NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Senior Day can be a real Catch 22 for a football program.
Notre Dame (8-3) caught the wave of momentum, inspired by the setback two weeks earlier against Pittsburgh, and rode the brisk winds and snow squalls en route to a 23-13 victory over Brigham Young (7-4), which couldn’t penetrate a rejuvenated Irish defense and improved rushing attack.
“We asked our guys to do something with this game, and we asked a single-minded focus and attention to detail that they hadn’t shown against Pittsburgh,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “We felt like we didn’t have that against Pittsburgh, and all of our players - in particular our seniors - really rallied to those things.”
Notre Dame rushed for 235 yards - its second highest output of the season - and never relinquished a first-quarter advantage while holding the Cougar offense to just one touchdown, including none over the final 51:48.
Cam McDaniel led the way with 117 yards on a season-high 24 carries while Tommy Rees completed 15-of-28 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown with DaVaris Daniels re-emerging as a big-play threat for the first time since September.
The Irish also raised their record to 13-2 under Kelly in November and claimed their 13th victory in their last 14 home tilts.
“This is the way we’ve got to play football,” said Kelly, whose offense had 47 rushing attempts and 28 passes. “This is Notre Dame football, this the way we need to play, this is what we’re capable of playing. It’s a much more physical brand of football, and quite frankly, our team knew that and they responded accordingly.”
While the Irish once again left a few points on the field as McDaniel couldn’t hold on to second-quarter pass in the end zone, and Rees threw an interception in the BYU end zone in the fourth quarter, the defense held the Cougars nearly 100 yards under their total offense average for the season.
“That’s just what happens at that part of the field,” said BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall of the Cougars’ struggles in the red zone. “The run game was working pretty effectively to get us down there, but the safeties are now closer and so the running game is much more difficult to get the kind of yardage we were getting.”
Without nose guard Louis Nix following his Thursday knee surgery, the Irish called upon senior Kona Schwenke - who was coming back from his own (ankle) injury -- and red-shirt freshman Jarron Jones, who recorded seven tackles and blocked a BYU field goal late in the fourth quarter when the Cougars were threatening to pull within one score.
“Opportunity, right?” Kelly said. “(Jones) got the opportunity. It was a next-man-in situation. Kona tried to answer the bell, but he had a high ankle sprain and he gave us all he had. Jarron, we felt like he was coming on, and he played exceedingly well. I’m really happy for him. We thought this was something when we recruited him that he was capable of.”
With the Irish taking a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter, the Cougars marched into the red zone three times in the second half, but had to settle for field goals from 26 and 31 yards out, and then Jones’ block.
Notre Dame scored first for the third straight game. Rees found Daniels for a 61-yard touchdown against BYU’s makeshift secondary as cornerback Skye PoVey - playing additional minutes as a result of starter Robertson Daniel’s illness -- trailed badly on Daniels’ sixth touchdown of the season.
BYU responded with a 12-play, 71-yard drive that featured four third-down conversions. But the Irish would prevent the Cougars from scoring over the final 21:48 of the first half. In fact, BYU managed just three first downs on its next three drives.
Meanwhile, the Irish tacked on 10 more points in the first half, putting together an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and a 14-play, 60-yard field-goal drive. Rees’ 30-yard pass to TJ Jones - the 38th straight game Jones has caught a pass - and Tarean Folston’s two-yard touchdown run gave the Irish a 14-7 lead.
Folston finished with 78 yards on 13 carries, including a 43-yarder.
A pair of third-down conversion passes to Daniels - who had six receptions for 107 yards in the first half alone - kept Notre Dame’s next scoring drive alive before bogging down at the nine. Kyle Brindza converted the first of three field goals to give the Irish a 17-7 halftime lead.
Neither team scored a touchdown in the second half. Despite swirling conditions in snowy, breezy Notre Dame Stadium, Brindza converted his second field goal of the night from 26 yards, and then nailed a 51-yarder with the wind with 6:53 remaining to provide the final points of the game.
“We had a lot of guys out there with very thin résumés, and they built them up today,” said Kelly, also noting the play of back-up center Matt Hegarty, who replaced Nick Martin after he hyper-extended his left knee late in the first quarter.
Taysom Hill and Paul Lasike each rushed for 101 yards for the Cougars. But Hill’s longest completion of the game was just 15 yards. His 21 completions netted a modest 168 yards, and after his touchdown connection with J.D. Falslev midway through the first quarter, BYU never found paydirt again.
“Getting a win at home is always extremely satisfying in that we always want to defend our home stadium,” Kelly said. “That’s something that is so important in developing consistency within your program, and our seniors are so much a part of building that consistency.”