Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. BYU Cougars: Complete Game Preview
Neither Notre Dame nor BYU faced much resistance last week. The Irish spent an off week licking their wounds and wondering how they let their BCS hopes slip away against Pittsburgh. BYU coasted past Idaho State 59-13 on Senior Day at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Both teams enter Notre Dame Stadium with something to prove. For the Cougars, it'll be exacting revenge after nearly ending the Irish's undefeated 2012 in mid-October. For Notre Dame, it'll be sending the senior class out on a high note, with Senior Day festivities set for pre-game.
Each team has three losses this season, with BYU already accepting a bowl invitation to the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco at AT&T Park. While the Irish will need to wait for the dust to settle before finding out where they'll spend this postseason, a victory will go a long way toward quieting the critics that came calling after the disappointing 28-21 loss to Pitt.
Here's everything you need to know before the Irish and the Cougars face off.
Time: 3:42 p.m. ET
Place: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Ind.
Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Channel 129
Spread: Notre Dame -1
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
Contain the BYU Running Game
Notre Dame hasn't faced a more formidable duo running the ball than quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams. Both will likely go over the 1,000-yard mark on Saturday afternoon, an impressive feat for a rushing attack that's the 12th best in college football.
Hill missed last season's game after a knee injury ended his season early, but he has returned with a vengeance this season. In addition to running for 259 yards in BYU's win over Texas, Hill ranks second nationally with 44 runs of 10-plus yards.
Williams is no slouch either, running for 182 yards against Texas, while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. A season after setting freshman records at BYU with 755 yards and 12 touchdowns, Williams is coming off of an FBS Independents Offensive Player of the Week performance, rushing 13 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns, including a 70-yard score that was the Cougars' longest run since 2006.
If the Irish are going to beat BYU, they're going to need to slow down the Cougars' ground game. In BYU's three losses, they've been held to an average of 178 yards a game, 88 yards beneath their average.
Win the Turnover Battle
Taysom Hill is a dangerous offensive weapon, but he's been turnover prone, as his 12 interceptions indicate. No statistic means more to the Irish than turnover margin, especially during this year's up and down season.
In the Irish's three losses, they've turned the football over eight times and only forced one takeaway. In their seven wins, they've forced seven turnovers and only given it away five times.
In Seven Wins: +2 Turnover Margin
In Three Losses: -7 Turnover Margin
Brian Kelly has yet to lose a game at Notre Dame when his team doesn't commit a turnover, going 13-0 in his four seasons. With Hill prone to mistakes, the Irish defense will need to make sure they capitalize on a few of them.
For a defense that's 118th in the country in forcing turnovers, that's no easy task.
Run the Ball Effectively
The light still hasn't gone on for the Irish ground game. A week after freshman Tarean Folston ran through Navy to clinch a victory, Notre Dame all but abandoned running the ball, carrying it just six times in the second half against Pitt for a total of 10 yards.
But a look at last year's game plan against the Cougars, a rare Tommy Rees start, could be a clue as to how the Irish plan to attack, especially with a chance of snow in the forecast. In the Irish's 17-14 victory, Rees only threw the ball three times in the second half, and the Irish ran the ball right at BYU's defense, rushing for 270 yards on 43 carries.
BYU's offense averages an astounding 89 plays a game, moving at tempo for most of the game, as its lowly time of possession (ranked 108th in the country) numbers indicate. If the Irish want to protect a defense that's still healing, they'd be wise to finally establish their ground game.
BYU Keys to Victory
Be Efficient in the Red Zone
If there's been an Achilles heel for the BYU offense it's the inability to convert red zone appearances into touchdowns. (Sound familiar, Notre Dame fans?) Getting inside the opponents 20 hasn't been the problem; cashing in has been.
The Cougars rank 109th in the country in converting touchdowns, a big reason why they've lost three football games. On the flip side of that coin, a season after giving up touchdowns just 34 percent of the time, Irish opponents are getting six points on 60 percent of their red zone drives.
Something has got to give. In a game that's likely going to be close, red zone efficiency will be a key factor.
Get the Ground Game Going
Last season, the Irish absolutely shut down the Cougars' ground game, holding BYU to just 66 rushing yards on 25 attempts. They'll need to do much better this season to beat the Irish.
After struggling to keep their starting defensive line on the field, the Irish should have Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day together, finally healthy at the same time. That'll be a stiff challenge for Bronco Mendenhall's offense.
Winning the ground game seems like a prerequisite for the Cougars, who failed to do so in their loss to Wisconsin. If Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams can get rolling, it'll also open up some play-action opportunities to senior receiver Cody Hoffman.
Force Tommy Rees to Beat You
As Rees goes, so goes the Irish offense.
Against Pitt, the Panthers were more than willing to let the Notre Dame offense run through Rees, and the result was a shocking loss after two fourth-quarter interceptions doomed the Irish.
Shutting down the Irish running game hasn't been that hard this season. And if BYU is able to do that, it'll put Kyle Van Noy into a position to wreak havoc. Throwing the football could play right into the hands of a veteran Cougar defense led by Van Noy, safety Daniel Sorensen and tackling machine Uani 'Unga.
Players to Watch for Notre Dame
A touchdown reception this Saturday will move Jones into a tie for the school record with eight consecutive games with a touchdown catch, matching the record set by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate, rarified air for the senior who has put together an impressive final season in South Bend.
