NOTRE DAME — In the high winds and the swirling snow, Notre Dame stayed heated by a vow it had made earlier in the week.
Don’t let Pitt happen again, especially not on senior day.
Head coach Brian Kelly called it a “single-minded focus,” something the Irish didn’t show in its loss to the Panthers two weeks ago. Instead, he harped on that focus throughout the week of practice until it became a mantra.
The seniors latched on, and the underclassmen fell in line.
“All week, that’s how it was in practice,” senior linebacker Dan Fox said. “Everyone was locked in. We kind of moved on from Pitt and said, ‘Let’s go beat BYU.’ We realized that we were not going to let Pitt beat us twice.”
So when the late November snows whipped around the stadium and the grassy field froze solid, Notre Dame didn’t budge. The Irish (8-3) locked down a 23-13 win over BYU (7-4).
“I think you always get what you demand, and we were demanding it from our guys in everything they did from the way the locker room looked to every meeting we went to,” Kelly said of the single-minded focus message. “We went back to saying, look, you can’t start winning until you stop losing. So you can’t (not) do the little things. You’ve got to do them the right way all the time.”
A culmination of those little things led to team-wide success on Saturday. Tommy Rees and the offense got off to a quick start, scoring twice in the first quarter.
When hard-nosed running by underclassmen Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel baited BYU into loading the box, Rees punished the Cougars by hitting DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones deep down the field.
But the offense cooled, only managing one touchdown and a pair of field goals in six trips inside the BYU 35-yard line. Led by a possessed Fox, the Irish defense responded accordingly and kept BYU out of the end zone after the first quarter.
Fox flew around the field like the snow around him, registering a team-high nine tackles (two for loss) and one sack.
“I think all of our players, in particular our seniors, really rallied to (the single-minded focus), and I think we saw that with Fox,” Kelly said. “He was on-point in coverage and he played the kind of football that he knows he’s capable of.”
Notre Dame’s underclassmen knew the weight of the moment, knew the importance of a win Saturday night of all nights. Jaylon Smith, a freshman linebacker who donned No. 13 for injured senior Danny Spond, came up with a huge stop on third down deep in Notre Dame territory. A series later, he swatted away a pass that could have been BYU’s game-tying touchdown.
“That single-minded focus was to do anything to get the seniors a victory,” he said. “Really just to do our job and focus on that and not worry about what anyone else is doing. Really just that one mind, one sound, sound body.”
As Notre Dame said goodbye to most of its 2010 class and the remaining members of the 2009 class, Notre Dame’s future emerged on the cold, unforgiving field.
Daniels, a junior receiver, grabbed six catches for a team-high 107 yards and the lone passing touchdown of the game. Folston and McDaniel combined for 204 yards, which included Folston’s second career touchdown.
Sophomore Jarron Jones, anchoring the defensive line in place of injured nose guards Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke, swarmed the BYU offensive line and harassed BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. Jones registered seven tackles and blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter.
“This is the way we’ve got to play football,” Kelly said. “This is Notre Dame football. This is the way we need to play. This is what we’re capable of playing. It’s a much more physical brand of football that we are capable of playing, and quite frankly, our team did that and they responded accordingly.”
Rees finished 15-of-28 for 235 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his final performance at Notre Dame Stadium. As the game clock expired in the fourth quarter, a crowd that had often vocalized criticism for the quarterback began chanting his name.
“That was a very special moment,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot, the entire senior class, not only on the team but everybody here. They could have chanted anyone’s name, the whole senior class, but (it’s) definitely a memory I’ll hold very closely for a long time.”