by John Vannie
Undefeated Notre Dame hosts the 4-3 BYU Cougars on Saturday afternoon in a matchup of two football independents. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has a 70-27 record in his eighth season at the helm, and is once again the architect of one of the nation’s best defenses. The Irish have a pretty fair defense of their own, and will try to get the offense back on track after a squandering several scoring opportunities in regulation play against Stanford last week.
Everett Golson will start for Notre Dame after recovering from a mild concussion suffered late in last week’s game. Golson had played extremely well in Chicago two weeks ago, but fumbled twice in key situations against the Cardinal and his passing was not as sharp in the face of strong pressure throughout the afternoon. Tommy Rees, who has nearly achieved Mariano Rivera status as the team’s closer, stands ready in reserve.
Senior Riley Nelson, who lost the starting quarterback position to freshman Taysom Hill earlier this season, regained the job last week when Hill suffered a season-ending knee injury against Utah State. The Cougars had previously lost starting tailback Michael Alisa due to a broken arm. Notre Dame has stayed relatively injury-free after losing defensive backs Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter earlier in the season. The team is still carrying an assortment of bumps and bruises after the grueling overtime battle with Stanford, but everyone is available to play on Saturday.
BYU’s defense has put up some very impressive numbers to date. The Cougars have given up fewer rushing yards per game than Notre Dame at 67.5, which equates to only 2.2 yards per attempt. Opponents are converting on third down at an anemic 26% rate. BYU had yielded nine points per game through six contests until Oregon State gashed them primarily through the air in a 42-24 victory last week in Provo. Mendenhall was not pleased with that outcome, but expects his team to bounce back at Notre Dame.
“In reviewing the film, it was all about our execution, our precision, our concentration,” Mendenhall said. “The plays were defendable. They (Oregon State) executed their plays at a higher level, but we were not sharp in the secondary. Concentration. Precision. And really execution. There was maybe a little overconfidence, defensively, from all the accolades. I think there was a little edge that was missing.”
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. BYU’S DEFENSE
The Irish need to get the timing back in their passing game after having it severely disrupted by the talented Cardinal front seven. Golson has shown an improved ability to find receivers from the pocket when he has time, and his blockers must provide it for him this week. The Cougars have a veteran front seven in a 3-4 alignment lead by senior ends Eathyn Manumaleuna and Ezekiel Ansah, and linebackers Brandon Ogletree and Kyle Van Noy, who leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss. This group is disciplined and Mendenhall’s schemes are solid, so the Irish linemen are going to have to defeat them at the point of attack to be successful.
Cornerback Preston Hadley and strong safety Daniel Sorenson lead the Cougar secondary, while sophomore field cornerback Jordan Johnson has eight pass breakups and an interception return for a touchdown this season. Notre Dame will test this group with a variety of looks, but the running game must be also utilized to wear down their resistance. BYU has kept opponents in continuous third and long situations, and early success against the Irish will fuel their intensity throughout the day.
Coach Brian Kelly must also develop an answer for Van Noy when he rushes the passer from the edge. Tight end Troy Niklas had a miserable afternoon last week against Stanford’s talented outside linebackers, and Van Noy represents a similar challenge. Kelly did not utilize the screen pass in that game but may give it more consideration this week.
Despite BYU’s daunting statistics against the run, the Irish backs are much better than any the Cougars have faced this season and should be able to enjoy moderate success. Notre Dame should also be able to exploit individual matchups where they have an advantage in speed, and Theo Riddick could have a big day as a receiver. The Irish have also established DeVaris Daniels and T.J. Jones as viable options if an opponent doubles its coverage on Tyler Eifert. The key element again is making sure that Golson has the time to find them downfield.
BYU’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The injury to Hill, even though he is only a freshman, has diminished the versatility of Mendenhall’s offense. Nelson is not a threat to run the ball and has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes. The main target in the passing game is 6’4” wide receiver Cody Hoffman, who leads the team in receptions by a wide margin. Tight end Kaneakua Friel is next in line and has four touchdown receptions to his credit. None of the Cougar receivers is exceptionally fast, so Notre Dame’s secondary can afford to be aggressive if the offense gives them a lead to work with.
