by John Vannie
Our BYU preview this week is authored by long time NDNation contributor Joe Stachler, who also is known by the handle Rocketshark. The Irish have made a habit of playing close games this year, and Joe tells us why he sees another nail biter on Saturday as well as which team will emerge victorious.
Leave it to me to create this insensitive image file ditty with the hope of not having to use it in my postgame review this weekend should an unfortunate loss to BYU occur. Of course, Pitt beat me to the punch and the rest — including Notre Dame’s BCS bowl eligibility — is history.
After losing to #24 Wisconsin (who rushed for 229 yards) BYU rebounded by thrashing 3-7 Idaho State 59-13. Meanwhile, Notre Dame had to deal with losing to a mediocre .500 Pitt team in the worst way…by having a weekend off. While the bye may have been beneficial for regaining health, it allowed the bitter disappointment to simmer for twice as long. Perhaps that stinging can be channeled into a physically-assertive presence by the Irish on the field, which by the way is what I believe will be necessary to make a favorable difference for the Irish. And this one will be a challenge.
Concerns aside, as a fan I welcome this kind of match-up. While un-ranked Brigham Young isn’t a juggernaut, they’re a spirited team who has notched a few impressive victories this season. Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall is in his ninth season at BYU, with a 81-32 overall record in Provo, UT.
The Fighting Irish and the Cougars have met seven times beginning with their first contest in 1992. Notre Dame had little trouble handling BYU in ’92 and ’93 but during an “off year” Lou Holtz’s team fell 21-14 in 1994. Tyrone Willingham’s 2003 squad managed a solid victory against BYU but the following year lost 17-20 in the season opener to immediately ratchet up calls for his firing. In 2005 Charlie Weis’ aerial offense enabled a banner day for Brady Quinn who threw six touchdown passes (four to Maurice Stovall). The next meeting wouldn’t occur until seven years later as the 2012 Irish embarked on a memorable season, including holding off the Cougars for a 3-point victory to preserve a perfect regular season in the making.
Brigham Young players look back on that 2012 game as the one that got away. In their minds they are presented with a great opportunity against a vulnerable ND team, compared to last year.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. BYU’S DEFENSE
Senior quarterback Tommy Rees has been the leader of the offense, and by all accounts a respected member of the team. He may not be remembered along with names such as Carideo, Lujack, and Montana but he should be remembered as a player who, like Blair Kiel, Steve Beuerlein, and Brady Quinn, gave everything he had as four year veteran to help the team in every way he could to be successful, even during disappointing seasons.
Another senior on offense that deserves a large amount of recognition is T.J. Jones. In watching him both during and between plays I’ve concluded that he’s the toughest player on the team. He’ll make a play, get physically punished for it, then get back up — maybe a little slower than usual on occasion — ready to go for the next snap. I want to see guys like Rees and Jones make a farewell lap around Notre Dame Stadium at the end of the game. And the only way that will occur is if the Irish win. So, it will be up to them, and their teammates, and their coaches, to make this happen.
Out to ruin the moment will be BYU linebackers Kyle Van Noy and the team’s top tackler Uani ‘Unga. At nose tackle is Eathyn Manumaleuna, who missed last year’s game due to injury. Productive linebacker Spencer Hadley will probably miss the game due to injury.
Notre Dame’s offense overall has been average. With the two long touchdown throws to begin the season against a team that has since gone 1-9, there was a glimmer of hope amongst the skeptical and jubilation amongst the zealots that the offense was going to purr like a Bavarian motor. Since then the Irish have settled into a 41st ranked passing offense coupled with an 87th ranked rushing offense to stake a 7-3 record thus far. Against the 23rd ranked scoring defense in the county, the Irish will need to make plays and possessions count in order to be successful.
Last year the Irish tallied 270 yards rushing, including the game winning touchdown scored by George Atkinson III, against the Cougars. Based on Notre Dame’s victory last year against BYU and Wisconsin’s this season, it seems apparent that a sincere dedication to a commanding rushing attack will be an essential ingredient for success this Saturday. BYU’s run defense is ranked 57th, so ND might as well give it a shot. And by shot I mean more than a few times early in the game.