It'll be an emotional Saturday for the Irish captain, who will meet his mother and siblings on the field for his final home game. His family will be without father Andre, a member of the 1988 National Championship team, who passed away suddenly of a brain aneurysm in the days before Jones' sophomore season.
Jones is finishing the season strong, with three consecutive 100-yard games, including a career-best 149 yards against Pittsburgh, where he also chipped in a big gain on an end-around. Expect Jones to do some damage in his final game on home turf, a must-win for the Irish.
This is likely the last time Nix plays at Notre Dame Stadium as well, with the senior welcoming a large group from his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. for Senior Day. It'll be an emotional scene at midfield for the Nix family as well, with Nix's mother, Stephanie Ancrum, celebrating the moment with her son after missing a similar ceremony after Nix's high school career at Jacksonville's Raines High.
It's been a frustrating season for Nix, who has battled back from a knee injury that required PRP therapy and kept him out against Air Force and Navy. While he has a year of eligibility remaining and has said he hasn't decided what he'll do yet, Nix will complete 19 credit hours this semester, taking a gigantic course load to finish his degree in Film, Television & Theatre at Notre Dame at the semester break.
On the field, the Irish will need a strong performance up the middle by Nix, who will be counted on to slow down Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams. If this is the end for Nix, he'll get the opportunity to play a lot of snaps in the team's final games, as the Irish try and get by with little depth up front.
Players to Watch for BYU
Last season, Hoffman led the Cougars offense with eight catches for 86 yards including a 20-yard touchdown catch against the Irish. BYU's all-time leader in receiving yards (3,382), receptions (241) and touchdowns (33) needs just one more 100-yard game to pass Austin Collie for that distinction atop the BYU record books.
At 6'4", 210 pounds, Hoffman is a physical mismatch that will need to be accounted for at all times. After not scoring a touchdown in the season's first month, he's scored five in his last five games, including two against the Wisconsin Badgers.
After racking up 1,248 receiving yards last season, Hoffman started the season slow, with an injury costing him the season opener against Virginia and suspension keeping him out for an easy victory against Middle Tennessee.
The passing game has gotten on track with Hoffman and Hill finding a rhythm, and Hoffman has a chance to put up big numbers if the Irish don't get a consistent pass rush.
Kyle Van Noy
There isn't a defensive player that fills out a stat sheet like Van Noy, who is a semi-finalist for the Butkus, Bednarik and Lombardi awards. The 6'3", 245 pound senior could be matched up quite a bit with senior left tackle Zack Martin, a showdown between two highly decorated collegiate players.
Last year, Van Noy intercepted Tommy Rees, just one way he's done damage in his career. He's also scored a ridiculous five touchdowns in his career, including a pick-six earlier in the season against Utah.
An elite pass rusher with 26 career sacks, Van Noy has a chance to be a first-round draft pick this spring. He's a one-man wrecking crew that Brian Kelly and his staff will need to scheme against.
What They Are Saying
If you wondered how Bronco Mendenhall felt about last season's 17-14 loss to the Irish, the Cougars' head coach didn't mince words.
"I don’t remember many games, but I remember that one," Mendenhall told the Deseret News. "So I’m looking forward to going back."
During his weekly Tuesday press conference, Brian Kelly talked about the significant changes that BYU made to their offense, with Robert Anae returning to be offensive coordinator after spending two seasons under Rich Rodriguez at Arizona.
That's helped unleash Taysom Hill, one of the keys to the Cougar attack, according to Kelly.
"The quarterback, first of all, his ability to extend plays, his accuracy, his ability to throw the ball has really changed their offensive structure. They struggled throwing the ball last year. They’re throwing it very, very well. His big-play ability, he’s fast. He’s a guy that can take a run and turn it into a big play. At the end of the day, I really think it centers around him. He’s a sophomore. He’s much more comfortable in this offense, this read-option, spread offense.
What they do, which I think is probably one of the advantages that they have, not only tempo, but they can run their offense out of multiple offensive formations. They force a lot of different adjustments for you and they’ve done a really good job of it.
Earlier in the week, linebacker Kyle Van Noy was asked what he remembered about the team's 17-14 loss last season.
"That we should have won," Van Noy told the Deseret News. "I remember being on the field a lot. That we should have come out with a win, in my opinion."
#NotreDame HC Brian Kelly on BYU LB Kyle Van Noy: “Very versatile player. We’ll have to know where he is at all times.”— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) November 19, 2013
Notre Dame 24, BYU 13
The Irish had two full weeks to digest one of the poorest performances of the Brian Kelly era. They'll look to overcome the defeat to Pitt and take out their frustrations on a good BYU team, but one that won't keep up with a highly motivated Irish team.
The added emotions of Senior Day didn't keep Notre Dame from getting out of the gates quickly last year, and expect the Irish to come out firing, working the running game in with a downfield passing game. Expect a few shots to DaVaris Daniels and Will Fuller as well as a touchdown reception from TJ Jones, moving him into a tie in the Irish record books.
The difference on Saturday will once again be turnovers. After putting the game on Rees' shoulders against Pitt, the offense will feature a hearty dose of freshman Tarean Folston, who was a forgotten man at Heinz Field.
Kelly's teams often play their best when people count them out. After being left for dead after laying an egg against Pitt, the Irish will get one of their most complete performances of the year, including a strong game up front by the defensive line.