Welcome to our new summer series. A lot has happened over Todd Graham's first three seasons as Arizona State's head football coach. Over the next two weeks, we will be ranking 15 of Graham's 28 total wins so far before the 2015 season, which has potential to send the program to new heights.
Today's game was right up there with the most thrilling the Sun Devils played in this past season, as ASU held off a valiant Notre Dame comeback to stamp themselves among the nation's top teams.
No. 5: Nov. 8, 2014 - ASU holds on to beat Notre Dame 55-31
Fresh off a dramatic overtime victory over Utah that catapulted them into the Top 10, the Sun Devils came into its home clash against Notre Dame with ample momentum and ample motivation stemming from a heartbreaking loss to the Fighting Irish in a nationally-televised game in 2013.
Rather than travel to an NFL stadium this time, the two schools convened in Tempe with No. 10 Notre Dame looking to get itself back in major bowl contention while No. 9 ASU aimed to climb further up the national ladder.
Whereas much talk before game time surrounded the offensive dangers each team presented, it was the Fighting Irish and Sun Devil defenses that made early statements. The two teams traded field goals, and it wasn't until Tashon Smallwood sacked Everett Golson deep in Irish territory that ASU's scoring spree began, Smallwood pried the ball away from Golson and recovered it to complete an incredible play from the true freshman.
Jaelen Strong then did as Jaelen Strong does, and his one-handed touchdown snag on the ensuing play put the Sun Devils up early. After the Arizona State defensive line forced another turnover, this time a Marcus Hardison interception off of a Demetrious Cherry tip, set ASU up within striking distance again, another true freshman in Demario Richard scored on a one-yard plunge that pushed the Sun Devil lead to 17-3 at the conclusion of the first quarter.
Refusing to let the Notre Dame offense make any progress, ASU's opportunistic defense came up with another turnover. It was a lineman in Hardison that tipped the ball, but speedy safety Damarious Randall that corralled it and ran it back 59 yards for Arizona State's third consecutive score, all thanks to forced turnovers.
The next time the ASU offense saw the ball it was in its own territory, an uncommon sight through the first half, but the Sun Devils capitalized on the possession nonetheless. D.J. Foster's 11-yard run set ASU up in Notre Dame's side of the field, and Taylor Kelly's best pass of the day floated into the waiting hands of Cameron Smith for a 43-yard score that sent the crowd into a frenzy. At the half the Sun Devils led 34-10 and ASU's best win of the season was seemingly an inevitability.
But football rarely caters to the inevitable, and the Fighting Irish made true on their name en route to clawing they way back into the game. Cam McDaniels' fourth-down rush from a yard out pulled Notre Dame within 34-17, and another short score for the Irish running back got the visitors within two possessions.
Rather than take a chance on giving the Irish a short field, ASU punted on a 4th-and-1 hoping its defense would wrap things up. But Matt Haack's punt only traveled to the Irish 41-yard line, and it took Notre Dame two plays to get in the end zone, scoring on Amir Carlisle's 25-yard reception. Carlisle's touchdown turned what was once a 34-3 game into a 34-31 barnburner.
The Arizona State offense answered Notre Dame's quick-strike touchdown with a big play of its own, as Richard's 40-yard catch-and-run out of the backfield nearly dragged Notre Dame defenders into the endzone with him, but was stopped at the 4-yard line. Kelly found Richard on the next play out of the backfield again, and this time he finished the job by scoring to push the Sun Devil lead back to double digits at 41-31.
Notre Dame seemed to be on its way to another touchdown after Corey Robinson's 23-yard reception jump-started the drive, but ASU cornerback Lloyd Carrington ensured a Sun Devil victory by gathering a missed catch from Robinson on the next play and returning it 58 yards for a clinching touchdown. ASU would add another score in garbage time to make what wasn't initially a close game look the part again, but Sun Devil fans who watched the contest remember just how tense it got.
WHAT IT DID FOR ASU: To win a game against a marque program like Notre Dame on national television is always huge. But throw in the hoopla surrounding the superb Desert Fuel uniforms and the following week's College Football Playoff rankings, this is one of the most complete victories ASU's experienced under Graham.
Thanks to its victory coupled with losses from Kansas State, Auburn and Michigan State, ASU rose all the way up to No. 6 in the rankings for the new postseason playoff, affirming its place in the week's national sports conversation. ASU lost the next week at Oregon State to all but ruin its CFP chances, but the win over Notre Dame and the slew of attention that followed is still up there with the best moments from Graham's tenure.