For the second week in a row Brian Kelly’s fifth-ranked Irish football team started the fourth quarter with its undefeated record in jeopardy. And for the second week in a row Notre Dame showed itself to be a team capable of scratching and clawing its way to a win.
Senior Theo Riddick ran for 143 to held Notre Dame come from behind in a 17-14 win Saturday.
“It’s just who we are,” Kelly said. “We just keep fighting, keep playing and we’ll find a way to win.”
Saturday’s 17-14 bullet-dodging defeat of Brigham Young tasted more sour than sweet for most of the Notre Dame locker room. Eventually, though, the Irish devoured one of the nation’s elite group of run-stoppers on the ground to ice another win and push its record to 7-0.
Sophomore George Atkinson III slipped inside a would-be tackler for a two-yard touchdown run to give Notre Dame its first lead of the second half early in the fourth quarter. From there, the Irish slammed the door on BYU’s chance to play spoiler in what is looking more and more like a BCS-bound team in South Bend.
Playing without starting quarterback Everett Golson, Notre Dame attempted only three passes in the second half. Kelly yoked his trio of running backs instead and let the senior duo of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood carry the team to victory. Riddick rushed for a career-high 143 yards and set up both of the offense’s second-half scores.
He appeared to be swallowed up at the line of scrimmage on his first big run, but kept his feet and broke away for a 55-yard gain that put the Irish inside the 10-yard line. Four plays later Kyle Brindza poked through a 24-yard field goal to pull the score to 14-10. A 19-yard run through the middle of the Cougars defense put Notre Dame within striking distance again only a few minutes later. This time Atkinson came around the end for his score on third down and goal.
“It felt really good,” Riddick said. “We’ve proven we can run the ball in previous games and we proved it tonight.”
Notre Dame pushed around defenses like Miami and Navy — the four-eyed, pocket-protector-wearing run defenses of the college football playground — during the first half of the season. Against the Cougars, the offensive line showed they can bully someone their own size as well. Riddick and Wood each ran for more than 100 yards, and the Irish posted 272 total rushing yards against a team that was allowing an average of 67 per game before this weekend.
“I was really impressed,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “They were physical and we had a very difficult time making consistent tackles. A lot of times, seemed like we had good contact and the running backs kept driving their legs and running hard.”
Junior Tommy Rees wasn’t asked to do much in his first complete game of the season. He threw 16 passes, completed seven of them and squeezed one touchdown out of his 117 total yards. His one interception, the first turnover pinned to his name this season, went through DaVaris Daniels’ hands and off his facemask before BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy grabbed on to it.
Mistakes like that kept the net of this supposed trap game hovering closely above Notre Dame’s helmets for much of the evening. BYU’s offense converted Van Noy’s interception into its second touchdown in the second quarter and put Notre Dame behind at halftime.
Senior quarterback Riley Nelson made the first dent in Notre Dame’s defense by taking advantage of a broken coverage in the red zone. He found Cody Hoffman (six catches, 72 yards) wide open in the back of the end zone to end the Irish defense’s four-game streak of not allowing a touchdown.
It took only two minutes to turn a tie game into a BYU lead. Five plays after Van Noy’s interception, tight end Kaneakua Friel trapped a pass between his hand and his forearm for his team-leading sixth touchdown of the season. The play was reviewed, but eventually upheld.
While BYU slid into attack mode, Notre Dame’s offense stalled. The only completed pass in the second quarter was a 1-yard pick-up from Andrew Hendrix to Troy Niklas. They had only one first down on their first three possession of the quarter, and that play was sullied by a Niklas personal foul after the whistle. The running game helped piece together a respectable drive just before halftime only to come up empty-handed when Brindza missed his second field goal attempt of the night.
The miscues continued in the second half — Louis Nix extended a BYU comeback chance with a facemask penalty and Hoffman ran free behind the secondary a few plays later — but the Cougars failed to take advantage. Nelson (23-of-36, 177 yards) missed Hoffman badly, then took a nine-yard loss when Carlo Calabrese and Stephon Tuitt corralled him for the fourth sack of the game for the Irish defense. The Cougars decided to punt with a little more than six minutes left in the game, and then were forced to watch as the Notre Dame running game salted away all but the final seconds on nine consecutive running plays.
Notre Dame’s rushing game, as it has done frequently this season, provided the finishing blows, but it was Rees and senior Tyler Eifert that got the ball rolling through the air in the first quarter.
Rees targeted the 6-6 All-American receiver on six of his first seven pass attempts in the first quarter and completed four of them. Eifert made an acrobatic diving catch for 29 yards to start the first scoring drive of the game. He finished it four plays later with a touchdown catch on another successful 3rd-and-goal play. He released from his spot at tight end untouched and leaped for a high pass in the middle of the Cougars end zone.
“I think he provides a mismatch out there on offense,” Rees said. “He’s a great player. He can run; he’s got a lot of size. I think he does a good job of getting open and finding a way to come down with the ball.”
Eifert’s four catches, all of which came in the first quarter, match a season high and are more than he had during a three-game stretch earlier in the season. Rees looked to his favorite target often early, and that duo looked to be on pace for a career day before the Irish resorted to the run in the second half.
The final three quarters of Saturday’s game were largely devoid of style points and will likely lead to rest of the college football world calling into question Notre Dame’s place in the top five among a group of teams that typically posts astronomical stats against lesser opponents. The Irish will get a chance to prove themselves next week in a top ten battle with Oklahoma on the road. For now, Notre Dame and its head coach are happy to be scrappers.
“I think we’ve proven that if it’s tight we’re going to find a way to battle back and pull it out,” said Rees, the human personification of this team’s new identity. “It’s not always the most fun way to win, or prettiest, but a win’s a win.”