Freshman Jamaal Williams has stepped in at tailback and performed well since Alisa went down. He averages more than five yards per carry and is backed up by senior David Foote. Notre Dame’s front wall is coming off an emotional high last week after stuffing Stepfan Taylor in a memorable goal line stand, and will have to find energy and motivation this week to shut down the Cougars. If Manti Te’o and Louis Nix can rise to the occasion, Nelson will be hard pressed to win the game for BYU through the air. He threw the ball 51 times last week, but was sacked four times and suffered three interceptions.
The battle in the trenches might present a couple of favorable matchups for the Irish. Nix will line up opposite 270 pound sophomore center Blair Tushaus, and either Stephon Tuitt or Prince Shembo will battle freshman left tackle Ryker Mathews. The real issue for Notre Dame might be the amount of gas left in the tank after the Stanford game, but Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco has quality depth at his disposal and is likely to substitute freely during this contest. If the defenders up front play at their season-long high level, there will be opportunities for interceptions by the secondary.
The Irish should be able to handle the BYU attack provided the offense does not provide gifts via turnovers and special teams keep the Cougars on a long field. The lack of a home run threat or an accomplished short passing game will make it difficult for BYU to break Notre Dame’s four game streak of not allowing a defensive touchdown.
The Irish repeatedly found themselves in poor field position during the first half of last week’s game, which had a negative impact on Golson’s ability to sustain drives and put points on the board. Kyle Brindza did his part by booming kickoffs through the end zone, but punter Ben Turk has to step up his game a degree or two. Notre Dame’s coverage teams have been solid, while the return teams have generally failed to impress.
BYU’s field goal kickers are only five for nine this season with a long of only 35 yards. Justin Sorenson is the full time punter with an impressive (and possibly altitude enhanced) 46-yard average while sharing the place kicking duties with Riley Stephenson. Hoffman and Joe Sampson do a good job returning kicks while the elusive J.D. Falslev is a better than average punt return man. The Irish must find a way to turn this aspect of the game into an advantage rather than a liability. Negative field position exchanges add undue pressure to the offensive and defensive units by leaving minimal margin for error.
BYUs’ style of play and level of competence are essentially Stanford-Lite, and Notre Dame should prevail. That assumes, however, that the Irish do a better job of converting opportunities, avoiding last week’s alarmingly high number of unforced penalties, and taking care of the football. The running game should be utilized throughout, as there is a good chance the Cougars will wear down in the second half if Notre Dame dominates time of possession as expected.
The Cougars are a veteran-laden team with some players in their early to mid-twenties due to time away from school to fulfill Mormon related obligations. The Irish have more talent but must play at a high level. Brian Kelly’s one game at a time approach will serve him well this week, but the players are only human and some letdown from the Stanford slugfest is not out of the question. Conversely, BYU can be counted upon to give Notre Dame its best shot.
Here are a few questions that will factor into the outcome:
Can the Irish protect Golson and allow him to get back into a comfortable rhythm?
Will Notre Dame’s special teams equalize or even win the field position battle?
Can BYU get its running game going against the tough Irish front seven?
How will the BYU secondary fare against Notre Dame’s array of backs, receivers and tight ends?
Will the Irish secondary be able to focus on Hoffman or will other options emerge for Nelson?
Which team will win the turnover battle?
Will it ever stop raining in South Bend?
Expect the Cougars to come in with a lot of energy on defense and try to force Golson and the Irish into mistakes and turnovers. If successful, they can stay in the game well into the second half. Notre Dame can ill-afford another poor performance on offense where two steps forward in each possession are followed by one large step back. Confidence must be restored before next week’s trip to Oklahoma, where all cylinders must be firing to achieve success. The Irish will win comfortably if they play a clean game, and my predicted score assumes they will. Even if they struggle, BYU is the type of opponent against whom Rees should be able to work his magic if it becomes necessary.
NOTRE DAME 23 BYU 6