Arizona State wore its new helmets for the first time but didn't have the bulls up front on either side of the football Saturday in a 37-34 loss to Notre Dame in front of 66,960 at AT&T Stadium, a turnout that included well in excess of 15,000 ASU fans.
Presented with a Texas-sized opportunity to showcase its brand and prove to its fans and recruits that it has turned the corner as a program, ASU instead dropped to 3-2 overall (1-1 in Pac-12 play) and provided more questions than answers. Notre Dame improved to 4-2 with its best effort of the season.
Even after making a lot of mental mistakes and physical miscues, the Sun Devils had a chance late, but junior quarterback Taylor Kelly was pressured in the end zone and threw an interception which was returned for a touchdown to put Notre Dame ahead 37-27 with 1:08 remaining. It's the type of turnover that has become somewhat familiar, particularly on the road, in recent years.
"We had great fans out, I could hear them the whole time," Sun Devil coach Todd Graham said. "Great job. Really disappointed we didn't deliver for them. This was an opportunity for us to win on a national stage and to come in and to turn the ball over three times was the difference in the game. That's about how simple it was."
It may not have been.
Yes, ASU had three turnovers to Notre Dame's one, but the Sun Devils also were outperformed in several other key areas.
ASU failed to sack Irish quarterback Tommy Rees all night despite a number of blitzes while its opponent took Sun Devil junior starter Taylor Kelly down six times; they couldn't convert their first two red zone opportunities into touchdowns while the Irish did so; they couldn't muster more than 65 rushing yards on 25 attempts while the Irish had more than twice that amount, most of which came in a critical juncture of the second half; and worst of all, they couldn't tackle when they needed to get stops.
"We didn't protect our quarterback," Graham said of Kelly, who nonetheless threw for 362 yards and three touchdowns with 33 completions in 47 attempts. "Last week we did a good job getting the ball out on time, utilizing our tight end, utilizing our running back. We didn't do that. You've got to give them a lot of credit. We haven't been sacked like that all year, so they did a great job.
"You can't get sacked six times and give up three turnovers and win a game like that."
The key ASU turnover came with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter when sophomore receiver Richard Smith was stripped deep in Sun Devil territory with Notre Dame leading 17-13 on a play that resembled a ball security drill the team runs every week in practice.
Notre Dame scored a touchdown two plays later on a 21 yard strike from Reese to big tight end target Troy Niklas to give it a 24-13 lead, the largest by either team on the night.
"We're going to have a first down, we carry the ball away from our body," Graham said. "We don't do that. That turnover was critical in the game.
"I thought that was the play of the game."
On the first play of the fourth quarter ASU answered with an interception return for a touchdown by senior cornerback Osahon Irabor to make it 24-20.
It took just seven plays for the Irish to move the ball 75 yards and kick a short field goal to extend their lead to 27-20 before the Sun Devils again answered, this time via a 21 yard touchdown hook up between Kelly and junior tight end De'Marieya Nelson.
Faced with a tie for the first time in the game, Notre Dame marched 56 yards on 10 plays to take a lead on a Kyle Brindza 25-yard field goal with 3:03 remaining. It was just the last of a number of drives on which ASU wasn't able to stop Notre Dame from moving the chains.
"They definitely surprised us a little bit," Irabor said. "They did some things that we weren't prepared for and we tried to make adjustments on the fly. But we've got to stop making mental errors on defense if we want to accomplish our goals."
Graham started senior linebacker Chris Young at Spur for the first time all season after he excelled their last year before moving to WILL in August to help against inside runs. That move led to the Sun Devils giving redshirt freshman linebacker Salamo Fiso a start, but alignment errors in the first half led to a Notre Dame scoring drive. In the second half, Young was back at WILL and Fiso yielded for senior linebacker Anthony Jones.
But even that probably wasn't the difference. ASU allowed Notre Dame to take a 14-13 lead with 10 seconds left in the first half on a 71-yard, eight play drive that included junior field safety Damarious Randall dropping what should have been an interception.
In his first career start, Randall had a remarkable 17 tackles - a number that probably will be considered to be too high for a field safety - but the missed pick was costly.
"I thought they did a great job protecting," Graham said. They do some things that are tough with their tight end and getting an empty package and still protecting with six. We didn't get a lot of pressure. We had to go five and six man stuff to get pressure to the quarterback. We had what we wanted several times, he threw the ball, we dropped it. We had two dropped interceptions that were huge. One drive right before the half. If he had picked it (off) it probably would have been a pick six. He him right in the hands, you've got to make those plays."
The Sun Devils just didn't make more plays and looked physically outclassed at the point of attack on both sides of the ball. It's a perilous reality when the team also loses the turnover battle and doesn't convert as efficiency in the red zone.
Most surprisingly, even with the Irish went with empty sets, ASU couldn't get to the signal caller even it blitzed, which left a lot of 1-on-1 opportunities in the secondary, and boundary safety Alden Darby and field corner Robert Nelson in particular struggled.
Notre Dame receiver TJ Jones finished the night with eight catches for 135 yards and one touchdown, a performance essentially equaled by sophomore ASU receiver Jaelen Strong, who went over 100 yards for the fourth time in a row with 136 yards and one touchdown.
It didn't take long for ASU to attempt to spin the narrative in a positive trajectory.
"All of our goals are still open," Kelly said immediately after the loss. "For the Pac-12 South and to get to those Rose Bowl and the Pac-12 Championship game and the Rose Bowl. So we've got to come ready to work. We have Colorado this week and then Washington. So we've got to come to work and put this one behind us. It's Pac-12 play now."