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Notre Dame’s rushing attack punishes Cougar D

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Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, right, and teammate Theo Riddick are interviewed after the Fighting Irish defeated BYU 17-14. Te'o had 10 tackles and an interception in the victory.

Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, right, and teammate Theo Riddick are interviewed after the Fighting Irish defeated BYU 17-14. Te’o had 10 tackles and an interception in the victory.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the muted celebration, Cierre Wood stood defiant, convinced that the statistical carnage wreaked on the nation's third-ranked rushing defense wasn't an anomaly, but the start of something.

"There's not anybody on our schedule or in the country who we don't think we can run the ball against," the Notre Dame senior running back said after the fifth-ranked Irish cobbled together a 17-14 comeback victory over BYU Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. "I don't care if they were first (in rushing defense), we're going to run the ball. That's exactly what we did."

Actually, the Irish gouged the BYU defense for 270 rushing yards after it had never given up more than 110 in a game this season, frittered all but 20 seconds of the final 6:10 following an Irish defensive stand, averaged 6.3 yards a carry against a unit whose average yield was 2.2 and did it without even the hint of the element of surprise.

Wood had 114 of those yards on 18 carries. Fellow senior Theo Riddick rushed for a career-high 143 on 15 carries, including a 55-yarder in which he kept his balance when it looked like he would be stopped at the line of scrimmage.

This Irish attempted just three passes in the second half (and 17 for the game) as they moved to 7-0 for the 25th time in school history but the first since the offensively challenged 2002 Tyrone Willingham-coached squad ran off eight wins to start the season.

All this from a rushing offense that stood 80th nationally out of 120 FBS teams entering the month of October, struggled early in the season to knit a new zone-blocking scheme into an offense that featured rotating quarterbacks and green receivers.

For the record, junior Tommy Rees made his 18th career start, with minimal relief from third-stringer Andrew Hendrix, after Kelly decided to err on the side of caution with No. 1 quarterback Everett Golson. Golson suffered a concussion late in the fourth quarter of last Saturday's 20-13 overtime win over Stanford, and Kelly decided Friday after a team walk-through to sit him out.

"He wanted to play," Kelly said of the sophomore, first-year starter. "He made his case. I just felt like this was the best thing to do.

"He was supportive. He was great on the sideline. But he clearly — he wanted to get in there as well. We feel like we've got a kid now that's 100 percent ready to go for Oklahoma."

The Sooners (5-1) have been surging back into the national title discussion after a 24-19 loss at home to Kansas State four weeks ago. They brushed aside former ND head coach Charlie Weis and his Kansas Jayhawks Saturday night in Norman, Okla.

Even with Golson having to shake the cobwebs next Saturday for the biggest road start of his fledgling career, Kelly feels at least another missing piece in an offense with still plenty of room to grow fell into place against the Cougars (4-4) on Saturday.

The running game.

"We are becoming that kind of football team on offense," Kelly said. "You talk about finding an identity. Even when we were down, we kept running the football."

And ND did get down early, falling behind 14-7 midway through the first half on a pair of touchdown passes from rugged BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson, who was a freshman at Utah State in 2006, the last time Notre Dame was on a BCS trajectory this late in the season.

The first came with 8:25 left in the second quarter, when BYU leading receiver Cody Hoffman got loose in the back of the end zone for a six-yard strike on third down. That broke a string of 17 consecutive quarters by the Irish defense without allowing a touchdown.

The second Cougars score followed a Rees interception that glanced off Irish sophomore DaVaris Daniels' hands and into the arms of BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

The 30-yard drive ended with a Nelson two-yard pass to tight end Kaneakua Friel for a 14-7 BYU lead. Sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza missed a pair of first-half field goals for the Irish, including a 28-yarder 2:30 before halftime.

It marked just the ninth time in 33 games Brian Kelly has been coach of the Irish that his team had trailed at halftime and just the third time the Irish rallied for a win. The second such occasion was last week against Stanford.

"Again, say whatever you want, it goes to the toughness of our football team," Kelly said. "They believe they are going to win. There's no question they believe they are going to win, and if there's any questions out there, that's been eradicated over the last couple weeks."

The Irish closed to within 14-10 on a Brindza 24-yard field goal with 2:55 left in the third quarter and surged ahead on a George Atkinson III four-yard run on the next Irish possession. Rees' only completion of the second half, a 31-yard strike to TJ Jones after a 6-for-7 start, was followed by running, running and more running.

BYU then took possession on its own 16 after the kickoff with 12:48 left and held the ball for more than six minutes. But the Cougars faced a fourth-and-13 from the Irish 34 and decided to punt.

"We really believed we would stop them and get the ball back with better field position than what we did," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

BYU did get the ball back, but at its own 20 with no timeouts left and 22 seconds left. Danny Spond picked off Nelson with two ticks remaining, and the Irish took a knee to finish a part-convincing, part-wobbly victory.

The Irish defense did its part after the jolting start. The Irish held the Cougars to 66 rushing yards and 243 total yards in the game. It's the sixth straight game ND's opponent hasn't reached the 300-yard mark in total offense — the longest such streak since the 1983 Irish put together eight straight such games.

ND extended its streak without allowing a rushing touchdown to 38 quarters, dating back to last year's home finale against Boston College.

Irish senior linebacker Manti Te'o again led the way with 10 tackles and his fourth interception of the season. He's now one off the single-season school record for picks by a linebacker, shared by Lyron Cobbins (1995) and John Pergine (1966).

"It goes back to the saying, 'Defense wins championships,'" Te'o said. "When we get into these close games, the mentality now is we are going to do whatever it takes to win. It's no longer we're crossing our fingers and going 'please, please, please,' waiting for the next shoe to drop.

"We are all just trying to be that person who makes things happen."

Staff writer Eric Hansen: ehansen@sbtinfo.com