SOUTH BEND, Ind. — BYU worked this week getting ready to face both Notre Dame quarterbacks Everett Golson and Tommy Rees on Saturday. Turns out Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff should have been getting ready for a third option, just in case.
Coach Brian Kelly added more intrigue into the Notre Dame quarterback situation Thursday evening by saying he wouldn’t decide on a starter for the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (6-0) until game time, and added the choice might be Andrew Hendrix. The Irish have been using Golson as a starter and Rees as the closer with great success.
The cause of Kelly’s uncertainty is a concussion sustained by Golson on a helmet-to-helmet hit against Stanford. Golson has been cleared to play, but Kelly wants more time to evaluate whether the sophomore is ready.
BYU (4-3) enters the game with the nation’s fifth-rated defense giving up an average of 261 yards a game even after No. 8 Oregon State amassed 450 yards total offense against the Cougars last week. Mendenhall is looking for his defense to bounce back.
“I’m anxious to perform how our defense performed the first six weeks, not the last week. That’s my main focus right now, getting them to perform again the way I know they’re capable,” Mendenhall said.
The Cougars gave up 42 points last week against an Oregon State team that was using backup quarterback Cody Vaz, who hadn’t started since he was in high school. BYU could be facing the same scenario this week if the Irish start Hendrix, the backup last season. Hendrix, a strong runner, has appeared in six games the past two seasons, completing 22 of 42 passes for 302 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He’s also rushed for 189 yards on 31 carries, or 6.1 yards a carry.
BYU also could face Rees, a less mobile quarterback who had 17 starts and knows the Irish offense the best. He helped lead the Irish to late game victories over Purdue and Stanford and replaced a struggling Golson in the second quarter against Michigan.
“I think more than anything it’s supporting my teammates and trying to give them the best,” Rees said. “They look to me when I come in and I can’t let them down. We have to find a way to win the game.”
The Cougars have quarterback issues as well. Riley Nelson threw three interceptions against Oregon State after missing the previous two games with a back injury and argued with offensive coordinator Brandon Doman on the sideline during the game. Mendenhall said he has confidence in Nelson, saying he improves BYU.
“But we do need to take better care of the football,” he said.
The Cougars also are looking for better play from their defense, which hadn’t given up a touchdown in three games before giving up 42 points to Oregon State.
“We want to go out and make sure everybody knows that wasn’t us,” linebacker Spencer Hadley said.
Notre Dame’s defense is ranked 11th nationally, giving up 287 yards, and is coming off a thrilling finish where the Irish stopped Stanford twice from inside the 1 in overtime to hold on for the 20-13 victory. The Irish defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in four straight games, the longest such streak for the Irish since 1980.
“We want to dominate opponents,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “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.”
Te’o, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the game against BYU doesn’t have any special significance because of his religion or because he was heavily recruited by BYU and has friends and a cousin playing for the Cougars.
“It’s just game seven. I think I said this before: When you start to do things differently than you’ve done in the past, then bad things start to happen. I’ve been there before. I’ve made the mistake of being overly excited for a game and it hurt me. So fortunately for me, I’ve been there, done that. That’s a mistake that won’t happen again,” he said.
It’s a theme repeated by Irish players, who say with a win over No. 22 Stanford last week and a game at No. 10 Oklahoma looming, they won’t overlook BYU because they know how important each game is.
“As much success as we’re having, you can’t let success be your downfall,” running back Theo Riddick said. “We understand we’ve just reached the halfway mark and we still have plenty of football to play.”