SOUTH BEND, Ind. — BYU has one last chance to make a big statement this season.
That chance comes Saturday (1:30 p.m., MT, NBC), when the Cougars visit No. 5 Notre Dame at historic Notre Dame Stadium. If BYU can beat the favored Fighting Irish, it would certainly go down as one of the biggest victories in school history.
The independent Cougars (4-3) have no conference championship to play for and its bowl destination was decided long ago. But this meeting against the independent Fighting Irish (6-0) provides BYU with another shot at a team ranked in the top 10.
Never mind all the tradition, mystique and history that permeates South Bend.
"It's the No. 5 team in the country," said quarterback Riley Nelson. "That's what I'm most excited about."
A win against Notre Dame certainly would help make up for squandered opportunities against Utah, Boise State and Oregon State.
"It's cool to play in front of a lot of people and on national television against a good team," said linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "If you can't get up for it, you probably don't have a pulse because that's what we live for. It will be a lot of fun."
Nelson is confident that the Cougars can knock off Notre Dame and spoil its perfect season — if they can put together a complete game.
"It's going to take everything going right for us," Nelson acknowledged. "But we definitely feel that if we play our best game, that will put us in position to win."
BYU, coming off a 42-24 loss to then-No. 10 Oregon State, knows it must play much better than it did last week. The Cougar defense, which saw its streak of 13 quarters without giving up a touchdown snapped a week ago, is looking for redemption after giving up five TDs to the Beavers.
"I'm anxious to have our defense to perform as they did the first six weeks, not as they performed last week," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "That's my main focus right now, getting them to perform again the way I know they're capable of."
"Going into Oregon State, I thought we would play dominant, so I really don't know what happened," Ogletree said. "But hopefully that was just a lapse and we'll be back to our normal selves."
Irish starting quarterback Everett Golson, who sustained a concussion last week against Stanford, was cleared to practice this week. But coach Brian Kelly is not naming a starter until game time. Tommy Rees, who has started 17 games in his career, could get the nod.
Meanwhile, the Cougar offense will be looking for the end zone against an Irish defense that hasn't surrendered a touchdown in four games. Notre Dame, which is giving up just 8.7 points per game, will be seeking a shutout.
"Our main thing is dominating. As defense we want to dominate," said Irish linebacker Manti Te'o. "We want to dominate opponents. The best way to do that is to keep the points down. Along the way of doing that, we've managed to limit those points and the touchdowns."
Why is Notre Dame so successful at keeping opponents out of the end zone?
"They do a good job of not busting. Their discipline is what allows it," Nelson said. "(Notre Dame's opponents) were in the (red) zone a lot, yet none of those teams came away with a lot of points. I don't want to say 'bend, don't break,' but they play disciplined defense and they make you earn every yard, every point."
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman has devised a plan that he hopes will produce yards and points against the Irish.
"I don't know that we overmatch them at any position," he said. "We're going to play football the way we know how to play it. We're going to do the offense we know how to do. We've found some things that we think will help us against what they do defensively. Hopefully, we've hit it on the head and we'll have some success."
And, of course, the Cougars can't afford to turn the ball over. Turnovers have been a huge factor in their three losses this season.
Asked about the keys to beating Notre Dame, Nelson said, "Take care of the ball on offense, take away the ball on defense. Offensively, we've got to get chunks down the field. Oregon State did a good job of keeping everything in front of us and made us sustain long drives, which are good, but we only got in the end zone three times. We need some chunk plays to get some momentum, and maybe cause a little bit of doubt in their minds, and put more touchdowns up."
This BYU-Notre Dame showdown is expected to be a physical contest.
"It's going to be a battle up front," said Cougar linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "I think whoever wins up front, and the turnover battle, probably wins the game."
The Cougars haven't beaten a top-5 opponent since a 14-13 upset of Oklahoma in the 2009 season-opener. Can they make history against the Irish?
"It's a great team in a great venue," Nelson said. "Hopefully, we can put a whole game together — offense, defense, special teams — all four quarters. We've done those in spurts, but it hasn't been good enough."
Saturday against Notre Dame, BYU has one last chance to make a statement.
Cougars and Fighting Irish on the air
BYU (4-3) at No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
TV: NBC Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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