How can Notre Dame football take down No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas? Here are 5 keys

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame unveiled the Shamrock Series uniforms it will wear when it plays BYU Oct. 8, 2022 in Las Vegas.

These keys to the game could decide if Notre Dame (2-2) can win its third consecutive game against No. 16 BYU (4-1) on Saturday in Las Vegas for The Shamrock Series. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders and will be televised on NBC and Peacock.

Puka Nacua's health at wide receiver for BYU

Notre Dame's biggest defensive advantage may be BYU's health. Puka Nacua, the Cougars' top-rate wideout per Pro Football Focus has only played two games for BYU this season for a total of 30 snaps, 19 of which were as the outside receiver. He has four four receptions for 48 yards, and two touchdowns. He did not play in last week's 38-26 win over Utah State.

BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua (12) is hit by UAB safety Keondre Swoopes (0) during the first half of the Independence Bowl NCAA college football game in Shreveport, La., Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

If Nacua can't go — BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has not formally ruled him out — the Cougars will lean on Keanu Hill, Chase Roberts and Kody Epps, who have combined for eight receiving touchdowns.

Behind quarterback Jaren Hall, BYU ranks 24th nationally in passing offense at 293.2 yards per game. Hall has thrown just one interception — the Cougars' only turnover of the year — compared to 12 touchdowns.

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Stronger secondary play from Irish defense

Notre Dame's secondary has been targeted consistently against opposing quarterbacks, defending 30-plus passes in every game other than Marshall.

Of those games, the lowest Irish PFF coverage grade came against North Carolina last week after they allowed 301 yards and five passing scores from Tar Heels' QB Drake Maye. Of those totals, 144 yards and two scores came on two plays — strikes of 80 and 64 yards to Antoine Green.

DJ Brown had the most success for Notre Dame's starting secondary, not having a single ball thrown his way in 11 coverage snaps.

On the flip side, starting nickel TaRiq Bracy, one of Notre Dame's top defenders this season, struggled, allowing five receptions on all five targets his direction.

North Carolina running back George Pettaway (23) gets tripped up by Notre Dame cornerback Cam Hart (5) and cornerback TaRiq Bracy (28) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

It could be another long game of defending for Notre Dame against BYU's pass-happy offense, who have thrown the ball more than 30 times in four games, and more 40 times in two.

Notre Dame may succeed with some strong-side blitzes

As a whole, BYU's passing and run blocking units have been strong throughout the season. If there is a weak link Notre Dame could target, it would be the strong side of the field.

Of his 245 snaps, BYU tight end Isaac Rex has stayed in to help protect 37 on passing plays and been an extra blocker on 103 rushing attempts. Both of those PFF grades (66.8 pass block and 55.6 run block) rank near the bottom of BYU's eligible players.

The Irish could create some chaos by sending multiple players Rex's way, give him different looks with blitzes and cause some confusion leading to extra pressure.

Notre Dame has been turning up the pressure its past two games and is now averaging 3.25 sacks per game, which ranks 12th nationally. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey leads the Irish with three sacks in 2022 and 18.5 in his career.

Hold BYU to field goals because its kicking game struggles

The obvious key for any defense is keeping its opponent out of the end zone. But holding BYU to field goal attempts could be extra important to Notre Dame's defense because of how much the Cougars' kickers struggle.

Justen Smith, a third-year kicker, made his only field goal this season in BYU's Week 44 win against Wyoming. He is only three-for-four in his career. Jake Oldroyd, a fifth-year kicker is only five-for-10 on field goals this season, including missing two attempts under 40 yards last week.

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That prompted Sitake to re-open his team's kicking position heading into this week.

Notre Dame's defense could benefit from forcing the Cougars into deciding to trust their unstable kicking unit, or take chances on fourth-down.

Run the offense through backs and offensive line

Joe Alt, Notre Dame's left tackle, has been a standout as the Irish offensive line has slowly come into form during their two-game winning streak. Alt, a sophomore, was Notre Dame's top-ranked offensive player, per PFF, against Cal and North Carolina.

The Irish, who have recorded 434 rushing yards in the last two games, have used a strong mix on run direction to keep the defense guessing.

During that span, Notre Dame rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns when going towards Alt's direction.

North Carolina North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) is tackled by Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (7), defensive lineman Justin Ademilola, middle, linebacker JD Bertrand, bottom, and cornerback TaRiq Bracy, right, during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

It may not matter where Notre Dame runs because that isn't BYU's defensive strong suit.

The Cougars have allowed more than 150 rushing yards in all but one of their games this season, and five rushing touchdowns in the past three games.

Opponents have been fully aware of this all season as BYU's 206 rushing attempts faced is the 20th most in college football. It would be wise for Tommy Rees and the Irish offense to follow that game plan, too.