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Week 7: BYU

Brian Hartnett | Monday, October 22, 2012

In a matchup widely billed as a “trap game,” No. 5 Notre Dame survived a tough test from BYU on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, as the Irish utilized a strong second-half rushing attack to overpower the Cougars’ stout defense and rally for a 17-14 victory.

After sophomore running back George Atkinson put the Irish (7-0) ahead with a 2-yard touchdown run with 12:52 to go in the fourth quarter, BYU (4-4) marched down the field on a 13-play, 50-yard drive. But Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall decided to punt from Notre Dame’s 34-yard line rather than attempt a game-tying field goal.

“Six minutes to go, thought we would have a great chance to make a stop,” Mendenhall said. “It was work and longer than what I had hoped for, and with six minutes and 35, really believed we would stop and get the ball back with better field position than what we did.”

BYU was unable to make a stop, as the Irish iced the game with a 9-play, 48-yard drive consisting entirely of running plays. 

“We expected to run the football and we had talked about it on the preceding drive and this was – we were going to make them use their timeouts,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the drive. 

Notre Dame’s final offensive possession reflected the team’s second-half strategy, which was heavily run-based. The Irish attempted only three passes in the second half.

“It was pretty clear that we were going to be able to control both sides of the ball on the offensive line and defensive line,” Kelly said. “And you know, really stuck with our game plan.  Came in here wanting to run the football. Thought we controlled that quite well.”

Notre Dame ran for 270 yards on the nation’s third-ranked rushing defense coming into the game. Senior running back Theo Riddick ran for a career-high 143 yards on 15 carries, while fellow senior Cierre Wood ran for 114 yards on 18 carries. Atkinson, the other member in Notre Dame’s trio of running backs, had only five carries but took one of them in for the eventual winning touchdown.

“At the end of the day, it starts and ends with our offensive line,” Wood said. “They were getting the push up front and it’s our job to play off of them and read off of them. We just got the job done as a unit.”

Junior quarterback Tommy Rees started in place of injured sophomore quarterback Everett Golson for the Irish. Golson, who suffered a concussion against Stanford, had been cleared to practice Wednesday, but Kelly said there were no circumstances under which Golson would have played.

“[Golson] wanted to play,” Kelly said. “He made his case.  I just felt like where we were during and my evaluation of him cumulatively, I felt like this was the best thing to do… We feel like we’ve got a kid now that’s 100 percent ready to go for Oklahoma.”

Rees started the game by completing six of his first seven passes, four of them to senior tight end Tyler Eifert. The duo connected on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 left in the first quarter to put the Irish on the board.

“I think [Eifert] provides a mismatch out there on offense,” Rees said. “He’s a great player, he can run, he’s got a lot of size, and I think he does a good job of getting open and finding a way to come down with the ball.”

Notre Dame’s defense allowed its first touchdown in 17 quarters when BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson found junior receiver Cody Hoffman wide-open in the back of the end zone with 8:25 to go in the second quarter. 

The Irish defense then surrendered another touchdown less than three minutes later. After a Rees pass bounced off sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels and into the hands of Cougars junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy, Nelson hit junior tight end Kaneakua Friel on a 2-yard touchdown pass, putting the Cougars up 14-7.

“We weren’t used to [giving up touchdowns],” Irish senior linebacker Manti Te’o said.  

It made me mad, and it made a lot of guys mad and when they scored again, it really made us mad.”

Notre Dame committed several costly penalties in a sloppy first half, including personal fouls on sophomore tight end Troy Niklas and sophomore safety Matthias Farley. In addition, sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza missed field goal attempts of 40-yards and 28-yards.

“We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole in the first half with some uncharacteristic mistakes,” Kelly said. “But we told them at the half time, you know, this is about how we finish this football game. There wasn’t a panic. We stuck with what we were doing.”

After BYU junior kicker Justin Sorensen missed a 46-yard attempt midway through the third quarter, the Irish engineered a 7-play, 65-yard drive culminating in a 24-yard field goal by Brindza with 2:25 left in the quarter. The highlight of the drive was a 55-yard run by Riddick, in which the senior was hit at the line of scrimmage but regained his balance to move the Irish downfield.

Notre Dame’s defense held BYU scoreless in the second half and limited the Cougars to 243 yards overall. 

“A lot of us were anxious and excited and we weren’t playing our brand of football,” Te’o said. “We came in at half time and settled down and the result is the whole team just playing our brand of football.”

Te’o spurred the Irish defense, recording 10 tackles and one interception. Graduate student defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt pressured the Cougars offense throughout the game, as the pair combined for 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

“It was a hard-fought win,” Lewis-Moore said. “We are a team that holds ourselves to a higher standard. We have to play at a higher standard. We got the win but a lot of guys were like ‘We could play a lot better.'”

Kelly echoed Lewis-Moore’s sentiments, noting the team’s subdued reaction to the victory.

“I think the thing that was concerning for me the most is when our guys came in, and I didn’t sense a great feeling after winning a tough, tough football game,” Kelly said.  “And that’s a team that won ten games last year.  That’s a bracket buster team in basketball parlance, that’s a darned good football team.”

Notre Dame will look to improve to 8-0 for the first time since 2002 when it travels to Norman, Okla., on Saturday to face No. 8 Oklahoma at 8 p.m.