JOE RAYMOND, AP
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — BYU travels to take on Notre Dame Saturday in hopes of reversing last year's fortune. Last season, the Cougars came within a few plays of upsetting an Irish team that eventually earned a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.
Notre Dame isn't in the running for a national championship this season, but still poses a challenge with a stout front seven and 7-3 record.
So how is this Notre Dame team similar to what the Cougars faced last season and how is it different? We caught up with Irish Eyes publisher Tim O'Malley to ask him five questions about this year's Notre Dame team.
1. Characterize Notre Dame's season to this point. How is this team different than the one that beat BYU last season and how is the team's state after a tough loss to Pittsburgh?
They're not close defensively to the 2012 unit. Consider last year's group allowed an absurd nine total touchdowns in 12 regular-season games. This team has surrendered five in two different contests already — four in two others. They're a shell of the team that ran to No. 1 last Thanksgiving.
My preseason prediction called for losses to Michigan, either Pittsburgh or BYU, and Stanford. For most of the month leading up to the defeat at Pittsburgh, I figured it was BYU that would take down Notre Dame's dreams of sliding into a BCS Bowl with a 7-0 finish. Now I think the Cougars might have caught the Irish at the wrong time. They'll be focused and fired up to rebound on Senior Day. The senior class has seen it all in their four years and I'd be shocked if they don't play their best game of 2013.
Had BYU played Notre Dame last Saturday, the Cougars might have won by three touchdowns. The Irish were physically unable to compete with at least four of their regular eight defensive linemen out, and mentally it's unlikely they'd have been ready after the Steel City disappointment.
2. Talk about Notre Dame on offense. Briefly go over what system the Irish run and point out the primary play-makers.
Notre Dame's offensive identity this fall is that they never found one. Quarterback Tommy Rees is tough when he has the running game to augment the team's spread attack, but it's inexplicably been used sporadically, instead often relying on Rees to pass the Irish to victory. That tactic has proven ineffective in Brian Kelly's four years at the helm.
Senior receiver TJ Jones is nonetheless the team's MVP this fall. He's vastly improved since the Cougars last visited South Bend and will be a handful Saturday. The junior tight end pair of Troy Niklas — a Mackey Award semifinalist — and former No. 1-ranked high school tight end Ben Koyack has come on of late, especially Koyack who has evolved from downright bad as a blocker to solid, and emerged as a weapon on the passing game.
The rushing attack will feature three 'backs, two of them juniors in George Atkinson, one of the nation's fastest straight-liners, and Cam McDaniel, the most trusted runner by the Irish staff. Freshman Tarean Folston is a fan favorite. He erupted for 140 yards and the winning score vs. Navy at the beginning of the month, then carried just four times one week later at Pittsburgh. (You can imagine how well that went over.)
3. Notre Dame features two of the best defensive linemen in the country in Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. Talk about these guys and Notre Dame's defense in general.
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