After nearly two hours of warfare under an Olympian cumulus, Notre Dame faced an opponent more familiar and more deadly than the stubbornly tough Cougars from Brigham Young.
The Irish fought their darkest doubts.
Kyle Brindza’s early missed kick cast a long shadow. Guided by backup quarterback Tommy Rees, Notre Dame’s offense leapt to an early lead but struggled to score after Tyler Eifert’s spectacular end zone catch late in the first quarter.
The distress signal sounded from Notre Dame’s defense, where cracks were beginning to show through the blasted bulwark. Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Dan Fox each sacked Cougar quarterback Riley Nelson in the first quarter, but Nelson struck back with second-quarter touchdown tosses — the second one after a Tommy Rees interception. The Irish defense, nigh impregnable for the last four games, had been gashed for two touchdowns in a mere two minutes.
The stadium was stunned. Even Manti Te’o, whom Nelson called “the heart and soul” of Notre Dame’s defense, later admitted that those touchdowns — the first to Cody Hoffman and the second to Kaneakua Friel — shocked the blue and gold boys.
They also shocked Notre Dame Stadium. As the Fighting Irish treaded back through the tunnel at halftime, down a touchdown and suddenly vulnerable, a cold and nauseous fear gripped the guts of the Notre Dame faction.
Could this be the game? Could this be the moment when unbeaten Notre Dame finally collapsed and caved to an inferior opponent? These are the doubts heard so oft in worst extremes and on the perilous edge of battle.
But as the golden helmets charged back onto the battlefield, the battle of bone and sinew became a battle of hearts and wills.
And in a battle of hearts and wills, the truest armor is courage.
For as the gathered thousands stood and cheered, Brian Kelly’s Captains Courageous summoned the strongest and the fiercest spirit, now fiercer by a stadium’s despair. The Fighting Irish put up their dukes.
Tommy Rees hardly threw the ball in the second half — no matter. Behind a rock-rimmed line three-deep in tight ends and thunderosity, Brian Kelly’s workhorse backs ripped and crashed through the tattered remains of America’s third-ranked run defense.
Captain Eifert had energized the Irish in the first quarter with a team-best four catches, each a spectacular athletic feat. But after halftime, Eifert set aside his aerial heroics and joined Captain Zack Martin in transforming the Irish offensive line into a diesel-powered meat grinder.
Cierre Wood, arguably the most dynamic Fighting Irish runner in years, manufactured 114 yards in ballistic bursts when Notre Dame needed him most. George Atkinson III has no equal in a footrace, yet his proudest moment Saturday was a breezy two-step into the end zone that nearly separated safety Joe Sampson from his ankles.
But no man on either team matched the heroics of little Theo Riddick, who ran through BYU with the heart of a lion and the might of a rhinoceros for 143 yards — an astonishing 9.5-yard average. In the third quarter, every player watched, stunned, as Terrific Riddick tunneled under the wall of would-be tacklers and exploded downfield for a 55-yard gain. He did not finish the race — Jordan Johnson snagged him eight yards short — but Riddick kept the faith. Kyle Brindza mustered his first successful field goal try, and the Irish rout was on. When Captain Martin sprung Riddick for a 19-yard dash in the fourth, it set up Atkinson for the go-ahead touchdown and Notre Dame for the 17-14 win.
As BYU readied for its last offensive campaign in the fourth, Captains Te’o and Lewis-Moore returned to the field as the unstoppable titans that have denied offenses all season. When Tuitt and big Louis Nix III sacked Nelson in the backfield, they buried his heart in the end zone. (The referees had stopped the play on the grounds of stopped forward progress, but the Irish maulers made absolutely sure.) Nix snagged his mammoth paw on Nelson’s facemask, though, and the ensuing penalty resurrected the BYU drive.
But it was for naught. Te’o, who had already silenced a BYU drive when he intercepted Friel’s catch, crushed Devin Mahina and Iona Pritchard. Tuitt and Carlo Calabrese tore through the BYU line like Sherman tanks and planted Nelson into the turf for a 9-yard sack, forcing Nelson to look downfield. On one last third down pass, Lewis-Moore bullrushed Nelson and forced an incomplete pass that all but sealed BYU’s fate.
On the next Fighting Irish drive, Wood and Riddick destroyed time, yardage and BYU’s chances for a comeback. By the time Nelson chanced a pass, his only receiver was Notre Dame’s Danny Spond.
When Notre Dame trotted out its victory formation, it was all too fitting that their safety was Captain Te’o, who has tackled, intercepted and sacked his way to becoming a serious Heisman contender.
Notre Dame survived BYU’s test of faith. But the Irish are also grimly aware of their impending battle against the season’s fiercest opponent: Oklahoma. Bob Stoops’s eighth-ranked Sooners seem to run on a mixture of jet fuel and nitroglycerin, and Notre Dame will need faith, fortitude and fantastic football to emerge victorious from that much-ballyhooed college game day.
Until then, the blue and gold banner ascends ever stratospheric, borne snapping into the wind by Notre Dame’s Captains Courageous.