BYU’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Anyway, Notre Dame’s 62nd ranked run defense will be tested by quarterback Taysom Hill, who happens to be the Cougar’s leading rusher with 165 carries for 956 yards (a 5.8 yards per carry average). RB Jamaal Williams is no slouch himself with 940 yards on 172 carries for a 5.5 ypc average. Together, they’re the 1-2 backfield punch that has the Cougars rushing attack ranked 12th in the country. Hill was out for last year’s game, which may partially account for BYU’s flimsy 66 yards gained on the ground that day.
BYU has been doing well with a fast-tempo offense that averages over 80 snaps a game. Hill makes plays with his arm as well as his legs. This year he has thrown 16 touchdown passes but he has also tossed 12 interceptions. Wide receiver Cody Hoffman returns and is again the Cougars’ top catcher, breaking the record for most career touchdown receptions. TE Kaneakua Friel has missed five games this season but is expected to play this Saturday.
Expect Notre Dame’s defense to be probed for vulnerability. The defensive line may not be able to substitute as often as wished with the no huddle offense. This makes it all-the-more critical that Notre Dame’s offense capitalizes on their opportunities and give the defense a few breathers.
Again, I hope to see the seniors on defense make that victory lap around the stadium.
Hello, Kyle Brindza! He is 10-of-15 on field goals, but he is 2-for-3 on 50+ yard attempts, with the longest a 53-yarder against ASU. He is perfect in point after attempts made and with 62 points contributed to Irish campaigns he is the leading scorer on the team.
Yet, as we’ve seen even in critical situations the special teams have been sloppy in bringing down returners. It is a perplexing how Notre Dame, a program which has richly benefitted from productive special teams play, including their last three national championship seasons, seems to regard special teams as an afterthought or risky venture. Or at least something not to invest much time or effort in. Perhaps Coach Kelly or Coach Booker would take issue with that speculation, but what we’re talking about here is the nation’s 121st kickoff return defense…out of 123 teams. Punt return defense is ranked 90th.
Brigham Young U’s punting defense is ranked 62nd, which, comparatively speaking, is something Notre Dame can envy. But their kick return defense is 100th in the country. Their kicker, Justin Sorenson, is about as good as any team can expect from their kicker. He’s 16-of-19 on field goals, with one of the misses occurring beyond 50 yards out.
When I think back on the Purdue game (the Boilermakers are God awful, by the way) and the challenge the Irish unnecessarily made that night for themselves, all I can say is I hope there were lessons learned because BYU is better than Purdue…and Pitt. But the Cougar’s are just as prone to making mistakes, and Notre Dame would do well to capitalize on them. There will be some psychological factors in play for both teams. For Notre Dame, the seniors are playing their last game at Notre Dame Stadium and underclassmen will also be thinking about sending them out in style. For Brigham Young, they’ll be thinking about a chance at redemption they desperately crave on a national stage. Not just to atone for last year’s loss to Notre Dame, but also for the Wisconsin game two weeks ago.
Here are a few questions that may factor into the outcome, or at least be answered at the conclusion of the game, or even sometime during the off season (where applicable):
Will the Irish defensive backs effectively tackle BYU players?
Can the Irish defense stifle the Cougars’ rushing attack?
Will the Notre Dame offense be able to convert 3rd-and-short?
Will this be the last time football is played on grass in Notre Dame Stadium?
What impact will bad calls have on the game?
Will Cam McDaniel do something impossibly awesome?
I boldly predict that Notre Dame will get the ball first. Other than that this game has felt like a pick ‘em all year. At this point it looks like an even match-up, particularly as Notre Dame has too often played below expectations and BYU has played above them. I can see this game going to overtime, with BYU getting the ball after Notre Dame settles for a field goal and scoring a game winning touchdown. On the other hand, I can also visualize the Irish defense tightening up and preserving a 3-point Notre Dame victory. So I’ll pick that scenario based on preference: a 26-23 Notre Dame victory, possibly in overtime.