BYU's coaches are realistic about what it will take to beat Notre Dame today.
"We have to play the best possible game we can play, and they'll have to make some mistakes," said assistant coach Norm Chow."We'll have to play a Miami-type game to pull this off," said assistant coach Claude Bassett.
A Miami-type game doesn't seem likely. Remember, that was an experienced BYU team, led by a soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner, playing at home and at high altitude, against an opponent playing its season-opener. This BYU team is less-experienced, led by a quarterback starting his fourth game, playing at Notre Dame Stadium, in midseason.
Still, if the cards - all the cards - were to fall just right for the Cougars (4-3), they could hang with the 10th-ranked Irish (4-1-1). As it happens, BYU's strengths match up decently with Notre Dame's weaknesses. For instance:
- BYU offense vs. Notre Dame defense. Considering the Cougars couldn't run against Wyoming last week, it's likely they won't be able to run against Notre Dame's run-oriented, 5-2 defense. The Irish are susceptible to the short pass, however, by coach Lou Holtz's own choice. He prefers to give up the short throw while protecting against the home-run ball. Opponents have completed 56.6 percent against them, but for an average of just 6.3 yards. Against BYU, Holtz may decide to play an extra defensive back.
"They're not going to give you anything deep," Chow said. "They'll force you to make a play underneath, then come up and knock you for a loop. They make you earn your way down the field."
"The key will be . . . to get the time we need in pass protection to throw," said coach LaVell Edwards.
If BYU is patient, it should be able to move the ball through the air. Once inside the 20, however, things should get tougher. Notre Dame has held opponents scoreless on seven of 22 trips inside the red zone, so this could be a big day for BYU field-goal kicker Dave Lauder.
- BYU defense vs. Notre Dame offense. The Irish prefer to run, throwing mostly when they must. And quarterback Rick Mirer is in something of a slump, having completed just 45.7 percent of his passes this season.
The strength of BYU's defense is against the run, but how strong is it? In its toughest test, against San Diego State and Marshall Faulk, the Cougs performed creditably in the first half, then lost two inside linebackers to injuries. Faulk ran all over them in the second half, but would he have done it with Shad Hansen and Todd Herget in the game?
This game may answer those questions, as the Cougars try to stop Jerome Bettis, a 245-pound fullback. Notre Dame's top two tailbacks, Reggie Brooks and Lee Becton, were hurting this week, and school officials said it wouldn't be known if they'd play until right before the game.
This game is certain to be the defense's greatest challenge yet, considering that Notre Dame is the national leader in total offense (BYU is second), playing strong competition. And while BYU is justifiably proud of its improved defense this season, keep in mind that although the Cougs lead the WAC in total defense, they are just 64th in the nation.
"Defensively, BYU is no Stanford (which beat Notre Dame, 33-16)," said a writer in the Irish Sports Report. "If Notre Dame doesn't move it in the air, it probably will be because the running game is going too well."
What this all may come down to is whether a decent matchup statistically is really a decent matchup, considering the greater talent level on the Notre Dame squad. BYU matched-up reasonably well with UCLA statistically, too, but the Bruins held the Cougs to 10 points.
"Everything on paper, everything that people think, points out that we should not be in this game," Bassett said. "You're playing against some of the finest players in the United States."
The key for BYU may not be how they match up, but how much they play. Cougar coaches and players acknowledge that they have suffered curious lapses in most of their games this season (the possible exception being UTEP).
Bassett said the problem was that this team found itself in the relatively unique situation of being out of the WAC race four games into the season. "Now these kids are learning to dig deeper for further motivation," he said. "They're playing strictly for pride, and that's a new experience."
Against the Irish, Edwards doesn't think motivation will be an obstacle. "I think there will be no problem getting ourselves ready to play against Notre Dame," he said.
But besides the physical damage that a big, strong team like Notre Dame can do to an opponent, BYU coaches are a little worried about what effect a loss would have down the road.
"If we go into South Bend and we step it up a notch and play hard and still don't win, it's going to affect the guys' minds," Bassett said. "It will leave a far deeper scar on the psyche than on the body."Comment on this story
The game will be televised live at 11:30 on Channel 2. It's the first time since 1987 that BYU has appeared on NBC.
GAME NOTES: After just one game with Brad Hunter at punter, the Cougars moved up from last in the WAC to 9th in net punting . . . The Irish have a 4-1 record in games following bye weeks in Holtz's seven seasons.