No. 5 Notre Dame finds another way to win ugly
Notre Dame's victory over Brigham Young lacked the drama of the goal-line stand against Stanford, the defensive domination the Fighting Irish showed against Michigan and the excitement of their last-minute win over Purdue.
Yet just like in those three other games, the Irish found a way to win a close game, beating BYU 17-14 to move to 7-0 for the 25th time in school history and the first time since Tyrone Willingham's first year as coach in 2002. That squad won five games by a touchdown or less en route to a 10-3 season.
Notre Dame is 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season and has won seven straight such regular-season games dating back to last season, after going 2-5 in such games after Brian Kelly became coach in 2010. Those included losses to Tulsa and South Florida and a pair of last-minute losses to Michigan.
Notre Dame is finding ways to win ugly rather than lose ugly.
''I think it's just a toughness,'' said quarterback Tommy Rees, who has played a role in all but two of those games. ''We've figured out how to play. We can close them out in the end.''
The Irish were without starting quarterback Everett Golson against BYU. He was held out as a precaution after sustaining a concussion a week earlier against Stanford. Kelly said Sunday he expects Golson to be ready to play against No. 8 Oklahoma (5-1), but wants to see how he reacts to a full exertion workout Monday.
For a while Saturday it looked like Notre Dame's perfect season was in jeopardy. Trailing 14-7, the Irish turned to their running game and a tough defense to pull out the victory. Theo Riddick rushed for 143 yards and Cierre Wood ran for 114, as each ran for more yards than any other opponent had against the Cougars.
''I think controlling the football for us and playing great defense in the second half has been our formula for winning and we are not going to go away from that,'' Kelly said.
A 2-yard touchdown run by George Atikinson III with 12:52 gave the Irish the lead and allowed them to keep alive their hopes of ending a national championship drought that dates back to 1988. The victory marked just the third time the Irish have won under Kelly after trailing at halftime. The other two times were a week earlier, when they beat Stanford 20-13 in overtime after trailing 10-3 at halftime, and a 24-17 win against Wake Forest last season after falling behind 17-10.
''It goes to the toughness of our football team,'' Kelly said. ''They believe they are going to win. ''
Irish players say the difference is they believe in each other.
''Football is very unpredictable. You have your ups and your downs and the most important thing is staying together when we hit adversity and that's exactly what we did,'' linebacker Manti Te'o said.
After giving up a total of three touchdowns in six games - none in the previous four - the Irish defense gave up a pair of touchdowns in just 2:18 to let BYU get the lead. But there was never a sense of panic, even as the Irish continually made mistakes that kept them from regaining the lead.
''That's the difference between this year's team and last year's team,'' tight end Tyler Eifert said. ''We're only down a touchdown or a field goal and you've just got to grind it out. Find a way to make it happen.''
Now the Irish have to find a way to make it happen at Oklahoma, which has only lost four homes games in 14 seasons under coach Bob Stoops. Kelly's Cincinnati team lost 52-26 in 2008 to the then-No. 4 Sooners. Kelly said it's a tough place to play.
''The fans are right on top of you. They're very knowledgeable. It's just a good college environment and they're a really good football team,'' Kelly said.
Kelly said what he took away from that 2008 game was that there was still a gap between where the Bearcats and the Sooners. The Irish are hoping to show against Oklahoma they are true title contenders. Kelly said the Irish know they need to continue to improve, saying that's a good thing.
''If you're 7-0 and five in the country and you think you've arrived, then that's where as a coach and a team you're in peril,'' he said.