South Bend, Ind. • When videographers and historians get together to chronicle the 2012 Brigham Young University football season, the theme will emerge rather quickly.
And a whole lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda.
That was more than evident Saturday afternoon in what could have been a golden moment for coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team, and outlined against a blue-gray October sky, no less. Holding the Cougars scoreless in the second half, the No. 5-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish stayed undefeated with a 17-14 win in front of 80,795 at historic Notre Dame Stadium.
“One or two plays short from being able to come away with a victory,” Mendenhall said. BYU fans have heard that one before, as three of BYU’s four losses have been by a field goal or less.
As the Cougars trudged to their locker room and the Notre Dame band played its familiar fight song for what seemed like the millionth time, quarterback Riley Nelson said the feeling was eerily similar to those razor-close losses in September, 24-21 to Utah and 7-6 to Boise State.
“Extremely [frustrating],” Nelson said. “We just can’t seem to close [the deal]. ... Way worse than getting blown out, if you ask me.”
If there was a play that symbolized and substantiated Mendenhall’s theory that the Cougars (4-4) were a play away from pulling off what would have been the biggest win in his eight-year tenure, it was the one midway through the fourth quarter when Nelson overthrew a wide-open Cody Hoffman, who was 10 yards beyond the nearest Irish defender.
“That probably wins the game for us,” Nelson said.
Perhaps, but a few plays later, Mendenhall made a critical decision that also impacted the result. The Cougars punted on fourth-and-13 from the Notre Dame 34, instead of opting for a 51-yard field-goal try from Justin Sorensen, who was wide left on a 46-yarder in the third quarter.
Mendenhall said that earlier miss by Sorensen played into his decision to punt, and with around six minutes remaining and one timeout left, he thought the Cougars’ defense could get a quick stop.
The Irish took over with 6:10 remaining and didn’t give the ball back until 22 seconds remained, using their powerful rushing attack that put up 270 yards against the No. 3 defense in the country against the run.
“That’s a bracket-buster team, in basketball parlance,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of BYU. “That’s a darned good football team.”
But not quite good enough — again.
The Cougars took a 14-7 halftime lead, but mustered just 115 yards in the second half. The difference in the game was Kyle Brindza’s 24-yard field goal, after two misses. That came after Theo Riddick busted off a 55-yard run when most Cougar defenders thought he had been tripped by Kyle Van Noy.
Jordan Johnson ran Riddick down to save BYU four points.
The go-ahead touchdown came when BYU safety Joe Sampson whiffed on an open-field tackle opportunity, allowing George Atkinson to reach the end zone on third-and-2 with 12:52 left in the game.
“It’s frustrating, man,” said BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree. “It hurts. It stings. We were right there.”
Having intercepted Nelson in the first half on a tipped pass to thwart BYU’s opening drive, Notre Dame’s Heisman Trophy candidate linebacker, Manti Te’o, said the mood in Notre Dame’s locker room wasn’t all that celebratory, and noted that the country’s fifth-ranked team perhaps got more than it wanted out of the visitors.
The Irish (7-0) gave up an offensive touchdown for the first time in more than four games, a stretch that spanned 17 quarters and an overtime session last week against Stanford. The Cougars took the 14-7 lead after an interception by Van Noy set them up at the ND 30. Nelson’s 2-yard TD pass to Kaneakua Friel stood, after a replay review.
“Those 14 points [BYU scored] upset us a lot,” Te’o said. “It is not easy to win college football games, especially when you are Notre Dame.”
BYU can certainly relate.
R IN SHORT • Failing to score in the second half, the Cougars blow another opportunity to upset a top-ranked team, and they lose 17-14 on the road to No. 5 Notre Dame.
KEY STAT • The Fighting Irish rush for 270 yards against a BYU defense that was previously ranked No. 3 in the country against the run.