SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame freed itself from a trap Saturday with its running game and an angry defense to keep an undefeated season intact with a 17-14 win over BYU at Notre Dame Stadium.
The No. 5 Irish (7-0) overcame a halftime deficit for the second straight week to pave the way to a top-10 showdown at No. 10 Oklahoma next week.
“We just keep fighting, keep playing and we’ll find a way to win,” said coach Brian Kelly, whose team overcame two deficits to beat Stanford last week.
Notre Dame paved its way to victory with the running game. Theo Riddick ran for a career-high 143 yards, Cierre Wood added 114 and George Atkinson III provided the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run in which he froze the BYU defender with a juke move before erasing a 14-10 deficit with 12:52 to play.
The Irish finished with 270 rushing yards against a BYU defense that was only giving up 67.9 rushing yards per game. The Irish put the game away after getting the ball with 6:10 to play with nine straight rushing plays for 48 yards to keep the ball away from the Cougars until there was only 22 seconds remaining.
“We showed that we can run the ball,” Riddick said.
Notre Dame had to run the ball after quarterback Tommy Rees cooled off after a strong start. Rees started in place of the injured Everett Golson and completed 6 of 7 passes for 86 yards with a 4-yard touchdown to tight end and former Bishop Dwenger standout Tyler Eifert in the first quarter to put the Irish ahead 7-0.
But Rees didn’t complete another pass until he connected with TJ Jones for a 31-yard gain late in the third quarter, and he finished 7-for-16 passing for 117 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“You just got to keep going and keep grinding through it,” Rees said of his long stretch without a completion.
Kelly said the decision not to play Golson, who suffered a concussion against Stanford last week, was purely medical. Golson didn’t pass all of his post-concussion tests until Tuesday and didn’t start practicing until Wednesday last week.
“I just felt like at where we were during week and my evaluation of him cumulatively, I felt like this was the best thing to do,” said Kelly, who decided on his starting quarterback Friday. “We feel like we’ve got a kid now that’s 100 percent ready to go for Oklahoma.”
Notre Dame’s defense was ready to reclaim its dominant form after giving up two touchdowns in just more than two minutes in the second quarter as BYU’s Cody Hoffman scored on a 6-yard catch with 8:25 left in the first half and tight end Kaneakua Friel’s 2-yard TD with 6:07 left in the half. The Irish had gone 17 quarters without giving up an offensive touchdown.
“It made me mad,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “It made a lot of guys mad, and then they scored again, and it really made us mad. We learned that things are going to happen, and the way we responded in the second half is a measure of our character.”
Notre Dame didn’t allow BYU into its red zone again after halftime, and linebacker Danny Spond sealed the win with an interception with 2 seconds remaining, allowing the Irish to think about their showdown with the Sooners.
“Next week is a huge game,” said Eifert, whose four receptions for 73 yards all came in the first quarter. “That’s what our focus is on now.”