Offensive MVP -- The Offensive LineHow to choose between the workhorse and the race horse? Who's the hero when one player hammers for 117 and 4.9 yards per carry and the other erupts for 78, a score, and six yards per pop?
You choose the road graders in front of them, of course.
Notre Dame's offensive line -- seven deep today under adverse conditions with injury intermixed -- produced its best game of the season, paving the way for 235 rushing yards on a season-high 47 carries and another 235 yards through the air, not allowing a sack in 28 pass attempts.
Quarterback Tommy Rees was rarely pressured and took just one big shot en route to a 15-28 passing day with a touchdown and interception, the latter on which he was afforded ample time but threw late to an open Troy Niklas, the pass intercepted in the end zone on what should have been a touchdown toss.
Rees commended his front wall's effort up front.
"It helps, any time you can have a strong running game and get some play-action going, it helps those guys up front. It's the offensive line's dream to have a game like that. On critical passing downs I was able to get through, back to my fourth progression and make some great plays down the field and it all starts with them. I told them at halftime, keep controlling the line of scrimmage, it starts with you guys and we are going to close this one out."
Key to the effort of starters Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Nick Martin, Steven Elmer, and Ronnie Stanley was support provided by backup right guard Conor Hanratty and backup center Matt Hegarty, the latter pushed into his first meaningful competitive action at center in his Irish career.
"He did awesome. For him to be able to come in, understand the snap counts and understand what we are trying to do, it's awesome to see."
Notre Dame's 47 carries is the second-highest total of the 50-game Kelly era, eclipsed only by 48 vs. Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl.
Offensive Game BallsThe aforementioned duo of McDaniel and Folston paced the ground game, the junior McDaniel leading all rushers with with 117 net yards on 24 carries including a long burst of 32 yards as well as a spinning kick return of 26 to set up the offense with favorable starting field position (the Irish 39-yard line) on a five-play field goal drive to begin the second half, extending the host's lead to 20-7.
The freshman Folston, largely absent during a November 9 loss to Pittsburgh with just four carries, earned his first career start, producing 78 yards on 13 carries, the highlight a 43-yard burst (on the snap following McDaniel's determined kickoff return).
Folston's most important carry of the game was a three-yard gain on 3rd and 1 from the Irish 36-yard line. Hit squarely in the backfield on the left side, Folston ran through the would-be-tackle attempt to earn first down yardage. Rees hit wide receiver DaVaris Daniels one play later for a 61-yard gain. Had Folston been dropped for a loss, an Irish punt would have ensued instead.
Daniels was the hero of the first half, scoring on a 61-yard slant-and-go while compiling six reception for a game-high 107 yards. He added gains of 18 yards (3rd and 10), 13 yards (3rd and 7) and seven yards (3rd and 1) to move the chains.
"We started off running, got the corners and safeties to bite up, which opened up the passing game a little bit more," said Daniels. "Anytime you have a good running game going it makes our jobs a lot easier on the outside.
"It makes our job 10 times easier."
As for his burst downfield, Daniels admitted an overall better level of health. "Today I've felt better than I've felt for a long time. I had another gear I could get into."
Senior T.J. Jones added five receptions for 95 yards, a 30-yard leaping catch on third down set up a Folston touchdown while a 32-yard catch on third down likewise moved the chains in the fourth quarter.
Defensive MVP -- Jarron JonesThe redshirt-freshman nose guard entered the contest with seven tackles and a blocked field goal. He doubled both statistical categories Saturday afternoon, his blocked field goal with 4:15 remaining sealing the game for the Irish while maintaining a 23-13 lead.
Of Jones' seven tackles, four limited Cougars runners to one yard or less including a 4th and 2 tackle at the Irish 30-yard line that gave possession back to the Irish, ending a 9-play BYU drive. Jones added a stop after two yards and two more that limited the visitors to three yards as well, a dominant effort in the first extended action at nose guard in his Irish career.
"I felt a sense of relief when I went out there today. A much different approach, a much different approach in practice all week," Jones offered of his day. "It's a stepping stone, it lets me build off of something."
Jones noted the turning point in his season came during preparation for the USC contest (October 19) in which he was relegated to the scout team.
"Having a humbling experience. I wasn't taking stuff seriously and got sent to scout team. That humbled me and made me want to work harder.
