Like a magician working a gullible crowd, Todd Graham used the old misdirection technique to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Arizona State football program by beating No. 8 Notre Dame, 55-31.
While everyone was focused on the pre-game hype that centered on the pending duel between the two quarterbacks, Graham turned his defense loose early and they responded by forcing three turnovers that led to a commanding 31-3 lead before the Irish were able to put up their first TD of the afternoon, just 11 seconds before the first half ended.
The ASU defense, an inexperienced unit that was suspect earlier in the season until it gained playing time, harassed Everett Golson, the Irish’s senior quarterback, throughout the first half, covering his receivers like a blanket and chasing him all over the field while he tried to find an open target.
They scored one of the Sun Devils’ touchdowns to assist in the offensive barrage in the first half and made life miserable for Golson, sacking him six times before intermission.
Giving the No. 11-ranked ASU (8-1, 5-1) the lead at halftime is a deadly mistake. The Sun Devils are 23-0 when leading at halftime in games coached by Graham.
And by halftime the score was 34-10 and the Notre Dame fans that made the trek to Tempe could only wonder what happened so quickly to de-rail their 7-1, top-10 team. The Sun Devils punched them in the nose to start the game and then never let up, either in their aggression on defense or their hurry-up approach to scoring.
It was a great act to pull off in front of a national television audience and a sell-out crowd of 65,870 at Sun Devil Stadium. A huge boost to the recruiting efforts, as well.
But the magic of the moment turned into a disappearing act after halftime as the Irish methodically worked their way back into the game and were within three points late in the fourth quarter before ASU was able to put its first points of the half on the board. They couldn’t move the sticks on offense and gave Golson room to roam around in his backfield as he gobbled up yardage through the air. He finished the night with 22 completions and 446 yards passing.
Fortunately, the Irish were accommodating enough to give the Devils a little help until they could get back on track. Less than three minutes into the second half, Golson committed his third interception of the game when the Irish were on the march and knocking on the door. A pick inside the five by junior cornerback Kweishi Brown reversed the momentum and slowed the Notre Dame comeback.
And, as the fourth quarter opened, the Irish squandered a field-goal opportunity when the holder couldn’t get a handle on the snap.
But while the ASU offense sputtered, Notre Dame went to work chipping away at the deficit and had whittled it down to a 31-34 margin with just six and a half minutes left to play. Plenty of time to pull this one out.
However, the Sun Devil offense came to life at about that time and Taylor Kelly engineered a 75-yard drive that took just five plays and 2 minutes and eight seconds, as featured back D.J. Foster carried three times for 31 yards and freshman tailback Demario Richard pulled in a couple of Taylor passes to boost the score to 41-31.
And then the Irish made another contribution to their demise by bobbling a pass that flipped into the air and was caught by sophomore cornerback Lloyd Carrington, who ran it back 58 yards for the score that put the final nail in the coffin by spreading the margin back open to 17 points.
However, the final indignity for the nation’s No. 8 team was one more ASU score, this time with 52 second left on the clock. Kelly ran the ball into the end zone without being touched and pushed the final tally to 55-31 as the Sun Devils scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to bury the Irish.
The 55 points against a top-10 team were a stunning confirmation of ASU’s ability to combine a solid running game with a potent passing attack, but give a lot of credit to this defense. They finished the game with 61 tackles, including 10 for loss, and seven sacks — and added four interceptions and a couple of forced fumbles to round out a dominating performance.
Golson, one of the better running quarterbacks in the country and Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher, was held to minus-11 yards. He also completes 63 per cent of his passes and was the top quarterback in ND program history for interception rate coming into the game. That was before ASU picked him four times in a single game.
Kelly threw three touchdowns and passed for 224 yards on 17-for-28 passing. The 18 yards he added with his running turned him into the all-time career rushing leader for ASU quarterbacks with 1,396 yards.
Foster finished the afternoon with 120 yards on 21 attempts and wide receiver Jaelen Strong had five catches for 58 yards and a score.
Graham is now 2-2 against the Irish after beating them the first time he played them, while head coach at Tulsa. This win is his second against a top-10 team while at ASU; the other coming in 2002 when he pulled off a huge upset of No. 2 Oregon.
And he’s knocked off four ranked teams just this season. Besides Notre Dame, the Devils have beaten USC, Stanford, and Utah.
But this one was definitely the most important of all of those. In fact, yesterday’s win over the Irish will rank as one of the biggest in school history because it got the program over the hump of failing to live up to expectations. It confirmed the school’s legitimacy as a top-10 team, which it will become by next week, and also gave the fans some confidence that their team can win the big ones and become a consistent contender on an annual basis – not just a one-hit wonder.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Graham said immediately after the game, “that ASU is a real football team and a real contender.”
After yesterday’s performance, he’s not likely to get much of an argument. His team is now a legitimate contender in the College Football Playoff chase.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)