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South Bend, Ind. • Running out of opportunities to accomplish something meaningful this season, the BYU Cougars arrive at the mecca of college football on Saturday with perhaps their final chance to get senior quarterback Riley Nelson a long-sought-after signature victory.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall is also looking for a breakthrough, having gone nearly three years now without winning a game he wasn't supposed to, his reputation for not being able to win the big one growing almost weekly.
But this mulligan, if you will, after the Cougars stumbled mightily last week against then-No. 10 Oregon State, doesn't come against just any old ranked team. To keep the once-promising season from being categorized as mediocre, at best, 4-3 BYU must reel in undefeated and No. 5-ranked Notre Dame.
And this one isn't in friendly LaVell Edwards Stadium. It is in the shadows of Touchdown Jesus, Fair-catch Corby and First-down Moses at famed Notre Dame Stadium and in front of more than 80,000 Irish fans enjoying their tradition-rich program's best season in a decade.
Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m. MDT, and the game will be televised nationally by NBC.
Do the Cougars, punchless offensively before last week's 42-24 loss to OSU, have a prayer against an Irish team that hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown in its last four games?
"Yeah, no doubt," said the ever-confident Nelson. "If you look at our losses, they've been tough ones, and it is going to take everything going right for us. But yeah, we definitely feel that if we play our best game, that will put us into position to win."
The most-uttered phrase around the Golden Dome, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the Grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes has been "trap game," which illustrates not only Irish fans' fears that their beloved Golden Domers will look past the Cougars after last Saturday's dramatic overtime win over Stanford and before next week's showdown at Oklahoma, but also how far BYU has fallen since starting 2-0 and earning a No. 25 AP ranking with a healthy Nelson.
"If we catch them off-guard a couple times, that's good for us, that's fortunate for us," Nelson said with a straight face. "We are not looking past them."
So there's that.
A defensive struggle, with BYU at No. 5 nationally in total defense and Notre Dame at No. 11, is expected, along with temperatures in the low 50s and lots of rain. BYU's traveling party is staying in Michigan City, Ind., some 41 miles away from South Bend, and Mendenhall's plan was to avoid the aforementioned landmarks that make Notre Dame special and focus entirely on football.
So how can the Cougars pull off what would be the biggest win the Mendenhall era?
"The first [key] is holding onto the ball," Mendenhall said. "Winning the turnover margin, for this particular team, is paramount right now … then I would say not giving up any giant plays, make them drive the ball for scores."
"It is going to be a highly competitive game," he said, "and we are going to fight to the end."
BYU's previous visits to Notre Dame
1992 Notre Dame 42, BYU 16
1994 BYU 21, Notre Dame 14
2003 Notre Dame 33, BYU14
2005 Notre Dame 49, BYU 23
BYU at Notre Dame
P At Notre Dame Stadium (South Bend, Ind.)
Kickoff • 1:30 p.m. MDT
TV • Ch. 5
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 4-3; Notre Dame 6-0
Series history • Notre Dame leads 4-2
Last meeting • Notre Dame 49, BYU 23 (Oct. 22, 2005).
About the Fighting Irish • Coach Brian Kelly said it will be a game-time decision on whether Everett Golson or Tommy Rees starts at quarterback after Golson missed practice time this week recovering from a concussion. … Notre Dame Stadium is sold out (80,795) for the 229th straight time. … They are ranked No. 5 in the country, their highest national ranking since 2002. … They have not allowed an offensive touchdown in their last four games, against Stanford, Miami, Michigan and Michigan State.
About the Cougars • BYU deep snapper Reed Hornung is a distant relative of former Notre Dame great Paul Hornung. … They are 4-8 against teams ranked in the top five in their history. … Receiver Cody Hoffman has caught passes in 26 straight games, tied for the 10th-longest streak in the country. … They are 1-3 in South Bend, having defeated the Irish 21-14 in 1994. … They have not been shut out since a 3-0 loss to Utah in 2003. … They are No. 5 in the country in total defense, allowing just 260 yards per game.