Defined by 2012 success, Irish look the part vs. ASU

Defined by 2012 success, Irish look the part vs. ASU
October 6, 2013, 12:30 am
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- A Notre Dame team defined by who it was last year finally lived up to those expectations Saturday night.

In beating Arizona State, 37-34, Notre Dame did the kind of things it did right last fall. The Irish rallied after their opponent made big plays. They came up with stops when they needed to. They forced three turnovers and pressured the quarterback.

[RELATED: Notre Dame flips the script against Arizona State]

To continue: Notre Dame kept Arizona State's offense off the field, allowing only four third-down conversions in 13 attempts. Arizona State rushed 25 times for 65 yards -- an average of 2.6 yards per carry. The Irish won the turnover battle, 3-1.

These were the hallmarks of a team that went undefeated in the regular season last fall. For better or for worse, that set the expectation this year, despite a number of key players moving on.

Notre Dame furthered that expectation by setting its sights on the BCS Championship on the outset of the season. That only fueled the hope -- even without Manti Te'o, Everett Golson, Danny Spond, Theo Riddick, Zeke Motta, etc., that Notre Dame could do what it did last year, and maybe even build off it.

[WATCH: Notre Dame offense believes they held up their end of the bargain]

"That's really the norm, that's what everybody does. They expect you to come out and be the same as you did last year or whatever," cornerback Bennett Jackson said. "But it's really nothing. People continuously say, oh, Notre Dame's defense is bend but don't break and now we're broken. But we come out and we play.

"Everything that the outside world continues to say, it really has no effect on us. We're going to come out and continue to play each week and continue to try to win games, and we're only going to get better at it."

Jackson said it wasn't frustrating to be continually asked about the 2012 team, but it's hard to imagine it hasn't been a little bit grating. When things went wrong against Michigan and Oklahoma, the questions flew: Why isn't Notre Dame doing what it did last year?

[HIGHLIGHTS: Notre Dame pulls off upset of ASU]

"We really don't worry about last year," linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was still in high school a year ago, said. "It's all about the present, and what we can do for the team to move forward and get better.

"Last year's team was amazing, and we're trying to develop our own identity. There's a lot of guys that have left. I think we've just done a great job of coming together."

Through all the deserved negativity of Notre Dame's first five games, there were flashes of a defense reprising its eliteness from last year, but those were often fleeting.

The absence of Te'o in the middle was clear, with no brilliant tactician getting teammates into perfectly-tailored fits. A pass rush that tormented opposing quarterbacks barely sniffed the backfield. A team that forced a slew of takeaways averaged less than one per game.

[MORE: Irish rally around serious injuries to Grace, Smith]

But on Saturday, that familiar feeling was there. Prince Shembo said he felt it on the first of his three sacks, and Jackson pointed to a different energy and swagger in the Notre Dame locker room.

"We're a new team, we're not looking at last year," he reiterated. "But we had that feeling of, we can do this."

As the team following 2012's success, the 2013 Irish will continue to be defined by a championship run made with plenty of players no longer on campus. Even coach Brian Kelly tacitly admitted that, showing his players film of last year's team in an effort to remind his players just how good they were last year.

But still, as Kelly said: "They're not walking around campus flashing their 12-0 rings. They don't have a 12-0 ring. They're not wearing a conference championship ring.

"They have an immense amount of pride in what they accomplished by playing so well and winning games that what drives them is winning, and they want to win. They want to win football games, and they want to play good football week in and week out."

On Saturday, Notre Dame finally did just that.