Notre Dame playing like a team that's getting better, and has the wins as proof

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LAS VEGAS — Three hours and change was the scheduled time for the Notre Dame football charter flight to race home through the night following Saturday’s game in a place where it had never before played. 

Everyone Irish, be it coaches, players, assistants, trainers, support staff, would need at least that long to decompress after everything that transpired on the surface of sold-out Allegiant Stadium.

Whew. It was a lot. Right up until the end of a game that was not your typical neutral site of nothing.

So many swings of momentum, which can be as uneasy as drawing 16 - stay or hit? - in blackjack across the way at Mandalay Bay. So many moments when you thought that Notre Dame has this one by the neck and has it rather easily, only for everything to shift and realize that maybe this one wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked like it would go.

More:How the Shamrock Series points were scored: Notre Dame 28, BYU 20 from Las Vegas

In the end, Notre Dame (3-2) ran its win streak to three with a 28-20 victory over No. 16 Brigham Young (4-2). This one wasn’t assured until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter when the Irish defense, gashed and gouged and on its collective heels for much of the second half, delivered when it had to deliver. 

Faced with a fourth-and-1 defensive stand at their own 27 and 3:52 to play, they didn’t give the BYU offense anything. Thanks, Jayson Ademilola and Nana Osafo-Mensah. 

A big stop. A big momentum swing. A turnover on downs. A ball game. A lot of fight in the Irish. 

Notre Dame defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (57) celebrates after his team made a safety against BYUduring the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

“To find a way to win and to find a way to execute, really when it mattered most, I’m extremely proud of this group,” said Irish coach Marcus Freeman. 

This wasn’t expected to be that much of a game, even against a ranked team. At best, it would be a diversion for all of those Irish fans in town seemingly by the thousands. The Irish were everywhere. It was a chance to get out here and all this town has to offer, maybe see a show (Eddie Vedder, Katy Perry, Van Morrison), play some cards, spin some slots, embrace the weather as a last sign of summer and watch a little football. Watch the Irish roll.

This was something beyond just a “neutral site” game. It was fun. It tense. It was, at times, chaotic.

We saw team that seems to be figuring out that they’re good, despite the 0-2 start, despite the questions/concerns that hovered around this program in early September. There weren’t many answers then. There are a few more now. 

Foremost might be to make it mandatory to involve tight end Michael Mayer early and often and as much as possible in any game plan. Pencil him in — pen him — for double-digit catches. A few scores. Get him the ball on a jet sweep, as coordinator Tommy Rees did against North Carolina. Or, like Saturday, just get him the ball. In space. In traffic. It doesn't much matter, because if Mayer spies the end zone and sees the ball headed his way, courtesy of his best friend (no kidding) Drew Pyne, Mayer’s going to make the play. 

Oct 8, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Michael Mayer (87) celebrates with wide receiver Jayden Thomas (83) after a touchdown in the third quarter against the BYU Cougars at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

He made more than his share Saturday, finishing with 11 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. He was asked afterward to describe what he saw on his second score — “Which one was the second touchdown again?” — before going into detail about it. He even drew a comparison to Pyne using a 7-iron instead of a 1-iron to lob the ball over a defender to where only Mayer could grab it. 

“It,” Mayer said, “was perfect.” 

This one had a little of everything — and most of it was good

The first was a big one as well. His 24-yard catch and score was career catch No. 141 — most by any tight end in the history of a program that has had more than its share of good ones. Great ones. When this season's done, so will be Mayer’s collegiate career. He’ll be atop that list of tight ends for all that he does, for all that he is. For everything. 

“Very, very grateful,” Mayer said of a record everyone knew was coming. “I’ve been around a ton of good football coaches, agon of good football players that have gotten me to this point.” 

Once Notre Dame found a way to beat California last month, we were supposed to be through with the Freeman firsts — first regular-season game, first loss, first home win/loss etc. Last two games, Notre Dame has registered its first road win under Freeman (North Carolina) and now its first win over a ranked team. Next week comes Freeman’s first home night game against sputtering Stanford. 

Last month, nobody was sure where all this was going. Now, these Irish are confident that they’re playing their best football, with more still to offer. After this three-week run of wins — Cal, Carolina, now BYU — we might have to agree. 

“At this point, it’s going where we want it to go,” Mayer said. “We’re really going to try and stack (wins) … and have that mentality that nobody is going to stop us the rest of the season and try to win out. That’s what we’re doing. 

“We’re just going to try and keep winning ballgames.” 

Oct 8, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Notre Dame Fighting head coach Marcus Freeman reacts during the first half against the Brigham Young Cougars at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame is getting better — even at believing — despite its sluggish start, despite its change at quarterback, despite its defense getting gashed the way it was gashed Saturday when Brigham Young made this one interesting with tempo, which gave way to poor tackling by Notre Dame. 

Shamrock Series games usually aren’t, but the atmosphere surrounding Saturday was off the charts with the sellout crowd, the noise, the ambiance, the juice, the whole four quarters of what was a really enjoyable/entertaining college football game. Back and forths. Big plays. Players making plays. 

Fans from both sides into it until the end. Nobody fleeing early for the Strip. Last October, when Notre Dame and Wisconsin met on the shores of Lake Michigan at Soldier Field, it was a “meh” kind of atmosphere for that Shamrock Series game. This one was more, Whoa! 

“Unbelievable,” Freeman said. “The amount of fans, the noise. This truly felt like a home game.” 

Quick hits:Never a dull moment for Notre Dame in the shadows of the Las Vegas Strip

For both teams at different times. When the other team was rolling, it felt like this one was being played up in Provo, Utah.  Brigham Young — the team, the fan base — brought it Saturday. Notre Dame had to figure it out and find a way to match it to get out of Allegiant with its win streak intact. 

It got out. Spent likely, but nonetheless happy. With the win. With the perseverance. With the, wait for it, execution. With the direction where this all seems headed, even though Notre Dame’s nowhere close to a finished product.  More work remains. Maybe a loss. Or two. A few more wins.

For now, as the Irish likely did heading home, just enjoy the ride. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.