Gordon Monson: Frustrated BYU not quite good enough to beat Notre Dame
South Bend, Ind.
Under blue-gray skies that had long since forgotten October, BYU had to beat Notre Dame on Saturday in conditions even Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy would have hated. It was a late November day suited for penguins and polar bears, not modern quarterbacks and receivers, or any other normal human form, a day meant for raccoon coats and, if you absolutely had to play football, maybe single-wing offenses, not any kind of newfangled creativity.
But, because of all that, mostly it was a day for grown men with rugged demeanors, cold hearts and frozen souls, for steeled football players who could execute when it mattered in harsh environs.
In that regard, the Irish outdid the Cougars, beating them, 23-13.
As has been the case too often this season against quality opponents, even in good weather, the BYU offense was thwarted by a strong defense via stiff play up front and big plays in the clutch. The Cougars managed to gain 415 total yards, but trips to and near the red zone repeatedly ended unfulfilled.
"I believe we did not score enough points tonight," Robert Anae said afterward, winning the award for most obvious postgame statement. "That's the reason we lost the game."
"From an offensive perspective, we did not live up to what we came here to do."
His subtler message, more important point, was that the Cougars don't score touchdowns when they have to, when they have the opportunity to, especially against the kind of competition to which BYU wants to compare itself teams such as the Irish, Wisconsin and Utah, against whom they averaged 14 points per loss. The Cougars scored only 16 against Virginia.
"We've got to get better coaching in the red zone, better playing in the red zone," Anae said. "â¦ We've got to get a better mindset."
Against Notre Dame, BYU had three trips to that red zone in the second half and came away with two field goals and a blocked kick.
It's a matter of "making hay," the offensive coordinator said, when such scoring chances become available. But making that hay seems to get a whole lot more difficult when BYU plays quality opponents. It's had some nice moments this season, foremost among them against Texas and Boise State. On the other hand, the story of Cougar football in 2013 centers on either not taking advantage at the end of big games or not being good enough to take advantage just like on Saturday.
"This is a tough one to swallow because it's a game we could have won," said JD Falslev. "We're right there. â¦ We didn't execute. We have to overcome the little mistakes we're making."
Question is: Could the Cougars really have won? Or is that something the losers of games always say to balm their wounds, to make them believe they have more control than they actually do?
Yeah, it's probably the latter.
This game against Notre Dame, a physical team that likes pounding on opponents, was played in about as arduous climate conditions as can be found. The 2003 Utah game at LaVell's Place probably exceeded it, but these mean beasts, when they show up, reveal not just what a football team can do, but what it will do.
BYU hung tough here the Cougars gained just 55 fewer yards than the Irish and had one less first down but it never quite made anyone feel as though it was going to accomplish what Bronco Mendenhall reminded everyone is the point of playing the game: scoring more points than the other guys. It's one thing to play rough football, quite another to play rough winning football.
That was illustrated by the postgame image of nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna, who stood in one of the iconic tunnels under ND Stadium, freezing and worn out and with a golf-ball-sized lump protruding from his forehead.
"It was a tough game," he said, echoing what every other Cougar said. "We did well, but we could have done better. They definitely were physical. That's a challenge we like. â¦ [But] we missed assignments and gaps."
Which is to say, the Cougars weren't good enough.
At the end of a cold, snowy night, Falslev said BYU isn't scared of playing anybody anywhere anytime: "We're a team that feels like we can play with anybody. That's what's so frustrating. We're right there."
But not right there enough to win.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.