All season long, the tagline on the Fighting Irish has been, "Their front seven is stout." Now, this Saturday against BYU, they face a team that has the same M.O.
The Cougars are a sound front-seven unit that plays tough, physical football. Folks can look at who they've played or the points given up to Oregon State and attempt to discount them; however, they'd be doing the Cougs a disservice, because this defense is legit.
Look, I get it Mr. Box Score Reader, you saw the 42 points and 332 yards allowed against Oregon State. All of the sudden, you're an expert on a team that you haven't watched nearly enough of this season. What that box score didn't tell you is that it was a 28-24 game in the fourth quarter, the secondary gave up some explosion plays to the backup quarterback and Riley Nelson's turnover machine did the rest.
In following BYU, there is on undeniable vulnerability that the Cougars possess: their back end. Fifty/fifty balls that go the offense's way turn into big plays, and that negates the chore of taking on this stout BYU front seven.
The issue is singular: If a team cannot attack the Cougars' back four, then they are in for a long day.
While the two squads' makeups are similar from a "dominant front seven" standpoint, the actual physical pieces are quite different. Notre Dame is a group of supremely talented players led by Manti Te'o and Louis Nix III, but buoyed by Prince Shembo, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt. BYU truthfully only has one truly elite athlete in its front seven: Ezekiel Ansah.
Ansah is still early in his football career, but he's a tremendous blend of speed and power and is figuring things out quickly. He can harass quarterbacks, plays from behind the line of scrimmage and is active from his hybrid linebacker-defensive end position.
The rest of the Cougars' front seven is a gang of players who are truly well versed in the scheme. They know Bronco Mendenhall's strategy, and they don't make mistakes. Pardon the overused cliche when discussing BYU: This is a team of mature players who force the opposition to beat them because they don't beat themselves.
No matter who it is on the Cougars defense, when they have a job to do, they do it. When Kyle Van Noy is called upon to hammer on a play, he closes the corner and forces things back inside. When Romney Fuga is asked to spill a play, he gives up his inside arm to force the ball-carrier to the outside. Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga also fill their respective gaps with remarkable consistency.
And, unlike most schools that you watch these days, BYU tackles.
So, what does that mean for Notre Dame?
Whether it's Tommy Rees or Everett Golson, the goal will have to be getting the ball downfield with the pass to exploit BYU's true weakness. Tyler Eifert is a weapon that the Irish recently rediscovered, and now is as good a time as any to get him some extra work against the Cougars secondary.
Where the run game is concerned, expect tough sledding. BYU's front seven is disciplined, and they are going to make Notre Dame block them every play. There will not be many, if any, busted plays and accidents that net Cierre Wood, George Atkinson III or Theo Riddick huge games. Instead, expect slow, methodical use of the offensive line in an effort to wear down the Cougars front.
As was the case for Notre Dame against several teams this year, expect a slugfest with BYU. Both teams want to stop the run, and neither team is truly accomplished and consistent on offense. Notre Dame has a clear edge, but BYU won't make it easy.