No keeping up with this Jones

Jones snagged this score in front of MSU's Dennard

For the better part of nine months -- and despite head coach Brian Kelly's proclamations in his favor -- Irish fans wondered if senior TJ Jones could take the next step.

Jones spent 2012 as Tyler Eifert's complimentary piece in the passing game. For two seasons previous, the Irish legacy target was an inconsistent starter. By his own admission, Jones was both mentally (2011) and physically (2010) challenged to compete at the highest level from week to week.

Halfway through the 2013 season, Notre Dame's "go-to-" wide receiver (a phrase used daily by media and fans but rarely football coaches) has hands down been the 5'11" 195-pound Jones.

Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium, Jones did a little of everything, leading the offense in receptions (8), yards from scrimmage (135), drawing a pass interference penalty (his second of the season after none through 2012), and, per usual, pass targets (14). Jones' eight-yard touchdown reception with 10 seconds remaining in the first half gave the Irish a 14-13 advantage while his 27-yard punt return to the ASU 44-yard line -- the third-longest return of the Kelly era -- flipped field position and five offensive snaps later led to a touchdown pass to teammate Troy Niklas for a 24-13 lead.

Combined it was enough for Jones to earn offensive MVP honors, a clinic for his younger teammates in terms of coming up big when his quarterback needed him most.

"TJ is our big play guy. He's somebody we have to rely on," said Kelly post-game. "Tommy (Rees) and TJ have come through this program together. Whereas sometimes we misfire with some of the other younger receivers, and I think you probably saw that at times, (Rees) and T.J. Jones are right on the same page. And when he's in trouble, he's looking for T J Jones."

Digging Deep

The Irish defense might have faced a final cause for pause if not for Jones' awareness and toughness, too.

Leading 37-34 and on the field as part of the "good hands" unit to face Arizona State's inevitable onside kick, it was Jones, the 12th player to dive into the pile and eight Irishmen, who came up with the pigskin, effectively ending the contest.

"I'm not really sure," said Jones of how he arrived with the football instead of half of the play's combatants. "I saw them fighting fro it, and then it just kind of scooted out and I jumped on it the first chance I got."

In addition to special teams exploits, Jones continued his ascent among all-time program receivers, passing Tim Brown, Jim Seymour, and the aforementioned Eifert in total receptions (144). Next in line, legends modern (Golden Tate) and decades-past (Tom Gatewood) with 157. (Blessed with good health, Jones is likely to conclude his career second behind Michael Floyd's untouchable record of 271.)

"Oh man, so happy for TJ," said Rees. "You can't say enough about how the kid has grown since he's been here. First of all, tremendous player; but the way he's grown off the field…leadership and everything he's gone through. He had to grow up fast for his family (following his father, Andre's, unexpected death in June 2011), I'm so happy for him and all the success.

"It's not a surprise, he's a hardworking and very talented player."

A starter since the end of his first spring practice session as an early enrollee in 2010, Jones focused his efforts Saturday in what he admitted post-game was a unique, must-win situation in Week Six.

"We did feel it was a must-win. We're not going to try and hide it," he said. "For us just mentally and with our schedule, 4-2 is a lot better than 3-3. Leading into the bye week, we needed to leave on a good note and not have a loss (festering) for two weeks."

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