ARLINGTON, Texas — Prince Shembo sensed something was wrong as soon as Jarrett Grace went down midway through the second quarter.
Grace is a warrior, Shembo said. He would get right back up unless he physically couldn’t.
The Notre Dame linebacker took a knee next to Grace, who was writhing on the field in pain. Shembo pointed to the purple silicon bands on both of their wrists, and read the embossed words to his fellow linebacker.
“Stay positive and keep on giving God glory,” Shembo said to Grace, as a hushed crowed of 66,960 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, looked on.
After several minutes of being attended to by Notre Dame medical staff — Shembo, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Anthony Rabasa by his side the entire time — Notre Dame’s leading tackler was carted off the field.
Grace had broken the tibia in his right leg and will likely be lost for the season, dealing an Irish linebacker corps already suffering from lack of depth a serious blow.
The junior inside linebacker who had evolved into the vocal and emotional leader of the Irish front seven could no longer lead from the middle of the field, but his injury sparked a rejuvenated Irish defensive effort in the second half against Arizona State Saturday, Oct. 5.
At that point, the Notre Dame was trailing 13-7 to then-No. 22 Arizona State early in the third quarter.
The Irish defense channeled shades of its 2012 self and stuffed the Sun Devils offense on five consecutive drives, forcing four punts and a fumble that linebacker Dan Fox recovered.
Shembo harassed quarterback Taylor Kelly throughout the second half, pulling him down three times in the team’s six total sacks. Jaylon Smith flew all over the field, looking more like Manti Te’o than the freshman outside linebacker he is.
After a Sun Devils’ score, Matthias Farley and Dan Fox grabbed back-to-back picks. Fox returned his for the game-sealing touchdown with a dramatic dive into the end zone that ended up more horizontal than vertical on his 6-foo-3, 245-pound frame.
That’s the game. Notre Dame wins 37-34, shocking most of the college football world.
Despite losing its top tackler of the season, a Notre Dame’s linebackers put together their best performance of the season against the most explosive offense they’ve faced.
“We rallied together as a group,” said Smith, who finished with a team-high nine tackles. “Jarrett’s a great guy. I’ll definitely be praying for him and his family.”
Kelly, who came into the game the third-best quarterback in college football in passing yards per game, threw his first two picks of the season. Kelly had been sacked six times in Arizona State’s first four games. Notre Dame sacked him six times on Saturday.
While Kelly got the better of the Irish on occasion — he led a 75-yard drive in the final minute of the game for an ultimately-futile touchdown — Notre Dame pinched and poked and prodded the quarterback out of his comfort zone.
Somewhere, Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta are smiling.
“I think we all remember what we saw last year defensively salting away games and we feel like our defense is continually getting better,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We are not there yet. Again, I highlight the last drive. I know (defensive coordinator Bob) Diaco wasn’t happy with the last drive. I had to cheer him up a little bit in the locker room.
“But certainly, we feel like the defense, with a good pass rush, playing good technique in the back end, that we can do those kinds of things.”