Saturday, October 20, 2012
Unscathed Irish unsatisfied after escape
By Matt Fortuna
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Sorry for not partying.
The players on the most visible team in college football went another Saturday without a loss and then proceeded to act like they had been there before.
Even if they haven't.
Which is an encouraging sign if you're a Notre Dame fan following the Irish's 17-14 victory over BYU. The breaks of the game were tipping more toward the familiarity of the previous few years here, and the aftermath in the locker room was not exactly far off.
"Some people were taking it the wrong way," said Tyler Eifert, who had four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. "Guys weren't upset or throwing their helmets or anything like that; it just didn't really feel as loud and celebratory as last week."
Then, in a weird twist, the man most responsible for this change in culture nearly had to shake his players out of their postgame rut, reminding them that, when on a pursuit of perfection, every win is a great one.
"I want them to know, that, listen, you can't win games by 28 and 30 points," coach Brian Kelly said. "You need to find ways to win. That's who we are. There's a lot of teams around the country that have made their programs on winning 7-6 and 13-7. It's just who we are; embrace who we are, I guess is what I'm saying. We just keep fighting, keep playing and we'll find a way to win."
Saturday fit all the makings of a trap game -- from a sidelined starting quarterback to a tipped interception out of last season's scrapbook, from a highly questionable opponent touchdown to the fact that, well, the Irish's defense finally gave up a touchdown after four consecutive games of keeping its opponent out of the end zone.
Throw in a pair of makeable field goals blowing wide for good measure.
"It was kind of like a little shock," Stephon Tuitt said of surrendering a pair of scores. "Kind of like a little, 'Man, they just scored on us. We've got to buckle down because this team came ready to play.'"
Cierre Wood ran for 114 yards, but was puzzled by his teammates' postgame demeanor
No, this wasn't an overtime goal-line stand against a ranked Stanford team to set off a scene out of a football drama. This wasn't what next week will look like if Notre Dame can knock off Oklahoma and validate national title aspirations.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall would call his team's Saturday performance its most complete of the season, and it came at a time the Irish were most vulnerable -- after a big rivalry win in the rain, before a season-defining test on the road.
"I would say that we did not come out like we usually come out of every game," Tuitt said, unable to point to a reason. "But we came back and kept fighting and had a great win."
Facing a Cougars defense that entered the contest No. 3 nationally against the run, the Irish tallied 270 yards on the ground. After a 6-of-7 showing in the first quarter, Tommy Rees misfired on his next seven attempts, completing just one pass the rest of the way and throwing it just three times in the second half as his team ground-and-pounded its way out of a 14-7 deficit.
Down three and staring at a potential 51-yard game-tying field goal with 6 minutes, 19 seconds to go and one timeout in hand, the Cougars punted to the Irish, who utilized a nine-play, 48-yard drive to chew up 5:48 before punting it away with 22 seconds to go.
They had notched three first downs. They were mad at themselves for not getting four.
"As far as the offensive line goes, we just wanted to finish the game on our own terms and get that last first down," center Braxston Cave said.
Danny Spond's pick with 2 seconds to go made that a moot point, setting off a mood that left Cierre Wood a little confused.
"I'm sitting there like, 'Y'all making it seem like we just lost,'" the always-honest tailback said. "I don't really know what that means. But everybody's just focused, just glad we got the W, and focused on Oklahoma.
"So you can look at it either way, really. I was excited about the win. We won, so what's not to be happy about?"
Wood was one of the few who had little to apologize for after rushing for 114 yards on just 18 carries. His sidekick and roommate, Theo Riddick, could hold his head even higher following a career-best, 143-yard performance, on just 15 carries. He looked sunk on a third-and-1 third-quarter rush before emerging from the scrum for a 55-yard gain, setting up a short field goal. But the biggest play came from the No. 3 tailback, as George Atkinson III used a video game-like juke on Joe Sampson to take it in from 2 on third-and-goal early in the fourth quarter.
What would normally provide a spark instead inspired relief, the Irish's undefeated campaign still intact, the drag of BYU week finally giving way to a trip to Norman, Okla., for the team's second "College GameDay" contest in a three-week span.
The 24-hour, day-after window still has some time, even if the 50-year-old coach is the only one who feels like celebrating on a campus that won't welcome all of its students back from fall break until Monday.
"I do feel both ends of that," Kelly said. "I think you know that you want your guys feeling like they can play better. But I think when you win football games, you wait on Sunday to feel like, I can play better. Saturday, you win the football game, and you need to feel that excitement.
"And then Sunday, Sunday could be an interesting day. But let's wait for Sunday. Saturday is for success and celebration."