By DAVID VANTRESS
THE GOSHEN NEWS
SOUTH BEND —
With two games left in the regular season and BCS bowl hopes gone, Notre Dame’s focus shifts to closing out the 2013 regular season on a strong note and making a strong bid for an alternate bowl game.
The Fighting Irish (7-3) host BYU in the 2013 home finale this afternoon. Kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m.
It will be Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium, and this year’s group has seen more wins (35 to this point, with at least two regular season games and an expected bowl game left) than any team since 2005. They could also be the first class since 2003 to win all four home finales.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team is coming to South Bend mindful of the near-upset they almost pulled off a year ago, when the Irish escaped the Cougars’ clutches with a 17-14 win en route to a 12-0 regular season and berth in the BCS National Championship Game.
“I don’t remember many games, but I remember that one,” Mendenhall said. “That’s why I’m looking forward to going back.”
As for this year’s game, for Mendenhall’s team (7-3), it’s another chance to take a national stage.
“I think it’s just exposure. It’s another chance for a quality win on a big stage,” Mendenhall said. “It’s not life or death, and it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it’s a great opportunity. We’ll do the very best we can, and I look forward to it.”
For BYU wide receiver Skyler Ridley, the game will be almost like a conference title game: BYU went independent recently after leaving the Mountain West Conference, and the Cougars and Irish have the best records among Football Bowl Subdivision independents.
“So if you want to call this our conference championship, that might motivate us a little bit to step up and play,” wide receiver Ridley said.
Meanwhile, Cougar freshman defensive back Chris Badger, who transferred from Notre Dame, is looking forward to taking the field against his former team.
“I’m excited—I have a lot of friends out there from football, from school, from the ward, so I’m definitely excited for the fireside on Friday night. I’m excited for Saturday. Every time I get to be out on the field is a great time for me. This week will be especially great. I’m just excited to play football,” Badger said earlier this week.
For the Irish, it’s a time to shift gears a bit on defense, as senior defensive lineman Louis Nix is out for the season with a torn meniscus.
Nix’s lost season is just the latest blip in a season fraught with injury woes for the Irish. Eleven different Notre Dame defensive players that opened the year in the two-deep depth chart have missed at least two games this season due to injury.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said some banged-up players, including linemen Kona Schwenke, Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell (ankle sprains), and Ishaq Williams (knee) will have to play through their injuries.
“We’ll hope for the best and try to get as much as we can out of them on Saturday,” Kelly said.
Offensively, the focus for the Irish will be on putting together sustained, clock-devouring drives to keep BYU’s high-powered offense on the sidelines.
The Cougars run an average 86.8 plays a game, while the Irish run an average of 64.6 plays a game.
Kelly came under heavy criticism from fans after the Irish called only six running plays in the second half of Notre Dame’s 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh Nov. 9. Kelly said the Irish need to use ball control on offense to take pressure off the Irish defense.
Notre Dame enters this weekend’s matchup with BYU with an all-time record of 94-24-4 (.787) in home finales. ... Graduate left tackle Zack Martin has been in the starting lineup for 35 victories during his time at Notre Dame, tying for the third most in school history. ... Senior wide receiver T.J. Jones, who has a reception in a school-record 37 straight games, has a TD catch in seven consecutive games. With a catch today against BYU, he could equal the school record of eight, held by Jeff Samardzija (2005) and Golden Tate (2009). ... With one more win this season, Kelly would become the first Notre Dame coach ever to win at least eight games in each of his first four seasons.