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.
The duo is the reason Notre Dame might handle BYU's running game and even Stanford's thereafter. Tuitt began the season overweight and out of shape, never making it back from offseason hernia surgery. He began to hit his stride during the team's upset win over Arizona State in Cowboys Stadium (now AT&T Stadium), then dominated USC in mid-October. He was ejected from the Pittsburgh contest on the first play of the second quarter after being flagged for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit vs. Panthers QB Tom Savage (Savage noted post game it was a bad call).
The Stephon Tuitt BYU fans will see Saturday is going to be near an All-American level. The Tuitt that Michigan, Purdue, and Michigan State fans saw in September was just another guy.
Louis Nix has done his job: he stops the interior running game. It's fair to say he hasn't been as violently dominant though as an interior presence as he was last year. But he's played through a meniscus injury and tendonitis and sat out consecutive games vs. Air Force and Navy because of the injury and a procedure to alleviate the pain. Like Tuitt, he'll be in prime shape for Saturday after returning and playing 63 snaps at Pittsburgh.
The defense has had its offensive line trio of Nix, Tuitt, and Sheldon Day (chronic ankle sprain since Week Three) together for just 27 snaps this season. They've allowed a mere 63 yards on those snaps. Each will start Saturday.
4. Las Vegas sees this matchup between BYU and Notre Dame as a pick 'em game. How do Notre Dame players regard this game and BYU in general?
Notre Dame remembers well the close contest last season and recognizes that Taysom Hill and the running game makes this a much more dangerous Cougars team. The seniors that spoke last week have nothing but respect for BYU, and because of the circumstances of the week prior (a loss to Pittsburgh), in no way seemed looking ahead to a prime-time matchup vs. Stanford. I think had Notre Dame beaten the Panthers, this Saturday's matchup would have a natural "look-ahead" feel to it, especially with the emotions of Senior Day intermixed.
Irish fans have only recently come around on the Cougars being a viable threat to win the game. After the debacle in Heinz Field (it was a giveaway of epic proportions), the masses (no pun intended) have little faith in the team bouncing back with no BCS bid to play for.
If you asked 10 logical ND fans today who's going to win, at least four would pick Brigham Young.
5. What does Notre Dame need to do to win the game? What are the key matchups?
If Notre Dame can play 60 minutes and commit just one turnover, they'll win. They're a remarkable 24-1 in such cases, the only loss coming last year in the BCS Championship (and let's just say the turnover wasn't the root cause of that defeat).
Save for a game-changing play against Oklahoma (a defensive touchdown), the offensive line has protected Rees for the bulk of the season. They'll be challenged by BYU's unique fronts, but pass protection has been a team strength. If the Irish can find something on the ground I like their chances. They're 33-4 in the Kelly era when running more than 30 times in a game and the four losses are to powerhouse teams.
But too often Kelly and the offense will become impatient and take to the air. If that happens Saturday, BYU's defense will force Rees into mistakes and put the Irish defense into bad spots. They're nowhere near as impressive in sudden change situations as they were last fall and the goal line defense — impenetrable last season — has been a rather generous group this year.
A matchup definitively in BYU's favor is their perimeter, both Hill and the receivers, vs. a secondary that has suffered from poor tackling and killer pass interference penalties (read: third down and in the end zone) throughout 2013.
In short, Notre Dame's defense has to win on first down, then mitigate the damage inflicted upon its secondary with a still-imposing, four-man front of Tuitt, Nix, Day, and rush 'backer Prince Shembo. In good healthy, that quartet could again be a force to be reckoned with.