Irish seniors finish with complete win

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jarron Jones walked to the corner of the Notre Dame Stadium interview room, the media members following him numbering in the dozens, all to hear the words of a guy who, before Saturday, had seven career tackles.

Jones had doubled that total in the minutes before his meeting with the press, tallying seven stops against BYU. He doubled his career blocked kick total, too, recording his second of the season. He had stepped in for an injured Kona Schwenke, who was stepping in for an injured Louis Nix, and he delivered a performance that at least momentarily quelled the fears of everyone surrounding the program about who could step in if (and likely when) Nix goes pro.

"Opportunity, right?" coach Brian Kelly said. "He got the opportunity, was the next man in situation.

"Jarron we felt like was coming on, and he played exceedingly well and really happy for him. But we thought this was something that when we recruited him that he was capable of, and he showed that today."

Yet as much as Jones' play represented the future, Senior Day at Notre Dame was still about the present. The Irish led from start-to-finish in their 23-13 win over BYU, something they had not done since a Week 1 victory over Temple, back when all of their goals were still in front of them. That was no longer the case after their last outing, a harrowing loss at Pitt two weeks ago, but elimination from a BCS-bowl chase seemingly had a reverse effect on this group, which took care of the Cougars by playing as complete of a game as it has all season long.

"When we go out on the field, we're going to compete, we're going to compete to win, we expect to win when we go out on the field — we're not going to lay down," said Cam McDaniel, perplexed by the idea that the Irish had little left to play for. "Anybody that says that these last two games are irrelevant, that's just a completely ignorant statement, because of what we put into this thing, all the blood, sweat and tears that go into this, everything behind the scenes.

"I mean, if you make comments like that, you don't understand what this football team -- what we stand for and what we want to do. We expect to win every time we go out on the football field, and we're going to compete our tails off."

The junior running back did his part, rushing for a career-best 117 yards on a day in which the Irish eclipsed the 200-yard rushing mark for just the third time this season -- despite losing center Nick Martin in the first quarter to a hyper-extended left knee, and despite a running loop of first-year starters at right guard in Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer. The banged-up defense hunkered down when it mattered most. Notre Dame held a team that totaled 415 yards to just 13 points, thanks in large part to holding the Cougars to just one touchdown and three field goal attempts in four red zone trips.

And the Irish were not too shabby on special teams themselves, with Kyle Brindza aiding them offensively by going 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 51-yarder mid-way through the fourth quarter to make it a two-possession game.

"Yeah, we could be loose here and there during warmups and everything,” Brindza said, “but this was probably the most locked-in week we've ever had in a while, even dating back to last year when we went to a BCS-bowl game."

The attitude came down from Kelly, who, despite probably wishing the program was beyond it at this point, demanded a sharper effort and focus across the board.

Yes, that means preaching the can't-start-winning-till-you-stop-losing mantra, again. And yes, that means keeping the locker room clean, still.

"The locker-room thing was a big one," two-time captain Zack Martin said. “… We prepared a lot of plays this week. If we didn't have 11 guys doing the right thing, we'd do it again. Just little things like that that tried to focus our guys a little more. But tonight we were playing for the seniors, and hats off to our younger guys for coming in and playing their butts off."

Chief among them was Jones, still feeling the effects of his field goal block, which came near the four-minute mark with BYU threatening to slice the deficit back to a single possession.

It was the redshirt freshman's first blocked kick since getting a hand on a Temple kick back in Week 1.

"It hurts," Jones said, looking at his left hand, still stinging from the contact in what Notre Dame said was its coldest home game (26 degrees) in 22 years.

"I'm not going to lie. The ball feels like eight-times harder when it's coming at your hand like that. The Temple game, that wasn't as bad as this one."

Left guard Chris Watt was more impressed with the rest of Jones’ game.

"I just see [Dan] Fox, eight tackles, Jones -- I'm like, TJ Jones? I was like, 'Wow, seven,'" the redshirt senior laughed of Jarron Jones' breakout. "That's good for us, having younger guys stepping up in this program, especially going into next year."

Next year might look a little brighter after Saturday, but the Notre Dame is not ready to turn the page on this season just yet.

The Pinstripe Bowl figured to be there at the end for the Irish whether they went 7-5 or 9-3. Given two long weeks to ponder each scenario after stumbling in the Steel City, they came out and delivered their decision, a verdict validating this senior class' contributions in the process.