Isaiah Foskey blocked two punts in the first quarter to jumpstart Notre Dame on the way to a 44-21 victory over Nevada-Las Vegas. The Fighting Irish defense feasted on a pair of reserve quarterbacks for the Rebels, who missed injured starter Doug Brumfield. The hosts finished with four sacks among nine tackles for loss, and did not allow a single UNLV third down conversion in 12 tries. Offensively, Logan Diggs was the workhorse with 130 yards on 28 carries.
Notre Dame finally scored a touchdown on the opening drive of a game. Passes by Drew Pyne to Michael Mayer and Jaden Thomas set up a 12-yard burst by Audric Estime in fewer than three minutes. After a series of incomplete passes by the Rebels, the Irish again moved into scoring position. Blake Grupe kicked the first of his three field goals for a 10-0 lead.
UNLV got off the mat and fought back. Tailback Courtney Reese, who started in place of the injured Aidan Robbins, broke containment around left end and sped 74 yards to the Irish one yard line. The Rebels scored two plays later to cut the deficit to 10-7 just six minutes into the contest.
Each team suffered a dropped third down pass on their next series. Notre Dame’s Jon Sot successfully punted the ball away but Marshall Nichols was not so fortunate when he was called upon. Foskey ran untouched up the middle to smother the ball before Nichols could get his foot on it. Pyne hit Mayer two plays later for a 17-7 lead.
This same sequence repeated itself moments later. Another three and out for the Rebels, another crushing of Nichols by Foskey, and another Irish possession starting inside the red zone. Unfortunately, Mayer could not reel in Pyne’s pass at the goal line and Grupe was summoned for another three-pointer.
A sack by Foskey forced yet another punt that Brandon Joseph returned to the Rebel 32. Once again, the offense came up short but Grupe drilled a 46-yarder for a 23-7 lead. Remarkably, there were still two minutes remaining in the first period.
Notre Dame’s scoring binge cooled off in the second period. A fumble by Estime killed a promising drive and a pair of red zone incompletions on third and fourth down turned the ball over to the Rebels on the next Irish possession. The latter misfires were painful because Mayer had put Notre Dame in scoring position with a fantastic one-handed diving catch deep down the middle. His defender was flagged for pass interference on the play but Mayer was unfazed.
As UNLV’s quarterback tandem continued to flounder, the Irish attack regained traction. Tight end Mitchell Evans capped a 54-yard touchdown drive by lining up at quarterback under center and powering into the end zone for a 30-7 lead.
Irish cornerback Clarence Lewis forced a fumble two plays later and returned it near midfield. Notre Dame was poised to score again but Pyne’s third down pass in the red zone was tipped and intercepted. The half ended moments later. By my count, Notre Dame had left 20 points on the field during the first 30 minutes. Squandered opportunities ultimately didn’t affect the outcome of this game but is a chronic issue that has already cost the team a pair of wins.
The Irish started slowly after intermission. More pass incompletions by Pyne preceded a field goal attempt by Grupe that clanked off the upright. Reese followed immediately with another long burst of 47 yards to move into Notre Dame territory. Third string signal-caller Harrison Bailey willed his team into the end zone few plays later with a gutty display of hard running.
Notre Dame allowed its offensive line to take over the game as it moved into the fourth quarter. Diggs rewarded this strategy with tough runs of his own. Chris Tyree came in and finished the drive untouched with a seven yard score. The Irish now held a 37-14 advantage with 12 minutes remaining.
Bailey and Diggs each led their respective teams to an additional touchdown as the clock wound down. Notre Dame capped the scoring for the day when Braden Lenzy took a shovel pass from Pyne and outran the Rebels into the end zone.
The fast start and Foskey’s heroics papered over the mid-game doldrums as Notre Dame was never in any danger. Looking ahead, better opponents lie in wait for this team. Those offensive inconsistencies and defensive breakdowns must be corrected if the Irish are to have any hope of winning next Saturday or the week after.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
- Can the Irish finally win a turnover battle this season? No. Notre Dame had two turnovers and UNLV had one. The blocked punts were sweet but technically don’t count as turnovers.
- Will Notre Dame grant more playing time to its freshmen and sophomores? Not that I saw, unless an appearance by freshman quarterback Steve Angeli for one play where he didn’t touch the ball counts for anything.
- Can the Irish defense get off the field on third down? You can’t get much better than 12 for 12, although the Rebels converted two of three attempts on fourth down.
- Will Robbins or Estime be the dominant big tailback? Neither. Robbins (knee) couldn’t answer the bell and Estime was relegated to the doghouse after his fumble early in the second quarter. Diggs picked up the slack with his 130 yards while Reese paced the visitors with 142. Notre Dame outrushed UNLV by 223-146
- Can Pyne locate open receivers and get the ball to them? Pyne had a couple of good throws in the first half and Mayer’s catch was a highlight. The last 40 minutes of the game were forgettable, though. He missed a lot of easy throws later including a sure touchdown to a wide open Tyree. Pyne finished a disappointing 14 of 28 for 205 yards despite great protection all day.
- Which coaches will make the most successful in-game adjustments? UNLV finally figured out how to block for its punter but the damage had been done. Notre Dame eventually stopped hoping that Pyne would complete a second half pass and decided to run the ball to victory.
- Can UNLV’s secondary add to its impressive total of interceptions? Yes. Cornerback Nohl Williams got one with an assist from a defensive lineman.
- How many Peacock subscribers will cancel on Sunday? Most of us fell asleep during the second half but we’ll take care of that task when we wake up.
Notre Dame (4-3) rises above .500 again during this up and down season. It will be quite a feat if the Irish can remain there when the regular season is over.
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