Analysis: Facing a crossroads in the desert, Notre Dame shows what direction it's heading
LAS VEGAS — In this glittering city of excess infamously known for what stays here, Notre Dame’s football team decided to take a few things back home to South Bend this weekend.
An upset victory over a ranked team.
A growing trust in each other — players and coaches.
And a swelling momentum that’s coaxed the ledge dwellers inside after an 0-2 start to the season.
No shame in any of that.
Saturday’s exciting 28-20 win over No. 16 BYU at Allegiant Stadium in the 11th installment of the Shamrock Series, was the carryover the Irish needed after a breakout win at North Carolina two weeks ago in Chapel Hill.
It was an odd game in which Notre Dame dominated statistically, especially the first half, but felt closer than what it was at times. It was also a more generous peek at the progress being made within a program establishing its identity under first-year head coach Marcus Freeman.
There was stellar quarterback play, patience in establishing the run and another strong defensive performance against a team known to put up points slinging the football that was punctuated by fourth-and-1 stop that essentially secured the win.
“We knew that BYU was going to be a tough team,” Freeman said. "I told (our players) at halftime that this team wasn’t going to quit and challenged our guys to match their intensity and find a way to win.”
That they did, by dominating the first half and withstanding the punches Freeman knew were coming in the second half before steadying themselves and getting the job done.
Here are few keys to the game that came up aces for the Irish:
First half dominance on both sides of the ball
Let’s start with the defense, which built its chip stack by holding Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall to 11 yards on 3-of-8 passing in the first two quarters.
BYU came in as the 12th-ranked passing offense in the country at a shade under 290 yards per game, but couldn’t get it figured out against the Irish, which have been vulnerable to chunk plays. It was an aerial performance inept enough to make even the Utah Chapter of the Flying Elvises cringe.
Hall would finish with 120 yards while completing 9-of-17 passes, but 53 of those came on a touchdown pass Kody Epps to get the Cougars back in the game.
The defense also put its own points on the board when linebacker Jack Kiser sacked Hall in the endzone for a safety and 12-6 second quarter lead.
Meanwhile, the offense was doing its part by keeping the Cougars offense off the field. Notre Dame ran 40 plays in the half to BYU’s 21, outgaining the Cougars 259-67.
“I know that results matter,” Freeman said. "But to get the result you want you have to prepare the right way. That means having a critical eye and having uncomfortable conversations every day and challenging each other to find ways to improve. That’s what I love most about what (Offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees and that offensive staff has done.”
It was another ultra-efficient game plan from Rees who leaned on a strengthening run game while heaping more trust his quarterback Drew Pyne who is now 3-0 as a starter since taking over for the injured Tyler Buchner.
That added up to the Irish converting 11 of 16 third-downs (69%) and doubling up time of possession 40:55 to 19:05.
“Coach Rees really values third down,” Pyne said. “I feel like he and on the same page.”
More chemistry in the passing game, consistency in the run game
In pretty much every game Notre Dame All-American tight end is the best player on the field. All he did Saturday was snare 11 of 15 targets for 118 yards and two touchdowns while becoming the program’s leader in career tight end receptions (146), eclipsing Tyler Eifert.
“He’s special, man,” Freeman said. “He’s the hardest worker we have.”
Mayer was so comfortable, commanding and fun to watch in Vegas he should be considered for an entertainment residency on The Strip next to Wayne Newton.
But the most encouraging passing development Saturday was the emergence of wide receiver Jayden Thomas who caught all three of his targets for 74 yards and his first career touchdown.
Granted, those aren’t crazy numbers, but the optics of Thomas' 30-yard TD was evidence that there is more to this unit than what’s been shown the first four games. Thomas went up and over BYU defensive back Jakob Robinson near the goal line to give Notre Dame an 18-6 lead heading into halftime.
“To see Jayden make some of the catches he made today, was huge for the confidence of our wideouts room and the confidence of our quarterback to be able to spread the ball around," Freeman said. “Those are catches that we need, to make the quarterback look good. Too often the quarterback gets too much blame and too much praise. We need guys to make the quarterback look good.”
Pyne certainly looked good and was as consistent as the water show in front of the Ballagio, completing 22-of-28 passes for 262 and three touchdowns. Even his one interception was more misfortune than misjudgment as it was tipped at the line of scrimmage.
“Twenty-two of 28,” Freeman pointed out, “is pretty good, man.”
Running backs Audric Estime, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree, meanwhile combined for 229 yards on the ground behind an offensive line that’s improved every week since the Marshall loss.
Responding to adversity
Even with the statistical domination, it never felt like the Cougars were out of the game. And sure enough, back they came.
After Notre Dame took a 25-6 lead on the opening drive of the second half — another oh-hum Mayer touchdown — Hall responded with the 53-yard scoring strike to Kody Epps.
After an Irish punt, BYU went on a 10-play, 87-yard drive capped by a 28-yard touchdown run by Christopher Brooks who finished with 90 yards on 14 carries. Suddenly Notre Dame’s lead was cut to 25-20 two plays into the fourth quarter.
“You could feel a little sense of panic,” said Freeman, now 3-3 in the lead role and 3-2 this year. “I kept telling (the players to) ‘calm down, calm down, we got to go back and just do our jobs. Relax.’”
Notre Dame was moving the ball on its next drive, but that ended when Pyne was picked off on the tipped pass at the BYU 17. The defense had his back, forcing a three-and-out punt. That led to a Blake Grupe 20-yard field goal for a little cushion with 3:37 left to play.
Down eight, BYU still had cards on the table and was driving when it faced a fourth-and-1 at the ND 27. Lopini Katoa took the handoff and ran right, but was stuffed by Jayson Ademilola, Nana Osafo-Mensah and JD Bertrand.
From there Diggs busted a 33-yard run that set up victory formation.
“On that fourth-and-1, the D-line stepped up and on that final drive the O-line to keep getting those first downs that we needed,” Freeman said … and they knew we were running the ball. That’s the sign of a great offensive line, when they know you’re running the ball and you’re able to get first downs, that’s an O-line driven program.”
The win improves Notre Dame to 11-0 in its mostly annual Shamrock Series in which a home game is taken to a neutral site location. But more importantly than that, it gave us a glimpse of what this Irish team is becoming.
They're leaving Las Vegas balanced and increasingly dangerous.