SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before an emotional Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly made sure the message to his team was very clear.
“We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again,” Kelly said after the game. “But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.”
And win they did, turning a frigid Saturday afternoon filled with wind and snow into a wonderful final chapter for the Class of 2013.
No, things didn’t turn out the way they could’ve for this group. But backed by a ground game that rushed for 235 yards, and a great defensive performance by a severely wounded unit, the Irish beat BYU for the second straight season in South Bend.
The victory sends the senior class out of South Bend with a win, and more important leads Notre Dame into Palo Alto with nothing to lose.
Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 23-13 victory.
Needing to get back into character, Brian Kelly called on the 2012 game plan to cement a victory.
The Irish had a bye week to wash away one of the more disappointing Saturdays in Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. They also had a chance to go back and look at what’s worked, putting together a vintage 2012 performance.
In weather that demanded a strong running game, the Irish rushed for 235 yards, equaling the passing game total. Even without Louis Nix, the defense played physical in the front seven while the secondary refused to give up the deep ball. And Kyle Brindza came up with a clutch special teams kick, booting a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
A week after being its own worse enemy, the Irish found its long-missing identity.
“This is the way we’ve got to play football,” Kelly said. “This is Notre Dame football. This is the way we need to play. This is what we’re capable of playing. It’s a much more physical brand of football that we are capable of playing, and quite frankly, our team did that and they responded accordingly.”
Battered and bruised, Bob Diaco’s defense put together an impressive performance.
Louis Nix took the field on Saturday, but only with the help of crutches to hug his mother at midfield. Kona Schwenke did his best to play through a high ankle sprain, but succumbed to the injury early. But Jarron Jones came out of nowhere to play inspired football, racking up seven tackles, a batted down pass, and a clutch field goal block.
After being plagued by inconsistencies all season, Bob Diaco’s defense looked an awful lot like the group many expected, limiting BYU to just 13 points. Senior Dan Fox was all over the field, leading the Irish in tackles with nine, including a sack of Taysom Hill and a pass breakup.
Stephon Tuitt looked every bit the All-American, notching seven stops of his own, a sack of Hill and three quarterback hurries, including the destruction of the pocket on the Cougars final fourth down attempt.
Against one of the most difficult rushing attacks in the country to slow down, the Irish gave up 247 yards on the ground, but refused to give up the big play down field that has plagued this team.
“We gave up some things to hold up big plays,” Kelly said after the game.”We weren’t going to let them get over the top.”
The underneath stuff did lead to the Cougars converting 11 of 20 third downs. But the Irish defense stiffened in the red zone, allowing just one touchdown in four appearances inside the Irish 20.
Even with a group battered and bruised, Diaco’s defense managed to do more than just survive against the up-tempo BYU attack, holding the Cougars to just 13 points, matching their season low.
In a season where the running game has gone missing, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson stepped up.
With the wind swirling early and conditions far from ideal for the passing game, everybody in the stadium expected Notre Dame to try and establish the running game. But not that many expected it to work so convincingly.
The Irish establishing the ground game early with Tarean Folston and George Atkinson, before Tommy Rees hit DaVaris Daniels over the top for a 61 yard touchdown. On a day where Notre Dame absolutely needed a quick start, the offense did exactly that.
All afternoon the running attack pacing the Irish offense, even when Matt Hegarty subbed in for Nick Martin after the junior center hyperextended his knee. (Conor Hanratty also started in place of Steve Elmer, though both played.)
While both Folston and Atkinson ran for at least six yards a carry, Kelly called on junior Cam McDaniel to carry the load down the stretch, and McDaniel answered the bell with 117 rushing yards on 24 carries. It was McDaniel’s first 100-yard game and the most carries in his career.
When asked after the game about the running game, Kelly talked about the decision to put the game on the Texan’s shoulders.
“Cam is more of a downhill, inside the tackle north and south runner,” Kelly explained. “The game style fits him, and I don’t want to box him into a particular kind of runner, but he’s a physical inside runner, and so he and Tarean got a lot of carries inside out. And George really helped us out a lot today, too, with some good, physical running, as well.”
A season after leaning almost exclusively on the ground game to beat BYU, the Irish were able to win the football game thanks to a consistent rushing attack, utilizing all three backs in a must-win.
With the best game of his career, Jarron Jones might be the guy to replace Louis Nix at defensive tackle.
While the future of Louis Nix hasn’t been determined, in all likelihood we’ve seen the last of Irish Chocolate at Notre Dame. But the wide spread panic about Nix’s replacement might have been quelled Saturday evening as Jarron Jones played a dominant game at the point of attack.
The sophomore defensive lineman shifted inside to nose guard almost out of necessity, making good on his coach’s early-week premonition that good things were coming for Jones.
“Jarron we felt like was coming on, and he played exceedingly well and I’m really happy for him,” Kelly said. “But we thought this was something that when we recruited him that he was capable of, and he showed that today.”
Getting that out of him hasn’t always been easy. Jones talked about the challenges he faced keeping focus and delivering the type of effort that gave the coaching staff faith in the sophomore from Rochester, New York.
“Just me being young and not focused,” Jones said, when asked about the early struggles he’s faced. “It was all over the place. It was in the classroom, it was also just me in general, I kinda saw myself like, ‘Where’s my life going?’ That’s when I kind of realized I needed to tighten the screw a lot.”
That tightening was on display this afternoon, with Jones making multiple plays at the point of attack and showing the type of promise you’d expect out of the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder with elite recruiting offers.
Injuries have pushed Jones’ time to now, one year ahead of even his own schedule. But when I asked him after the game if he wanted to be the guy to fill Nix’s shoes next season, the answer was clear.
“I would love to be that guy,” Jones said. “Obviously playing nose guard today, that was a lot of fun. This game was a lot of fun.”
In a season where things didn’t quite go according to plan, Senior Day played out picture perfect.
No, they weren’t playing for a BCS birth. But every player made available after the hard-fought victory had just about the same thing to say about leaving Notre Dame Stadium a winner.
“Words can’t describe how good it feels to win your last game here,” Tommy Rees said after the game. “That’s four years in a row for us, which is awesome, and unless you’ve experienced it, it’s a pretty special feeling.”
It’s the goal of every football player to leave a program in a better place than where they found it. And to that measure, this class has fulfilled that goal.
“They set a consistent mark of success, in terms of winning at home, which is a big, big deal for us,” Kelly said after the game. They won 20 out of their last 23 regular‑season games as a core group. All those numbers go towards consistency and that’s really what we’re looking for.”
On Monday, Kelly brought his team back from an off-week with a full-contact ones versus ones scrimmage. It was there that the head coach knew his team was going to be just fine this weekend.
“We had a great week of practice. I thought our Monday where we went ones versus ones and banged it around, I could just sense right there that we were going to play pretty good today,” Kelly said.
And on a cold, wintery day, the Irish won. It wasn’t perfect. But the Irish left Notre Dame Stadium for the last time a winner.