South Bend, Ind.
On one of the greatest and grandest stages in college football, against a Notre Dame team darn-near worthy this time around of the historical uniform it wears, BYU on Saturday failed another true test. Its last real test. Pity. The Cougars had their chance. Their chances.
At the home of the golden dome, against the guys in the golden helmets, they blew a golden opportunity, golden opportunities, to win, falling to the Irish, 17-14.
There’s no embarrassment in that, but no fulfillment, either.
The fact that the final count was close only made it more painful at the end for BYU, a program that hasn’t defeated a highly ranked opponent in more than three years. “It’s almost worse than a blowout,” Riley Nelson said. “We just can’t seem to close.”
After the Cougars tried to cover 80 yards on a final possession, getting nowhere in the attempt, the whole thing punctuated with a Nelson interception, they walked off the field, hurting and hoping against hurt and hope that something better might be in their future. Said the quarterback: “We don’t want to feel that way coming off the field again.”
But it’s getting a little late now.
The games that were to give BYU’s season meaning, the ones against better teams, have pretty much slipped away. At 4-4, the Cougars have beaten Washington State, Weber State, Hawaii and Utah State. Their losses: Utah, Boise State, Oregon State and, yeah, Notre Dame. They have Georgia Tech left, next week, and then they finish against the Shamrock Meats/Pop Warner North Division.
Speaking of finishing, as Nelson said, that was precisely what BYU couldn’t do against the Irish. It led, heading into the fourth quarter, 14-10, having become the first team in 17 quarters to score an offensive touchdown against Notre Dame.
For kicks and giggles, the Cougars did it twice before the first half was over. But, from there, the only kicks were missed ones, and the giggles were gone as the Cougars got bageled.
In the postgame, Bronco Mendenhall bemoaned the fact that his team came up “one or two plays short.”
In reality, they missed more opportunities than just that.
For example, up 14-7 midway through the third quarter, the Cougars were driving, with a shot at going up by 10 or 14 points. After moving from their own 26-yard line, they whiffed on a third down, stalling inside the Notre Dame 30. Justin Sorensen then snap-hooked a field-goal attempt, killing the threat.
After an Irish field goal, and a dead possession, the BYU defense had a chance to hold onto its lead, despite a Notre Dame drive to the Cougar 2. On a third-and-goal, BYU DB Joe Sampson had Irish running back George Atkinson all but stopped in the right flat, but Atkinson made a sweet move around Sampson and scored the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth.
The fates stepped in to help BYU thereafter, sustaining a possession by way of a face-mask penalty against the Irish on a third-and-16, but the Cougars failed to do their part. Later in that drive, Nelson looked like a man shot-putting a bowling ball, missing receiver Cody Hoffman, who couldn’t have been more alone deep downfield. It most certainly would have resulted in a touchdown and a lead. Instead, Nelson was subsequently caught and sacked before misfiring again on another throw, this one to Iona Pritchard.
BYU ended up punting at the Notre Dame 34.
There had been more empty chances, but … you get the idea.
The Cougars came to Notre Dame Stadium not simply looking for a win against the fifth-ranked team in the country, but rather for a signature win, a trophy win, a legitimate win, a win that would give them legitimacy. And, as it turned out, it was a win that was available to them. They … just … couldn’t … quite … reach … out … and … take … it.
They picked up more first downs than the Irish. They threw for more yards. They had a better percentage on third-down conversions. And they had fewer penalties. They even got plenty of compliments from the Irish.
“They are a really good football team,” said former Cougar recruit Manti Te’o, who knew more about BYU than any of his ND teammates, before and after the game. “We understood that coming in today, that it was going to be a fight. Hats off to them for just a great college football game.”
A great game, a doffed cap, a pat on the back, wasn’t enough for BYU.
“This stings, it’s tough,” senior captain Brandon Ogletree said. “It hurts to lose.”
Especially when you could have won, but didn’t.
“You’re only as good as your record,” the linebacker added. “But I don’t feel like we’re a 4-4 team.”
But that’s the problem. They are a 4-4 team, with only one substantial win against a decent opponent. The rest of their success this season is Cheez Whiz, and the rest of their schedule is filled out with teams — Georgia Tech, Idaho, San Jose State and New Mexico State — that, even if the Cougars win, it won’t prove much to them, or to anybody else.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.