The Michael Mayer show in Las Vegas on Saturday evening was highlighted by two touchdown receptions in a dominant performance to lead Notre Dame to a 28-20 victory over BYU. The All-American tight end continually bailed out the offense with clutch third down catches to help the Fighting Irish build a 25-6 lead. The Cougars fought back gamely and took advantage of Notre Dame’s second half defensive lapses to close the gap to 25-20 early in the fourth quarter. The Irish later added a field goal and stuffed BYU on a key fourth down play before running out the clock. The win moved the team over .500 to 3-2 on the season after an 0-2 start.
Notre Dame started the game on defense but that series lasted only one play. Cougar quarterback Jaren Hall hoisted a wounded duck down the sideline that Tariq Bracy intercepted at the BYU 44. Drew Pyne moved the Irish into scoring territry on the ensuing possession but the drive fizzled out inside the ten yard line. That would become a recurring theme for the rest of the night. Notre Dame had to settle for a Blake Grupe field goal to open the scoring at 3-0.
The Cougars answered later in the period after a dazzling 42-yard punt return by Hobbs Nyberg. They covered 25 yards to the Irish one-yard line where Coach Kalani Sitake elected to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal. Hall hit Kody Epps on a well conceived pass play to take a 6-3 lead after a missed extra point.
Mayer took over on the next series for Notre Dame. He caught four passes covering 56 of the 75 yards on the drive. The final catch was good for 24 yards and a 10-6 Irish advantage. The defense forced a punt and Pyne went to work again. He hit Lorenzo Styles for 26 yards and Mayer again on a third down pass to bring Notre Dame into the red zone. The drive stalled inside the BYU five yard line when the Irish could not make two yards in two running plays. BYU took over at its four.
The defense swarmed Hall when he dropped back on the very next play. He fumbled in the end zone but the Cougars recovered to prevent an Irish touchdown but they did record a safety for a 12-6 lead. BYU then had to kick it to Notre Dame. Pyne led a 79-yard scoring march featuring hard running by the Irish backs. The final 30-yards came on a touchdown strike to Jayden Thomas, who outmaneuvered and outfought the Cougar defender for the ball. Leading 18-6 late in the half, Coach Marcus Freeman called for a two-point conversion try. It failed, and that decision would become a factor later in the contest.
The Irish appeared to put the game out of reach when they took the second half kickoff and drove 75 yards for a touchdown. The 11-play drive took seven minutes off the clock and gave Notre Dame a 25-6 lead. Mayer’s 19-yard reception closed the deal as the Irish faithful celebrated.
As it turned out, BYU was just getting started. Hall struck back on the next possession by hitting Epps on a 53-yard strike to close the gap to 25-13. Epps beat freshman Jaden Mickey badly deep down the middle while safety Houston Griffith was nowhere to be found. Notre Dame responded with a three and out and punted the ball back to the Cougars,
A sack by Prince Kollie pinned BYU deep in its own territory. With the Cougars facing a third down and 18 at their own five, the game turned into a nail-biter when Lopini Katoa ripped off a 20-yard run through a series of half-hearted attempts to tackle him by the Irish. Moments later, Chris Brooks finished the drive with a 28-yard burst to paydirt. Notre Dame’s lead had shrunk to 25-20 with 14 minutes left in the game.
Pyne led the Irish back on what could have been the clinching drive. Two passes to Thomas covered 44 yards and brought Notre Dame into scoring territory. Pyne’s next pass was tipped, however, and picked off by BYU at their own 17.
The Irish defense needed a stop. The Cougars answered the prayer with a dropped third down pass and punted the ball away. Once again, Pyne led a march that should have iced the game. Audric Estime provided the horsepower with a 46-yard run to the BYU seven yard line. As had been the case all night, the Irish failed to punch it in on the ground from there. Grupe came on to make a short field goal for a 28-20 margin.
Thanks to Freeman’s first half decision not to kick an extra point, the Cougars had a shot to tie it with six minutes remaining. They drove across midfield with a series of runs and a 27-yard pass from Hall to Epps. Facing a fourth down and one at the Notre Dame 27, the Irish defense turned the tables on BYU by stuffing Latoa for no gain. The offense came on to run out the clock behind Estime and Logan Diggs.
Notre Dame dominated the statistics including yardage and time of possession but they left at least 22 points on the field by my count. The red zone offense and goal line plays in particular were uniformly ineffective. Deep handoffs to anyone but Estime and short passes from the pocket into a crowd don’t cut it. Tom Rees and the entire offensive staff have to do a better job in this area.
Let’s look at the answers to our pregame questions:
- Can Pyne and the Irish avoid negative plays and long third downs? No penalties or sacks were a positive but the still needed Mayer’s heroics on many third downs. He delivered.
- Which offense will produce the most productive ground game? Both teams were very good although the Irish have a chronic short yardage problem. The defense could not stop a simple off tackle play to the right side that Brooks ran all night.
- Can Isaiah Foskey and the Irish pass rushers take Hall out of his rhythm? Not with any consistency. Foskey was often double-teamed and the line missed Howard Cross who sat out with an ankle sprain.
- Will the uber-talented Tobias Merriweather make a contribution this week? No, but Jayden Thomas had a breakout performance.
- Can the Irish special teams deliver a game-changing play? Unfortunately they gave up the long punt return to Nyberg to set up BYU’s first score.
- Will Notre Dame’s pass protectors be able to handle BYU’s blitzers? The line did a great job in pass protection all night. Good thing because Pyne took forever to find his receivers.
- Can either team force a turnover to alter the course of the game? Each team’s turnover proved to be costly but they evened out the damage.
- Will I have enough money left to make it home from Las Vegas? Apparently so, despite overpriced food and watery drinks. We won’t talk about anything else.
The experience at Allegiant Stadium was great. Both teams were well represented and loud. Everyone behaved well as you would expect from these schools. The Irish remain a work in progress but have the rest of this month to figure out how to score from close range. The defensive secondary still breaks down at inopportune moments while the linebackers often disappear. These issues are fixable, however, and the Irish were fortunate to survive BYU without greater damage.