Notre Dame squeaked out a three point victory on Saturday in a sloppy game in which they made more than their fair share of mistakes. The Irish were able to overcome those miscues though and end up on top at the end of the game – something the 2011 squad had major issues doing. So, while there were plenty of moments that had Notre Dame fans frustrated this weekend, there were also plenty of things to like about Notre Dame improving to 7-0 on the season.
Theo Riddick’s tough running
I don’t care what Brian Kelly insisted, Notre Dame came out flat against BYU. Saturday was a classic letdown/trap game and the Irish nearly had their perfect season derailed by a solid, but hardly spectacular BYU team that was playing much more inspired football – at least early on. One player for the Notre Dame offense that came to play, however, was Theo Riddick. So far this season Riddick has taken some heat for producing a much lower yards per carry average than his fellow running backs while still receiving the bulk of the carries. Saturday Riddick showed why the Irish staff has stuck with him as the go to back though with a 15 carry, 143 yard performance featuring several tough runs where Riddick turned small gains into crucial first downs strictly because he refused to be tackled.
Riddick did get caught from behind on the longest run of his career – a 55 yard jaunt where Riddick should have been tackled at the line of scrimmage – but without the tough running of #6, Notre Dame probably loses yesterday. After Riddick’s tough runs the Irish offense showed some signs of life before taking the lead and then chewing up enough clock on their final drive to put the game away.
Notre Dame grinding out another win
It wasn’t pretty, but not every game is. Sandwiched between one of the most emotional wins in recent Notre Dame history and the Irish’s first trip to Norman, Oklahoma since 1966, this game had trap written all over it and Notre Dame played that way for the first three quarters. The Irish moved the ball, but misucues, penalties, and sloppy play resulted in Notre Dame piling up some yards while scoring just 10 points through the first 45 minutes of the game. In the fourth quarter though, the Notre Dame offensive line stepped up and paved the way for Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atksinon III to lead the Irish to the go ahead score.
Not every week is going to be pretty and sometimes you have to win ugly. Every great season has its fair share of close calls and hopefully that is all the we saw Saturday – a close call where Notre Dame almost got caught looking ahead.
Stephon Tuitt and the Notre Dame pass rush reemerging
The Notre Dame pass rush was excellent to start the season, but had slowed down a bit the last two weeks against Miami and Stanford. After registering 14 sacks through the first four games of the season, the Notre Dame defense collected just one against the Hurricanes and Cardinal. This past weekend though, the Irish defensive front started to reassert itself and got to BYU quarterback Riley Nelson four times led by big #7 – Stephon Tuit.
Like the rest of the defense, Tuitt got off to a torrid pace with six sacks in the first four games. Over the last two weeks, however, he picked up just one. Tuitt changed that with 1.5 sacks on Saturday to push his season total to 8.0 and he is now back on pace to challenge Justin Tuck’s single season sack record (13.5 in 2003).
The key for the pass rush with Notre Dame has been generating pressure with just the defensive line. Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron-Lewis Moore were all at the top of their games against the Cougars – a very, very welcomed sight with the toughest challenge of the season just a few days away when the Irish defense faces Landry Jones and Oklahoma’s high powered offense.
Brian Kelly committing to running the football
Never thought I would be talking about how Brian Kelly’s commitment to the running game was the difference in a ball game after his infamous remarks following the Tulsa game in 2010, but here we are two years later discussing a second half of football where Notre Dame threw the ball just three times while grinding out a win. Kelly and Chuck Martin stuck with the run and wore down the BYU defense when it became clear that Tommy Rees wasn’t at the top of his game and that the BYU defense had the Irish ariel attack bottled up after Rees got the Irish off to a hot start through the air.
Rees connected with Tyler Eifert four times for 73 yards in the first quarter alone and it looked like Notre Dame would be off and running Saturday. BYU adjusted though and Rees would go on to complete just one more pass after the first quarter. Kelly and Martin realized this and stuck with the run until the offensive line eventually took over and Riddick and Wood began to gash the BYU defense.
Two years ago Brian Kelly does not play this game like he did on Saturday. Two years ago he would have kept chucking the ball all over the field. As we’ve seen in many areas though, Kelly has adjusted his style to match his team and the result was a win that Notre Dame probably wouldn’t have picked up if this were 2010 or 2011.
Bob Diaco and the Irish secondary’s adjustments
The touchdownless streak was bound to end at some point and in all honesty, it might be a good thing that it ended this week so that it was not something hanging over the defense heading into Norman this coming weekend. It was, however, a little concerning to see the Irish secondary get hit for two touchdowns on back to back drives in less than three minutes though – even if one of the touchdowns came after a Tommy Rees interception.
After going 17 consecutive quarters of football without allowing an offensive touchdown, Riley Nelson tossed two touchdowns into the Irish secondary in the span of three minutes. So, after 255+ minutes of football without letting an opposing offense cross the plane of the end-zone, BYU did it twice in less than three minutes.
What I liked seeing here, however, was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco refusing to hit the panic button with his young secondary and adjusting to what BYU was doing. I liked seeing that young secondary refuse to flinch by regrouping and keeping BYU out of the end-zone and off the scoreboard for the final 30 minutes even more. That second quarter was really the first bit of adversity the secondary has faced all season and they stood tall, dusted themselves off, and went right back to playing sound football.
That is the sign of a well coached, disciplined football team and I might even go so far as to say I loved, not just liked seeing that.