That throw will probably haunt me until I die... —BYU QB Riley Nelson
Notre Dame 17, BYU 14
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Midway though the fourth quarter, BYU wide receiver Cody Hoffman was all alone deep in Notre Dame territory with nothing but green grass between himself and the end zone.
At the time, BYU trailed by just three points, and quarterback Riley Nelson was scrambling, looking to make something happen when he spotted Hoffman, who managed to break free from the Irish's defensive coverage.
But Nelson's pass intended for Hoffman missed the target, falling incomplete on the turf at Notre Dame Stadium.
"That throw will probably haunt me until I die," Nelson said, knowing that had he connected with Hoffman, the Cougars likely would have scored, which, perhaps could have led to a huge upset against No. 5 Notre Dame.
"I kind of slowed down," explained Hoffman, who had eight receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown. "He just threw it a little bit behind me."
"I looked up and saw Cody and no one even close to him. For whatever reason, the throw wasn't there," said offensive lineman Braden Brown. "That was a tough one."
From there, Notre Dame forced BYU to punt and ultimately hung on for a 17-14 win Saturday before a sellout crowd of 80,795.
For the Cougars (4-4), it's the latest chapter in a season riddled with disappointing setbacks and missed-it-by-that-much moments. BYU has now lost three road games by a total of seven points.
"Man, it's frustrating," said Brown. "That's four losses now for us where we feel as a team that we could have won all four of those football games. It's tough."
For Nelson, it's been agonizing.
"We come in here believing and 100 percent confident that we can beat them," he said. "When we come up empty-handed and so short in these tough venues against these great teams, it's maddening. It's like when they dangle a carrot in front of a horse. It's always so close but can't quite grab it."
Losing close games is "almost worse than blowouts," Nelson added.
"In my time here, I've been a part of some blowouts against some good teams," he said. "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."
Meanwhile, for Notre Dame (7-0), its magical season continued. The Irish rallied from a 14-7 second-half deficit and shut the Cougars out in the third and fourth quarters.
BYU halted Notre Dame's streak of 17 quarters without giving up an offensive touchdown in the second quarter, when the Cougars scored a pair of TDs during a two-minute stretch.
"They scored two touchdowns against us," said Irish linebacker Manti Te'o. "It made us mad."
As it turned out, BYU needed one more TD to spring the upset.
Nelson's errant pass intended for Hoffman was just one of several big miscues by the Cougars.
BYU's defense, which entered the game among the nation's leaders in stopping the run, surrendered 272 yards on the ground to the Irish. Theo Riddick gained 143 yards on 15 carries while Cierre Wood rushed 18 times for 114 yards. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, filling in for injured starter Everett Golson, threw only three passes in the second half.
"I don't feel like we wore down. They're good up front," said Cougar linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "We knew they were going to break some runs off. All in all, we have to do a better job tackling. I thought there were way too many times when we had a dude down in the backfield, in a hole, and we let him spring one for 12, 20, 40 yards. It's unacceptable."
All three of Notre Dame's scoring drives featured long plays, either through the air or on the ground.
"I was proud of our team, one or two plays short from being able to come away with a victory," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Most likely it's the best game collectively we played offensively, defensively and (special teams), but when you put the composite together, it was good enough to get us within striking distance and we had a great chance — a number of chances — to pull off an upset. But ultimately we didn't make a critical play here or there right down the stretch to win the game."
On BYU's next-to-last drive of the game, the one that included the memorable incompletion to Hoffman, the Cougars drove to the Notre Dame 34-yard line before stalling. Mendenhall opted to punt with 6:19 left, hoping his defense could get a quick stop. But the Irish ran down the clock by picking up a few key first downs.
By the time the Cougars got the ball back, on their own 20-yard line, only 22 seconds remained.
"I really believed we would stop and get the ball back with better field position than what we did," Mendenhall said.
In the third quarter, BYU was driving with a shot at seizing a two-touchdown advantage, but it failed on third-and-6 from the Irish 28. Justin Sorensen's 46-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
Notre Dame answered with a 24-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Irish took the lead for good on a two-yard run by George Atkinson III, who juked Cougar safety Joe Sampson and knifed into the end zone to make the score 17-14.
On its ensuing drive, BYU was facing third-and-16 from its own 5-yard line when a facemask penalty gave the Cougars a first down on the 25. BYU marched to the Irish 46 when Nelson threw behind Hoffman.
It was one of several what-might-have sequences for the Cougars this season.
"The game comes down to a matter of a couple of plays," Hoffman said. "We didn't have as many as they did, so they came out on top."
BYU visits Georgia Tech next Saturday.