SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Theo Riddick is Notre Dame's smallest running back but Brigham Young learned he's got no shortage of power.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Riddick ran for a career-high 143 yards against a Cougars defense that entered the game third in the nation against the rush. More importantly, Riddick sparked a ground game that rushed for 270 yards, with his housemate, Cierre Wood, getting 114 yards and George Atkinson III scoring the go-ahead touchdown as the Irish rallied for a 17-14 win Saturday.
"As a team, this was special," Riddick said. "We showed that we can run the ball."
He got no argument from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Riddick "just ran really hard, north and south, physical," Kelly said. "That gives energy for everybody. The o-line sees a guy who's really pounding it in there. He got us that energy we needed."
Notre Dame (7-0), off to its best start in a decade, has a big game ahead against No. 10 Oklahoma next week, although it looked for a while the importance of that game was in jeopardy. The Cougars (4-4) fell to 0-3 on the road as they surrendered a season-high 270 yards rushing.
The Cougars drove to the Notre Dame 31 late, but Riley Nelson was sacked for a 9 yard loss. Moments earlier Cody Hoffman was wide open for what would have probably been a touchdown, but Nelson's pass wasn't close.
"We were one or two plays short from being able to come away with a victory," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Riddick had runs of 55 and 27, the two longest rushes of his career. Neither was easy. On the 55-yard run from the 37-yard line, he ran into a pile at the line of scrimmage, put his hand down to keep his balance and then broke out of the pack before being caught by cornerback Jordan Johnson at the 8-yard line.
"Just run and run until you can't no more," Riddick said. "And I got a little gassed at the end."
The Irish then ran three straight running plays for a gain of one yard and had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Kyle Brindza to cut BYU's lead to 14-10 late in the third quarter. On his 27-yard run late in the second quarter, Riddick broke two tackles and carried three BYU defenders for the final 10 yards to the BYU 14. But the drive stalled and Brindza missed a 28-yard field goal wide right.
Riddick said it was exciting to see the Irish backs come up so big.
"We have some talent back there, so why not give us the ball?" he said.
BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree said the Cougars didn't tackle well enough.
"There were way too many times where we had a dude down in the backfield, in a hole, and we let him spring one for 12, 20, 40 yards, so that's not acceptable," he said.
After going 17 quarters without giving up an offensive touchdown, Notre Dame gave up two in a span of 2:18 as Nelson threw a 6-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Cody Hoffman in the end zone and a 2-yard pass to Kaneakua Friel after an interception by Kyle Van Noy.
That put BYU up 14-7 at halftime. Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said the Irish didn't let the two touchdowns affect their play.
"You've got to move on to the next play and make the necessary adjustments, and I think that's what we did. We played the second half pretty clean," he said.
Backup quarterback Tommy Rees, starting in place of injured Everett Golson, completed 6 of 7 passes in the first quarter for 86 yards and a touchdown, throwing four of those to Tyler Eifert, including the TD. But Rees missed his next seven passes and the Irish attempted only three passes in the second half.
Rees' only completion after the break was a 31-yard pass to TJ Jones with a little more than a minute left in the third quarter. Riddick ran the ball up the middle for 19 yards to the BYU 5 to set up Atkinson's 2-yard TD run.
Kelly said he was concerned the Irish weren't more excited about the victory in the locker room afterward.
"I didn't sense a great feeling after winning a tough, tough football game. And that's a team that won 10 games last year," he said.
Kelly said the Irish came out on top with a good running game and a strong defensive effort, which he said has to be their formula for success. He said he knew BYU would be dangerous.
"That's a bracket buster team in basketball parlance, that's a darned good football team," he said. "Our kids hung in there and won the football game. So really pleased to be 7-0."