"That taught me how to be more consistent," Jones added. "That was my biggest problem, being more consistent in practice. Going down there, working with (the first unit offensive line), they practice hard on a consistent basis. That taught me to practice even harder."
Considering his previous performances, his standing on the squad, and his importance -- the anchor of a seemingly broken defensive front in his first extended action at nose guard -- Jones' selection as defensive MVP is a no-brainer. He was likely the game MVP as well.
Defensive Game BallsTwo other Irish starters produced MVP-worthy efforts: 5th-year senior Dan Fox led the team with nine tackles including two for lost yardage, a sack, and a diving pass breakup. In addition to his stops for loss, Fox added two tackles for no gain and another that limited the Cougars to just two yards.
"This is kind of the football I grew up playing," said Fox. "It was just a hard-nosed game. It kind of felt like I was back in Cleveland with how cold it was.
"I felt like we were running to the ball, shedding blocks, and swarming to the ball."
Playing his best game in over a month was junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The future first-round pick registered a game-high three quarterback hurries while drawing a false start vs. his assigned blocker as well. Tuitt added a sack and tackle for loss on the afternoon. Of his seven tackles, two came at scrimmage (one on third down) and two of his three hurries force BYU punts.
Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day produced his best statistical effort of the season, finishing with seven tackles, a pass defended and a quarterback hurry. Also enjoying a strong afternoon was boundary cornerback Keivarae Russell who registered a quarterback hurry and was the chief cover man to help limit BYU star receiver Cody Hoffman to a game without impact. Averaging xx receptions per game entering the contest, Hoffman was held to five receptions for 49 yards and al one gain of 15.
Russell's diving stop of Cougars runner Paul Lasike saved not only a touchdown at the Irish 6-yard line, but points of any kind as Jones' blocked field goal occurred four snaps later to effectively end the visitor's chance for a comeback win.
True freshman Jaylon Smith came up with two of the day's biggest defensive plays, both in the shadow of the Irish goal line. With Notrd Dame leading 20-10 near the end of the third quarter and Brigham Young threatening with 3rd and 2 on the Irish 9-yard line, Cougars QB Taysom Hill sprinted to the field side right in search of first down yardage. Smith was there, chasing down the speedy HIll and dropping him for no gain.
"Earlier in the game it was a similar play and (Hill) bounced it (outside) and he stiff-armed me," said Smith of a previous successful run by Hill. "We talked it up on the sidelines and the same play presented and I was able to make it."
Smith then helped secure Notre Dame's 10-point lead on BYU's aforementioned final charge to the Irish goal, leaping to knock down a slant pass Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall was certain was destined for six points.
"I actually was signalling touchdown when I saw the slant and No.13 (Smith) for Notre Dame knocked it down," said Mendenhall. "I thought Cody (Hoffman) had the guy beat inside. That was a huge play. I thought we had a touchdown there."
Smith's football mind was as active as his athleticism on the touchdown-saving breakup.
"Really eye progression. Looking at things he usually doesn't do," said Smith of the quarterback Hill. "He initially turned his eyes right to the area I was in and I positioned myself to make a play."
Special Teams MVP -- Kyle BrindzaTwelve times he's lined up to kick a field goal during a close contest in the fourth quarter or overtime for Brian Kelly's Irish. Twelve times he's been successful.
Junior kicker Kyle Brindza drilled a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter Saturday. It extended Notre Dame's lead to 23-13, a 10-point margin that would stand to the final gun. Kelly noted the confident Brindza was "in his ear" prior to the kick, lobbying to try the long offering despite miserable field conditions and swirling winds.
When told of his coach's comments post-game, Brindza offered, "Yeah, it's crazy for thinking we're going to punt it. They called a punt. I said, 'What are you guys talking about, we're in field goal range, let's just kick it.'
"I'm probably one of the most confident kickers/guys you'll ever meet," he continued. "I'm down to earth but I know who I am, I know what I can do. Anything that's possible, I can do. As I've said often, 'It's just another kick. You've done it before, why not do it now?'"
Asked about his lack of sleeves or tights in the wintry mix, Brindza laughed and noted, "I've just never worn sleeves, tights. It's just not me. Conditions don't get to me. If I need to warm up (in the cold), go warm up. That's just who I am. I don't care about the conditions."
It's not bragging if you can back it up. To date, Brindza has never missed when it mattered in an Irish uniform.