PROVO — BYU travels to South Bend, Ind., to take on what looks to be a very stiff test against Notre Dame. The Irish are undefeated and riding high with their dominant defense that is sure to give a struggling Cougar offense all it can handle.
So what can fans expect to happen on Saturday? We looked at the match-ups and interviewed players and coaches to give our best glimpse on what to look for when BYU takes on Notre Dame.
BYU rushing attack vs. Notre Dame
BYU ran for just 81 yards last week against Oregon State and is still struggling to mount a good and effective push upfront. The interior offensive line has shown some strides since the Boise State game, but 81 yards rushing and a 2.4 yards per carry average from your starting running back isn’t adequate production.
Jamaal Williams will again lead the rushing charge and will likely be backed up by David Foote.
Notre Dame has faced some very good rushing offenses over the past four weeks and has fared very well in defending them. The Irish employ a so-called “no-crease” defense that alternates between a 3-4 and a 4-3 front on almost an equal basis.
It’s led by stud inside linebacker Manti Te’o (6-2, 255) and nose tackle Louis Nix (6-3, 326.) Both will be a chore to handle come Saturday. The Irish give up just 113.5 yards per game on the ground and have gone up against some good rushing teams such as Michigan State, Michigan and Stanford.
Cougar question mark
BYU's 51 passes thrown last week against Oregon State was too much, and BYU needs more balance with its offensive attack. Will offensive coordinator Brandon Doman show more patience with a running game that is most likely to see tough sledding on the outset against Notre Dame? Will the rushing game show enough production to warrant some patience from Doman?
Also, will 17-year-old freshman Jamaal Williams be overwhelmed by the atmosphere at Notre Dame and play within himself?
“We need to establish a run game to keep that defense off-balance,” said Doman. “We need to keep it relatively simple and allow those guys upfront to get confident and get everyone confident that we can be productive against a very good defense.”
BYU will do well to rush for more than 100 yards against Notre Dame. The Irish should present a rush defense that is as good as any the Cougars have faced so far this season. Look for BYU to try more rushing attempts this week, but not for much more yardage than the 81 it gained last week against Oregon State.
BYU passing attack vs. Notre Dame
The Cougar passing game finally showed some life last week with Riley Nelson apparently recovered from his back injury. The team was able to throw for 305 yards although it took 51 pass attempts to reach that number.
Notre Dame has been very stingy against the pass this season, but that’s largely the result of not facing very prolific passing offenses. It’s a defense that stays in base formation much of the time and plays opposing offenses straight up.
“They’re very good with their pass rush,” observed receiver Cody Hoffman. “They’re able to rush just four guys and still get the quarterback, and that’s tough to go against.”
The Irish pass rush is led by defensive end Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 303, sophomore) who has 6.5 sacks on the year, which leads the team. The secondary is relatively young and hasn’t been severely tested by opponents so far this year. Notre Dame employs consistent cover-2 and cover-4 zone concepts.
Cougar question mark
Can Nelson get more people involved with the passing game? Hoffman is great, and Nelson knows where to find him, but in order to see consistent success, Nelson needs to find receivers such as Ross Apo and JD Falslev more often.
The offensive line needs to force Notre Dame to get out of its comfort zone and bring five or even six pass rushers in order to get to Nelson.
“We need to find the holes in their zone,” said Hoffman. “They’re very good, but we’ll have open spots we can get to and we just need to be confident and execute like we know we can.”
Look for Notre Dame to crowd the line of scrimmage and force Nelson to beat its defense over-the-top and on the perimeter. This is something Nelson has failed to do consistently throughout his career, but will need to do to beat the Irish with intermediate and long passing in order to see good and consistent success. Limiting turnovers is also at a premium.
Cougar rush defense vs. Notre Dame
The Cougars allowed just 118 yards rushing last week but did allow Oregon State starter Storm Woods to rush for 5.2 yards per carry. It’s a rush defense that has been very consistent and stingy throughout the year, but will likely face its toughest test this week against the Irish.
Notre Dame employs a spread offense that runs much more than most teams that run out of a similar base formation. It averages 181.2 yards per game on the ground and will rotate three tailbacks throughout the game.
Its leading rusher is senior Theo Riddick (5-11, 200) who has 308 yards rushing on the year and also leads the Irish in receptions. The running back most capable of big gains is sophomore George Atkinson (6-1, 210) who has gained 299 yards so far this season on a 9.1 yards per carry average.
Cougar question mark
Notre Dame will pose the best rushing offense the team has faced so far this season. BYU is relatively thin in quality depth after injuries to Ian Dulan to start the year and then to Eathyn Manumaleuna. Look for Notre Dame to test that depth severely with a constant barrage of rushing attempts, and how BYU responds to that is certainly a question mark.
“We need to stop the run — we always focus on stopping the run first, and that will be key against Notre Dame,” said cornerback Preston Hadley. “We need to put them in throwing situations and make them throw more than they like to.”
BYU’s defense should rebound nicely after last week’s subpar performance against the Beavers. BYU should be able to limit Notre Dame below its season average on the ground and limit what the Irish are able to do offensively as a result.
BYU pass defense vs. Notre Dame
Oregon State was able to see success with precise execution with intermediate and deep routes throughout the game last week. BYU gave up 332 yards passing on just 32 pass attempts and will certainly have to improve that number against the Irish.
Notre Dame is a run-first offense, but can throw effectively if it has to. It averages 206.5 yards per game through the air and is expected to have the services of injured starter Everett Golson (6-0, 185.) Golson is a bit like Nelson in that he’s undersized and likes to operate out of the pocket and run on occasion. BYU did quite well in defending against a similar quarterback in Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton a couple of weeks ago, but struggled last week against Cody Vaz, a true pocket passer.
Notre Dame’s leading receivers, other than running back Theo Riddick, are TJ Jones (5-11, 190) and tight end Tyler Eifert (6-6, 251), who will line up as a wide receiver or slot receiver throughout any contest.
Cougar question mark
Will the pass defense rebound after a subpar performance last week against Oregon State? BYU needs better coverage from its linebackers on wheel routes and better over-the-top coverage from its safeties in order to limit what Notre Dame does in its passing attack.
The pass rush also needs to be much better than it was last week. Coach Bronco Mendenhall chose to play coverage rather than employ a lot of blitz packages last week against Oregon State and was largely burned because of it.
“The problem last week was not being sharp with our assignments,” said Hadley. “We need to clean that up and trust each other more and just be more assignment sound. Notre Dame has a very good offense and we’ll be tested again, but just need to understand that if we complete each of our own assignments that we’ll limit what they can do.”
Look for BYU to be much more aggressive in rushing the quarterback this week. Due to its struggles on offense, the defense will need to make plays and force turnovers. Look for Mendenhall to try and get the Irish offense off-balance with some creative blitz packages throughout the game.
BYU certainly has its work cut out for it against a very good Notre Dame team on the road. Short of winning the turnover battle, it’s tough to prescribe a win or even a very close contest. Look for BYU’s defense to fare better than it did last week, but for the offense to struggle providing long drives, yards and points against a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t given up a touchdown in its last four games.
Score: Notre Dame 23, BYU 7