performance in the first 30 minutes. The second was owned by Notre Dame (7-2), which slowly crawled back into the game before the Sun Devils took over on their way to a 55-31 victory.
The Sun Devils were hanging on by a thread with 6:37 to play. Kweishi Brown had just blown the coverage on a 35-yard touchdown catch by Fighting Irish wide receiver Will Fuller, Notre Dame had scored 28 unanswered points to bring the score to 34-31.
What happened next has almost perfectly described the Sun Devils offense in 2014. Start with a dash of experience, finish it off with a helping of youth and cook until finished. On the shoulders of quarterback Taylor Kelly and his offense were the Sun Devils national title hopes, hanging in the balance.
"We just kept on talking and saying we've got to put together a drive," quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "I mean this is it. That's what we did, we came together as an offensive unit."
The cohesiveness of the offense showed on the next drive as D.J. Foster had 31 yards rushing to move the Sun Devils across midfield. Kelly then connected with 17-year-old freshman Demario Richard on a 44-yard pass down to the Notre Dame 4-yard line. He finished it off on the next play connecting with Kelly again for a touchdown to put the game out of reach for the Fighting Irish 41-31. Before the drive, head coach Todd Graham had a message for his team.
"I stood in front of them and I said ‘I'm going to tell you what championship teams do, they take the ball, they stuff it down their throat and they score,'" Graham said. "That's exactly what they did and I'm pretty impressed with that."
It was a classic Arizona State drive summary in the Todd Graham era, going five plays and 75 yards in two minutes and eight seconds. The Sun Devils proceeded to put multiple cherries on top with a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown by Lloyd Carrington and a 2-yard naked bootleg for a touchdown by Taylor Kelly to give Arizona State a 55-31 victory.
"We've been in this position so many times this year," Foster said. "I mean I can't even tell you how many times we've been in sort of a rough patch at the end of the game where we've got to get things going. Like our coaches said, we just got to stay positive."
The Sun Devils had a lot of positives early on. Arizona State forced three turnovers in just over one quarter of play to jump out to a 34-3 lead, highlighted by a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Damarious Randall when he jumped a slant route. Arizona State was able to capitalize on their turnovers which saved the game for the Sun Devils.
"We just knew we had to get a lot of pressure on him because he (Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson) was very very mobile," Randall said. "We knew in their last five games that they had turned the ball over 12 times and we were going to take advantage of that."
The maroon and gold also had seven sacks by seven different players, 10 tackles for loss and three total interceptions. Lloyd Carrington in particular had eight tackles, 8 tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, one interception return for a touchdown and one forced fumble. The Fighting Irish have only allowed 14 sacks all season coming into Saturday.
"It was probably one of our best games," senior defensive end Marcus Hardison said. "But I want to get better."
Arizona State scored 28 points off of Notre Dame turnovers while the Fighting Irish had yielded just 50 points off turnovers through their first eight games. Four wins now stand between the Sun Devils and a birth in the College Football Playoff.
"It was a big game, and that's when big time players, big teams step up," Kelly said. "Our defense did a tremendous job of doing that, our offensive line did an unbelievable job of protecting myself and coming off the ball for our running backs. That's what you do on the championship stage is step up."