SOUTH BEND, Ind. — They had been there before, with night closing in, winter at the door and the BYU Cougars close enough to hit ’em with a snowball.
But in losing 23-13 to Notre Dame on Saturday, the Cougars missed what could have been a long step in their expansion plans. Plus, it revealed their soft spot. This wasn’t the Irish’s best team, but when did that ever matter?
Beating Notre Dame at debate is good, but in football it’s bliss. When you’re working on being taken seriously, you win serious games. For the third time in Bronco Mendenhall’s career, though, the Cougars lost to the Irish.
Roll out the could-haves and should-haves.
BYU has logged another respectable-but-not-great season.
“We’re not scared to play anybody. That’s said and done,” receiver JD Falslev said. “As a team we feel we can play with anybody. That’s what Coach Mendenhall and (athletics director) Tom Holmoe have done with this program, moved us to a level where we’re playing the best teams on the biggest stage. And we’re right there. That’s what’s so frustrating. We’re so close to wining them and blessed to be in these positions.”
But beating big name teams on the road remains a work in progress.
Remember them losing to Wisconsin two weeks ago?
There have been good wins over the years, such as Oregon State, Georgia Tech, Arizona, Washington and Mississippi. But losses such as Notre Dame, Florida State and Boston College have held them back.
“We have to break those chains of events,” Falslev said. “This team, this program, is right there, and that’s what’s most frustrating.”
Assuming the Cougars beat 4-7 Nevada next week, the Cougars will finish 8-4, not counting their bowl game. That will complete a long list of good years under Mendenhall.
That could come sooner than it seems, because great opponents will be in short supply next year. The Cougars play nobody tougher than Texas — a team it trounced this season — Central Florida, Utah State and a diminished Boise State. Those are all winnable. The series with rival Utah is on a 2-year hiatus. Cal? No problem. The Golden Bears finished 1-11 this year.
There are no Wisconsins and maybe not even any Notre Dames in the immediate future.
Saying his team played well in the trenches in the second half, Mendenhall added, “Still hurts. And I’m still disappointed.”
A few million people wearing “Y” hats said, “Amen!”
In spite of freezing temperatures and a history of losses in similar road games — BYU’s last win in South Bend was 1994 — there was high optimism on Saturday. Last year, a late-game pass by a beat-up Riley Nelson wasn’t close, and the Cougars fell 17-14.
This year, the Cougars expected a different outcome. But the Cougars faced the same Notre Dame stuff as always: gold helmets, a ton of tradition and lots of shamrock-wearing fans.
Beforehand, 33 Notre Dame seniors were introduced to the crowd. (No truth to the rumor Rudy Ruettiger — who showed up at BYU’s fireside the night before — charged out just for old times.)
While much has been made of the similarities between BYU and Notre Dame, another appeared on Saturday: a penchant for slogans. The game-day program had a picture of three Irish players with “Strong ND True” across the top of the page.
Shades of “Tradition, Spirit, Honor”?
When the kickoff occurred, conditions were anything but heavenly. Temperatures were in the mid-20s with winds at 20-35 mph. It got worse when, only seven minutes before kickoff, the skies darkened and swirling snow enveloped the stadium.
The Cougars got tormented in the first half by the long pass and later by the run. Though BYU trailed 17-7 at half, it didn’t seem terribly close.
The second half was an Irish dancer’s dream — a whole lot of fancy kicking. Notre Dame made one field goal and BYU two, leaving the spread at six points going into the fourth quarter. Though the Cougars were never out of the game, they were never completely in it, either.
It looked much like the last time they crossed the Continental Divide, in a 10-point loss to Wisconsin.
The momentum ended when the Irish blocked BYU’s field goal try with 4:36 to go.
On a night Falslev labeled the coldest of his career, one thing seemed true: When it comes to beating big-name teams on the road, the Cougars were still frozen in their tracks.
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