Flashback Friday: How close did BYU come to derailing the Manti Te’o, Notre Dame title chase in 2012?
The recent Netflix documentary on Teo’s catfishing saga drums up memories of the Cougars’ shot at knocking off Notre Dame that season
Note: This story is part of the Deseret News sports team’s Flashback Friday series, which revisits memorable moments involving Utah teams.
Notre Dame is synonymous with college football — the pageantry of the game comes full circle in the Fighting Irish’s home of South Bend, Indiana.
The school claims 11 national championships in the sport, and a decade ago, Notre Dame nearly added another trophy to its case.
The Fighting Irish’s national title chase in 2012 — which came up short, as they lost to Alabama in the national championship game — was a side story in a new Netflix documentary, released earlier this week, that revisits the Manti Te’o catfishing saga.
Te’o, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who visited BYU during his recruiting process, was a star linebacker for the Irish for four years, and in 2012, he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
That year, he helped Notre Dame go undefeated during the regular season, setting up the title-game showdown with Alabama.
BYU was one of several teams who had a chance to derail that 2012 season — there’s even a brief clip in the Netflix documentary of the Cougars playing the Fighting Irish in mid-October that year — but Te’o and Notre Dame found a way to keep their winning streak alive.
How close were the Cougars to springing the upset?
BYU lost to Notre Dame 17-14 in a midyear matchup, and the Cougars led for over 23 minutes in that game.
The fact it was a close contest wasn’t uncommon: Notre Dame had already won three games that year by single digits and had to beat Pittsburgh two weeks later in triple overtime.
BYU, meanwhile, entered the game with three losses, two of which came by a total of four points in falling to Utah and Boise State. Four of the Cougars’ five losses that year were by six points or fewer.
Te’o had a big game, finishing with 10 tackles, a half sack and an interception on the Cougars’ first drive.
BYU took the lead, though, by breaking Notre Dame’s streak of 17 straight quarters of not allowing its opponent to score an offensive touchdown.
The Cougars scored two touchdowns just over two minutes apart in the second quarter — both on short TD receptions, the second set up by a Kyle Van Noy interception — and BYU led 14-7 at the half.
“They scored two touchdowns against us,” Te’o said in a Deseret News story recapping the game. “It made us mad.”
Both teams had failed scoring opportunities — Notre Dame missed two field goals and BYU missed one, though the Cougars’ miss was particularly damaging. BYU had a chance to build a two-score lead in the third quarter but came up emptyhanded on a third-quarter drive deep into Notre Dame territory.
The Fighting Irish, who scored the game’s first touchdown late in the first quarter, eventually regained the lead, using a short field goal and a TD run with just under 13 minutes to play to go back in front, 17-14.
On BYU’s ensuing drive after Notre Dame went up three, the Cougars drove into Fighting Irish territory, but quarterback Riley Nelson misfired on a pass to a wide open Cody Hoffman on a drive that ultimately ended in a punt.
“Here we are, playing against top 10 teams and we’re with them in the fourth quarter and we just can’t seem to close. That’s way worse than getting blown out,” Nelson said postgame.
It was the Cougars’ last solid chance to earn the win, as Notre Dame drained nearly the rest of the clock on a nine-play drive that ate up almost six minutes of the time.
BYU was normally stout against the run that season — the Cougars finished the year No. 2 nationally in rush defense — but gave up 270 yards on the ground to the Fighting Irish.
Theo Riddick ran for a career-best 143 yards and teammate Cierre Wood added 114 yards, while George Atkinson III scored the go-ahead touchdown. Riddick broke off runs of 55 and 19 yards on the Fighting Irish’s two second-half scoring drives.
For BYU, the effort was close, but not enough to snap the streak for Te’o and Notre Dame.
“We had a great chance — a number of chances — to pull off an upset,” then-BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “But ultimately we didn’t make a critical play here or there right down the stretch to win the game.”
Fast forward 10 years, and the two teams are meeting again this season, this time in a neutral-site game on Oct. 8. The Fighting Irish enter the year as a top 5 program, while BYU has high expectations, as well, coming off two straight double-digit win seasons.
Can the Cougars spring the upset this time?