by John Vannie
Theo Riddick’s determined runs in clutch situations enabled mistake-prone Notre Dame to get past a tough BYU team by a 17-14 margin. For the second consecutive week, the Irish clawed back from a halftime deficit created by turnovers, penalties and uncharacteristic breakdowns on defense. With their perfect season on the line, Coach Brian Kelly turned to the ground game to turn the tide. Riddick and Cierre Wood responded by rushing for 257 yards, setting up the go-ahead points early in the fourth quarter and icing the victory in the final six minutes.
Notre Dame seemed to be in control in the first quarter with Tommy Rees at the helm for the injured (concussion) Everett Golson. A promising opening drive ended when Kyle Brindza missed a 40-yard field goal, but Manti Te’o made his presence felt on BYU’s first possession by intercepting a Riley Nelson pass. The Irish offense got untracked later in the first period when Rees hit Tyler Eifert for 29 yards and Wood ran for 22 more to set up a four yard touchdown toss to Eifert at the 1:30 mark.
The second quarter belonged to the Cougars as Notre Dame’s three chances ended in a costly penalty, an interception, and another missed field goal by Brindza. Meanwhile, Nelson began to find wideout Cody Hoffman and tight end Kaneakua Friel, and tailback Jamaal Williams took advantage of poor tackling by the Irish. BYU scored twice in the period, and in each case the Cougars capitalized on good field position and costly penalties by Notre Dame. Nelson threw scoring passes to Hoffman and Friel to give his team a 14-7 lead while the Irish seemed to lack intensity and focus.
BYU’s defense continued to hang tough by stopping Notre Dame early in the third quarter. The Cougars threatened to widen their lead by driving into Irish territory, but a 46-yard field goal attempt by Justin Sorenson missed badly at the 6:31 mark. Time was becoming a factor, however, and Riddick responded by maintaining his balance through the hole on a third and one play and turning it into a 55-yard romp to the BYU eight. The Cougar defense stiffened and forced a short field goal by Brindza that cut the deficit to 14-10.
The Irish forced a punt on the next series, and Rees immediately lofted a 31-yard duck that was hauled in by T.J. Jones at the BYU 41. Riddick took over with help from Wood and willed Notre Dame to the Cougar two yard line. Rees then faked to Riddick and pitched to George Atkinson, who eluded BYU’s safety and finished the drive with a go-ahead touchdown.
The crowd came alive as the Cougars were forced to start the next series deep in their own end. They compounded the problem by committing a holding penalty on first down, but the Irish let them off the hook when Louis Nix grabbed Nelson’s facemask on third and 16. Given new life, Nelson engineered a drive that took BYU into Irish territory. Just when it appeared that the Cougars would get in position to tie or take the lead, Stephon Tuitt sacked Nelson during an all-out blitz to end the threat. Notre Dame caught a break when BYU’s punt barely crossed the goal line for a touchback.
Kelly stayed on the ground in an attempt to burn the final six minutes of time while nursing a three point lead. Once again, Riddick converted a key third down and five, and Wood followed with a 22-yard burst. The Irish left only 22 seconds of time when they finally punted the ball into the Cougar end zone. Danny Spond picked off a desperation heave by Nelson two plays later and Notre Dame took a knee for the win.
The game was low on style points but nevertheless very satisfying because the Irish were able to impose their will on a quality opponent that came into the contest with a stellar record against the run. BYU had a solid plan and frustrated Notre Dame by converting on several third downs, covering the Irish pass receivers extremely well, and dictating field position with excellent special teams play. In the final analysis, Notre Dame’s superior size and talent made the difference in the outcome.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions for the other keys to victory:
Can the Irish protect the quarterback and allow him to get into a comfortable rhythm? Rees was not unduly pressured, but he was not at all sharp in this game. His only completion in the second quarter was to BYU’s Kyle Van Noy.
Will Notre Dame’s special teams equalize or even win the field position battle? Not at all. BYU out-punted the Irish and Brindza missed two of three field goal attempts. His kickoffs were solid though. Notre Dame’s punt and kickoff returns continue to be anemic.
Can BYU get its running game going against the tough Irish front seven? Williams had some nice runs, but the Cougars were not able to sustain a ground attack throughout the day. They finished with only 66 net yards.
How will the BYU secondary fare against Notre Dame’s array of backs, receivers and tight ends? Very well. The Cougars forced Notre Dame’s receivers to make tough catches and flustered Rees all day.
Will the Irish secondary be able to focus on Hoffman or will other options emerge for Nelson? Hoffman caught eight passes and Nelson hit Williams out of the backfield for seven completions, but most of those were shovel passes. BYU lacked a true deep threat and Nelson botched his only second half chance by missing a wide open Hoffman behind the Irish safeties.
Which team will win the turnover battle? The Cougars had two interceptions to Notre Dame’s one, but Rees’ miscue cost the Irish seven points.
Will it ever stop raining in South Bend? The sky was relatively clear but it threatened to rain Irish tears until late in the day.
Notre Dame survives and moves to 7-0 on the season as they get ready to travel to what is sure to be a hostile reception in Norman, Oklahoma. Kelly announced that Golson will start this game, and the Irish will need to be firing on all cylinders to remain unbeaten.